Ivy Mantled Towers

Once upon a time, I worked at a theatre.

One of the most troubled parts of the whole building was once, in the nineteenth century, a nursery where there had been a fire. The consequences were unbearable; loss of young life and a trail of guilt and self reproach.

It was a studio theatre now, painted matt black from top to toe, and there were times when it sat fallow between productions.

It was at one of these times that I was visiting technicians there; and they showed me that this room was not just a great black box, but that it had towering floor to ceiling black shutters. If you undid them they revealed glorious windows. Light would flood into the space.

Three sets of shutters, there were: I opened one, and two, and gazed out upon the intricate knot garden below, watching toddlers career round the hedges in happy crazed delight. It was normal: a million miles away from the strange stilted atmosphere of this upper room with its unhappy history.

What a huge relief to see daylight and life! I had underestimated the oppression of the darkest chamber in the mansion.

And then I came to the third great window and my elation froze. For the strangest thing: there was very little glass in it.

Instead, ivy had grown up into the space and destroyed the man-made transparent barrier utterly. It had raged through the space, creating a dense matted veil within the frame. Somehow, the window – blinded by ivy – seemed rude: obscene.

A veil of leaves.

It was Thomas Gray, the eighteenth century poet, who wrote so beautifully of a country churchyard and its tranquil silence as the day ends:

“…All the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle weaves his droning flight,

And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower

The moping owl does to the moon complain….”

There it is: the reference to ivy as a mantle: a cloak; a covering. Ivy, if it is left to its own devices, can envelop a building entirely. It can flourish at heights of up to 30ft above the ground; its small suckers can cling tenaciously to walls old and new. For millennia it has been mantling our architecture.

It seems to utterly overwhelm man’s attempts at ordering his environment.

While folklore has looked upon ivy kindly – it was a sign of fidelity from the times of Ancient Greece onwards, and seen as an antidote to intoxication – it has been demonised in the culture I inhabit.

It is poisonous, they say: it is invasive. Its little tendrils can work their way into walls and pointing, and destroy structure; the rootlets leave markings on the stone. It can lift slates and invade neighbouring properties.

Sir Lionel Earle, Secretary of the Office of Works in 1923, said while working on a Windsor Castle project: “I also think that all the ivy on the walls should be cut. I believe the Queen favours such a policy. Ivy is a rank and odious plant”

And yet, our custodian of listed buildings, English Heritage, has just performed an extraordinary about-turn on the subject of this swarthy creeper.

EH commissioned researchers at Oxford University to study the effects of ivy on walls at five of their sites. They used complex monitoring equipment to measure temperature and humidity in the microclimate created by the dense mantle of ivy.

The researchers found that the ivy actually protects walls like a thermal blanket, warming them by up to 15 per cent in cold weather, and cooling in hot weather by 36 per cent. Ivy covered walls were less prone to the damaging effects of freezing temperatures, temperature fluctuations, pollution and salts than exposed walls without ivy.

Now they’ve built a wall specifically for research at Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire. It has different flaws built in so they can monitor the effects on a wall with, and without ivy.

But the mantles can envelop something entirely: this report of an English Heritage Seminar held in 2010 shows how the special features of a building can be swamped by such a blanket.

Rochester Castle is a case in point: at the end of the nineteenth century it resembled a green hulk, looming over the town of Rochester.

These days the stunning detail of forgotten windows, graceful wall arches and the holes which would once have held joists secure are there for everyone to see: for conservationists hold dear the quality of intelligibility: can visitors, however humble, see and understand something of the past from a building?

And so some buildings may remain mantled in ivy like treasured artefacts covered in sheets in some great mansion.

But wherever we see it, we will know: it’s there for a reason.


43 thoughts on “Ivy Mantled Towers

  1. How interesting! English Heritage seem to be catching up with those scientists who tell us one day that this or that food is bad for us, and then a few years later that it is actually good for us!

    After graduating I worked for the Scottish Wildlife Trust and amongst other things learnt to dislike rhododendron and Japanese knotweed as being very invasive plants, but also ivy; not just because of the damage it could cause buildings but for its ability to kill trees by covering their branches and preventing the leaves seeing the sun light.


    1. Malcolm, how lovely to have you come and comment. Very much enjoying your Sunday slots on Sylvia Plath…that sounds like a fabulous job straight out of academia. You make an excellent point. Ivy kills living things, no question; so while it may have its advantages for some structures it must be well managed and not allowed to become invasive. Did you manage to follow the link? The symposium report makes very interesting reading.

  2. I’m rather partial to bearded houses. They provide nesting sites and shelter for birds and small mammals as well as all that insulating. 🙂

    1. They are great for wildlife, aren’t they, Pseu? But the before and after on Rochester Castle – it shows how ivy can utterly envelop something beautiful so we can’t see it: that infuriates me: I can’t abide things which are masked. I think EH are now advising curators not to remove the ivy automatically, but to construct a case which justifies its removal.

  3. I have always been amused and irritated by these twits who wail about the damaging effects of ivy on walls and trees. It has always seemed strange to me that they seem unaware that there are ivies on both where the creeper is up to 400 years old, and the tree or edifice must at least be the same age. If they do damage, they sure take a long time about it!

