Originally published in the Waikato Times, with video interview with Gus Flower, Saturday 22 June 2024.

By Mike Mather.

Visitors to the Hamilton Gardens will soon be able to step back to a time when feudal overlords reigned, agriculture dominated the economy, and people lived in fear of the plague.

While that description might accurately apply to New Zealand during the last few years, in this case it refers to the European medieval era - the theme of the next garden planned for Waikato’s most popular visitor attraction.

And Waikato residents have an opportunity to contribute directly to helping the Medieval Garden become a reality - minus the Black Death, superstition, and religious fanaticism that typified the Middle Ages.

An artist's impression of the Apothecary Garden section of the planned Medieval Garden at the Hamilton Gardens, due to open to the public in Spring, 2025.

Well, there is a hint of religion. The garden, due to be completed and open in Spring 2025, is designed to resemble the cloistered courtyard of a 5th to 15th Century monastery - a place of refuge and respite from the travails of life in the Dark Ages.

The $2.2 million project is largely already funded, but a $300,000 gap remains. It is this shortfall that has prompted local philanthropic organisation Momentum Waikato to swing into action.

“What we are looking for is medieval Europe - broadly speaking, the year 600 through to the 15th Century,” horticulture and operations manager Gus Flowers said.

Hamilton Gardens' horticulture and operations manager Gus Flowers is looking forward to making the Medieval Garden a modern day reality. Photo: KELLY HODEL / WAIKATO TIMES.

“Across the whole of Europe - Germany, Italy, England - there will have been examples of these monastery-type gardens.”

The 610sqm site is at the western end of the Hamilton Gardens, next to the super popular Mansfield Garden.

It will incorporate two main elements: a Cloister Garth Garden - a minimalist space used by monks for prayer and meditation - and a main Apothecary Garden, which was used for growing medicinal herbs and healing plants.

The monks would take in wounded or weary travellers and offer them treatment and respite there.

The Cloister Garth section of the garden was a place where monks could contemplate the nature of existence.

Based on the ruins of the St John of the Hermits Monastery in Sicily, the Medieval Garden would be perfectly geometrically aligned to the points on the compass.

Currently, it looks more like the concrete foundations for an office block than a place where robed monks spent their time meditating and ruminating on existence. But it’s still early days.

“Most of the gardens start off like this, you see these huge tilt slabs, huge lumps of concrete that form the walls for this garden. These passageways will be arched - so it will be a true cloister-type garden.

“Central in the middle will be a fountain as well, and there will be windows looking out onto the Cloister Garth.”

The Medieval Garden is just one of many that will burst into life over the coming years, Flowers said.

Alternatively known as the Middle Ages and the Dark Ages, the Medieval era was a dangerous time. Plagues such as the Black Death killed an estimated 50% of the population.

“It’s an exciting time now. We have just started this programme of four new gardens - the Ancient Egyptian, just recently completed; [the Medieval Garden] will be the second of four; and following on from this we will be doing a Baroque Garden, and then a Pasifika Garden further over the way.”

Among the “cornerstone” donors who have contributed to the project thus far are the Mowbray family - siblings Anna, Mat and Nick - from Cambridge, who run the China-based toy manufacturing firm Zuru.

They were, they say, inspired to assist in the development of the gardens in memory of their grandmother Betty Mowbray, who was a strong believer and support of the attraction since its inception in the 1980s.

Anyone wanting to chip in to make the Medieval manifest can go to momentumwaikato.nz/hamiltongardens to find out how to help.