25 November 2013

Stourhead for Man and Beast

There is a moment on the Stourhead estate, post-visitor centre, pre-ticket kiosk, when you find yourself walking along a lower road, steep bank either side, bridge overhead. On your right are some pretty little houses and on the left an august inn.

It's a picturesque setting. As with so many National Trust properties a suspension of disbelief takes place, at around this moment. Is this place for real? Yes, it has always been quite real, though the NT version is more thoroughly sign-posted. The house, garden and inn were built 300 years ago with the visitor experience very much in mind. Garden pride led to garden showing-off: What was the point in having a fabulous place if nobody saw it?

Richard Wheeler, who spoke at the Garden Museum last month, is National Specialist in Garden History for the NT and his brief covers over 100 gardens. He knows his stuff. He may not agree with the idea that gardens evolve after their creator has gone ("Can we do better than Vita? No") but this might be because in his view, things haven't changed much. 

The cult of celebrity was in full swing 300 years ago and gardens were visited out of curiosity for Georgian lifestyles of the rich and famous. The stories behind the buildings at Stourhead would have gone over the head of the hoypoloy then as they do today. More of us are educated now but few have a good grasp of Latin. This can also be said of garden design and horticulture: All very nice I'm sure but—is that the tea room over there?

There were three classes of visitor, like the three classes of train travel persisting well into the 20th century. Top people visited their friends on their estates, like be-wigged Bertie Woosters. The middle-classes, the biggest group of garden visitors (who also read Latin) hired a post chaise and stayed at a place like The Spread Eagle Inn, bang in the middle of Stourhead. The third class went by coach or flooded in over the ha-ha.

Keeping people out became more important in the 19th century, with the beginnings of the 'fortress mentality' which is so prevalent today. Even before those days, according to Richard Wheeler: "You had horrific vandalism." The Watch Cottage was built near the Pantheon for just that reason, "But still it got done over."

The garden boy, notoriously "a mine of misinformation," was tipped a small amount for a garden tour. The butler could be persuaded, for considerably more, to open up the house to a better class of person. Things were changing though: Blenheim Palace and Wilton formalised the visitor arrangements soon after being built, with the family living in one set of rooms and the public shown around another. The days of gamboling up the drive and trying your luck with the housekeeper, like the trio in Pride and Prejudice, were numbered.

A classic visit to a place like Stourhead involved three days: for house, garden and park. Each day would begin from the nearby inn, instead of a train station in London, and visitors would be equipped, naturally, with riding gear. The best was left till last. A day exploring the park meant a freedom to trot, canter or gallop from a few feet higher up: so much more exciting than earth-bound, nylon-clad rambling. The landowner's arcadian vision, seen from between the ears of a horse, was mapped out before you. It could almost feel like yours, for that third day.

Richard Wheeler's reaction to complaints about gardens under his watch looking old and tired is: "Good." For the staunch traditionalist at the National Trust then: bring back the grand tour on horseback.

09 August 2013

It Plants: World's Best List

On writing about Derry Watkins and the experience that is Special Plants near Bath recently, I mentioned in passing that she has a floral crystal ball. Seek her and your garden will be hot. The same could be said for Chris Marchant, the fragrant soothsayer from Orchard Dene, but you have to be 'in the trade' to access her wisdom.

I didn't get round to talking about many plants (in the aforementioned post, published by Gardenista) but the following have been linked with one or both of them and once these It Plants have been remarked on, you'll notice them in all the right places.

Above: our reporter goes incognito at Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire.

Aster divaraticus, spotted at Beth Chatto's last September, comes highly recommended by Chris Marchant. It doesn't get too tall, it doesn't flop, it's a kind of ground cover, it has dark stems and a fresh foliage when other plants are looking a bit haggard. It's an It plant.

Ultimate zeitgeist contender, except that there are two variations. Dianthus carthusianorum, in the Great Dixter-inspired 'Hot Stuff' garden at Hampton Court, is the taller, more magenta one. Dianthus cruentus, dark red and fringed, was pushed into the limelight by Tom Stuart-Smith at Chelsea a few years ago. His new meadow at the Barn Garden (developed with James Hitchmough) is full of it, growing happily out of sand and punctuated with curving grass paths.

Valeriana might test the endurance of tidy gardeners as it self-sows with abandon. But this list has more to do with fashion than tidiness. As seen in the elegant wildflower-strewn Chelsea garden of Sarah Price last year.

Gaura lindheimeri 'Summer Breeze', in Derry Watkins' yard, waiting for the next discerning customer.

Pulsatilla (Pasque flower) grows out of Cotswold chippings at Cottesbrooke Hall and at Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden. The flowers are jolly but the seed heads are what it's all about.

Sanguisorba at Beth Chatto's garden. Looks good with wavy things, thistly things, flowery things. If you love the colour of Knautia macedonica or Cirsum rivulare, choose this; it is more agreeable.