  4. You got negative vibes on that window – knowing the nature of Hedera, though, I would say it is likely that the window glass was broken by some other agency, and the ivy then did a good job of offering protection.
    Do you get the feeling I am pro-ivy? Hmmm, I wonder why?

  5. Now, that is interesting. We have an ivy clad house in our street.. Neighbours moan that it ‘lowers the tone’ (not sure there is any to lower), but now I will point them in the direction of the report. We daren’t grow ivy around ours – it would probably knock it straight down. 😉

  6. Not an ivy lover myself – we had a virginia creeper on one house – looked lovely when it turned red in the Autumn. I was always balancing precariously on top of a ladder stopping it from going all over the windows and on to the roof. It seemed to grow as soon as I turned my back!

      1. 😀 Like Marmite….the invasive aspect of the plant does give me the creeps, I’ll admit. We have a Swedish variety on the front of out house which is variegated, very pretty, and rampant. You plant a tiny seedling not thinking of the guttering two floors above…

    1. My friend has achieved a lovely effect of ivy, a variegated larger leafed sort and a climbing hydrangea on a very ugly wall. They grow among one another, so the ivy provides all year cover and colour, while the hydrangea has beautiful lacy capped flowers in the Summer.

      1. well the larger leafed varieties grow a little more slowly, so a trim once a year seems sufficient 🙂

  7. I enjoy seeing a bit of ivy on a building, it seems to give it character. My University has many lovely old buildings with quite a bit of ivy and I have never heard of any structural damage.

    There is a plant that grows in the Southeastern U.S. called kudzu that has taken over whole forests and snuff out the natural forage. People mostly hate it as it is not native and has overpowered so many landscapes. see below for a bit of the story.


  8. How fascinating! Ivy was always one of those plants that we were never allowed to touch as children but I’m glad that it’s not as invasive as something like destructive virginia creeper, especially as there’s a colony aiming for my kitchen window. 🙂

  9. I’ve always had a soft spot for the ivy-covered cottage or wall, but my late hubby was one of those who saw only it’s damaging capacities, and also felt that it, as well as any shrubbery too close to the foundation, was a shelter for (shudder) “bugs!” Hence, I’ve never entertained it in the yard, and attempting to cultivate it as a house plant just plain doesn’t work for me–it’s really not well-suited to deal with indoor temps and wildly fluctuating humidity levels–and I’m, therefore, left to simply admire it from afar.

    I suspect though that ivy, as with most things, is harmless when applied in moderation. 🙂

  10. I worked for many years in a townhouse in Boston’s Beacon Hill, one of a row of brick townhouses cloaked in ivy. It was marvelous to look at, especially when the weather turned and the ivy went scarlet.

    And then the family’s architect announced that the ivy was destroying the exterior, and ordered the house denuded.

    The tiny back garden, once a little jewel-box of whitewashed fence and mysterious crawling vines, became just another brick wall with decking beneath.

  11. I love/hate ivy. I love how it looks climbing a wall and what it does to shelter the wall. I hate knowing the damage it can do to masonry. Of course, it can’t hold a candle to kudzu when it comes to engulfing things; kudzu is running rampant in the American South and may eventually cover that quadrant of the U.S. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But kudzu does make ivy seem quite genteel in comparison.

  12. I love the look of ivy-draped buildings . . . but not blocking the sunshine.

    Poison Ivy and Poison Sumac are another matter all together . . . causing blisters and itching and discomfort without and within. nasty stuff.

  13. Dear Kate,
    I noticed in one of your comments that you can’t abide things that are “masked.” One of the hard parts of life seemed to me to be the finding of a way to stay unmasked. Authentic. Until I was almost forty-five I kept trying to be whatever people wanted me to be. I so needed to be accepted. So I wore a mask.

    Now I’m thinking of myself as a building masked by ivy during those years. Yet today here I stand with all my pointing pitted, and yet I’ve discovered a Oneness that comforts and enriches me.

    Thank you for inspiring me to consider this.


    1. Dee, so glad the words sparked something for you. Your blog is a very special stream of writing: a social chronicle which makes me feel humble reading it. I hope that one day, more people than just this small blogging audience will get to read too.

      1. Dear Kate,
        Thank you for hoping that for me. I’m in the midst of polishing three manuscripts about cats and one novel that takes place in first-century Palestine. When I complete the polishing, I’ll start a new project, but I really don’t know what it will be. I’m just going to try to stay open to possibilities.


  14. Having spent part of Sunday bloodying my hands on our creeping fig, I say to hell with all forms of suckerish plant creature. Even if they have a purpose, I lack the will to shape them.

  15. I’m laughing at many of the other comments…we all have some nasty experiences with forms of ivy! We are battling creeping fig on one of our walls, too. You have caused me to rethink some of my previous impressions–I always liked the look on a castle or sturdy-looking stone wall, never thinking of the potential engulfing and damage! But in landscape, I don’t like it at all. I equate it with a hiding place for rats! Nasty stuff! Debra

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