Ladybird poppy (papaver commutatum) in Derry Watkins' garden. Seen at the entrance of Cleve West's Chelsea garden last year, it mingled with Nigella and Geranium 'Bill Wallis', all provided by Orchard Dene.

Verbascum blattaria albiflorum, at Special Plants. A far cry from its cottage garden cousins, and caterpillars, in my experience, are intimidated by it as well. Executive.

Say "species tulip" to any of the taste makers and they'll think of only one: Tulipa sprengeri. The latest to flower, it is worth the wait as the inconspicuous green bud opens to reveal a gorgeous, delicate scarlet. Seen here at Christopher Bradley-Hole's garden at Chelsea this year.

The not-so-humble umbel shows no sign of retiring from the top ten lists. Ammi visnaga is appreciated as much by pollinators as people as are its many variants including orlaya grandiflora. For a perennial version, Chris Marchant says: Go with Silenum wallichianum.

Or, you could forgo the above list and just plant Stipa gigantea, seen waving about at Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden, with anything you like. Honorary mention: Stipa tenuissima. They both hold their own and can give hours of pleasure if you are in a sedentary mood.

05 July 2013

I Capture the Castle

For a person of such slender means I have been motoring up a lot of drives lately, sometimes to the front door but equally happy with the tradesman's entrance. At the moated Helmingham Hall in Suffolk the other day, the drawbridge was down but we did not cross it. We were there to see the gardens of Xa Tollemache, care of the Garden Museum.

There is a walled garden at Helmingham that is double-dug by Roy and two helpers. Roy has been there for longer than Xa, who arrived in the 70s. He is standing in a fruit cage hoeing, talking about the weather, addressing our hostess as "m'lady". She knew nothing about gardening before arriving at Helmingham, which was built by her husband's family at the turn of the fifteenth century. Lady Tollemache is now a leading landscape designer, and Roy is a treasure.

The most astonishing thing about the very romantic gardens at Helmingham is for me the Wild Garden. I mean the tennis court. Or - whatever it is.

The wildflower meadow—an unusually successful one this—is teeming with luxuriant quantities of orchids, mingling with commoner cranesbill, scabious and oxeye daisy.

In the middle of this flower-laden meadow is an asphalt tennis court; the most counter-intuitive arrangement I've ever seen. Some very careful tennis playing would have to go on here...

The solution is obvious if you re-imagine the space as a four-poster bed. Tennis, anyone? Just draw the curtains, will you.

More Helmingham Hall over at Gardenista: Shouldn't Every Garden Have a Moat?

15 June 2013

I Beg Your Pardon?

Last week I found myself at Southill Park in Bedfordshire, owned by the Whitbread family. I was there by accident, having booked a tour via the Garden Museum without realising it. And what a lovely day it was, in the presence of the divine Tom Stuart-Smith.

A gardening giant without an ego (see tall person above), he sees himself as the hired man in any design commission. The worst thing is when he is asked to 'do a Tom Stuart-Smith garden'. He brings with him a talent for drawing out a project as a fully-conceived pastoral scene, the garden settled in its landscape, a few years hence. "It's easier to figure it out as an aerial," he says. The need for computer graphics or wishy-washy watercolour blobs is completely done away with.

The beautifully rendered pencil drawings are, he explains, "like a Renaissance miniature of a future wife," to show a prince what he may be getting with the dowry. No unpleasant surprises. "The gardens usually end up as they have been drawn."

Stuart-Smith doesn't do detailed planting plans; he doesn't have someone taking minutes between designer and client. He likes to develop a conversation.

"It restores your sanity if you work with people who know what they want," he says.

We were in Bedfordshire to look at Glebe House, a dower house for the parents of the current incumbents of Southill Park. They hired Tom as a talented beginner, before he'd designed anything at Chelsea. He hasn't been back for five years.

The spaces are laid out in a very TS-S way, though there are a few surprises. A rose garden, VERY traditionally laid out in fan shaped beds, enclosed in a yew circle, raises my eyebrow.

"I guess that's not your rose garden," I suggest.
"Yes, it is."
He continues: "I love roses. Lady Whitbread wanted a rose garden so I made one.

"I've made a few," he laughs, "though I don't advertise the fact."

He also mentions that he made a rose garden for himself but as visitors to the Stuart-Smith garden* will know, the area that is called The Rose Garden is in fact anything but, having been rubbed out and re-drawn several years ago.

*Open for a Garden Museum Literary Festival on 29-30 June.

29 May 2013

The Last Word on Slugs and Snails. Ever.

Last week began with the big bean-o that is Chelsea Press Day and ended on the edge of Wales at the Hay Festival. Both events were punctuated with the pitter patter of rain drops on canvas. The latter event was a talk between Monty Don and Lucy Boyd, daughter of the late chef Rose Gray, of River Cafe fame. She is head gardener at Petersham Nurseries and has an enviable knowledge of vegetable varieties: what to grow and how to cook.

Questions from the audience inevitably focused on Monty and had nothing to do with the guest whom he was interviewing. What do you think of the Chelsea judging row? What row. Would you like to know about my vegetable company? No I would not. What about slugs, Monty?

"I've never been anywhere without someone asking me about slugs," said Monty, not without humour. But the question did not go away. What about Lucy, what does she do about slugs, he asked?

"Me? Slugs? Nothing really..." she trailed off.

Monty filled in the gaps briskly: "My intention is to run an organic garden that's balanced, with prey as well as predators. If you get rid of slugs then there is less for their predators to eat and you upset the balance," he explained. "Slugs prefer to attack very young, diseased, damaged or stressed plants. Over-fed plants, by the way, are stressed." Monty does not have a slug problem because he has a healthy garden. "Healthy plants are not bothered by slugs." End of.

A national collection of hostas is held at Prince Charles' organic garden, Highgrove, by way of slight digression. They are proud specimens, as are Monty's.

"Now can we move on from slugs please," said Monty, ever the pro. "It's almost time for lunch."

18 May 2013

A Pocketful of Rye

I spent four days in Rye when the weather was magical a few weeks ago. Presenting Gina from Folk at Home with a hot list of places to go we set off, leaving families far behind. It wasn't exactly a holiday but there was definitely an element of the spree about it.

On the least research-heavy day we found ourselves at Hendy's Home Store in Hastings, eating whelks with wild garlic. Alastair Hendy was playing maitre d', head chef and head waiter to a full house and he was quite gracious about my uncontrollable urge to walk into his kitchen with a camera. This part of England is clapboard heaven with flint. Unlike the New England version which is more familiar to me, a lot of the wood here is painted black.

We motored through the wooded lanes of Sussex with their hedgerows of wild flowers, featuring the anemone and cuckoo flower (above).

Next stop: Great Dixter, where we were greeted with a "When I said 4.30 I meant 4.30!" bellowing from the medieval porch. Drinks were being served on the terrace but since this was a research trip I wandered around the deserted gardens. The terrace itself has so many green things growing out of the cracks that if you squint your eyes it could look almost semi-derelict. Except that all the green things are precious. "Don't step on the flowers love," I was told as I clomped over a primrose on the way to the steps which lead down to the meadow.

The Exotic Garden (above) was still under wraps, looking peculiarly Wealdean and medieval, with some exotic promise. As we left, the dachshund Conifer was scampering down the front path to the house; such a joyous image. Aaron our host writes a succinct blog by the way on the progress of the kitchen garden at Dixter.

Next day, Sissinghurst. We landed back to earth with a thump as we joined the coaches in the car park and a sign on the camomile seat bore the legend: "Please do not sit here."

24 February 2013

All Change

When I arrived at Chatsworth on Tuesday there was a circus atmosphere, with horse muck being swept away after a hunt meet and crowds of families surging up from the car park toward the adventure playground. In the stable yard, the tables were adorned with very peculiar-looking purple plastic chairs. Anything a bit different and nutty like that I usually like, because it's the opposite of what the National Trust would do. But, oh dear, Elisabeth Frink's War Horse, and indeed her "Head" were both plonked in there too, with people taking turns to sit on the horse. The life-sized animal used to stand proudly by the canal, looking over Paxton's incredible jet of water with the South Front of the house beyond. Things have changed.
"Future generations will no doubt change much of it," writes the Duchess of Devonshire (now the Dowager Duchess) in her entertaining book The Garden at Chatsworth. "Inhabited by its own family who have ensured that it is unfrozen and malleable is the reason this house and garden have stayed alive over the centuries." How true. I am met by the garden administrator and we pass through a door, down a passage (nicely frozen: painted in gloss buff to the shoulder line, with a narrow black band and pale pink above). Out of another door is the garden: empty, vast, sunny, peaceful.

Because I am sent around by a "well-to-do magazine" I sometimes find myself in these amazing spots. It doesn't matter that there are no flowers besides a few snowdrops. The "genius of the place",  to coin a phrase, reveals itself. This is also possible with crowds of people but it is a different kind of experience. Since these were made as pleasure gardens it follows that there should be people looking around. When I was gardening at Cottesbrooke last year I felt sad that the garden was almost always empty, except for the people grooming it. As DD says in her book: "It is the visitors who make a cheerful atmosphere."
 Even so, without people I have a soul-enriching tour. By the gardeners' workshop I find some discarded bits of statuary and immediately take a picture of the pair of bunnies: new garden ornaments could take something from these simple lines. Next to them are some very ornate but equally charming lion heads, which seem to have a story to tell. On opening the Garden book at home, they are the first thing I see on the frontispiece: a lovely informal vignette of self-seeded flowers in front of a stone bench. On either side of the steps leading up are these same lion heads, in pride of place.