Devonshire in Derbyshire

A day at Chatsworth House

Winter has arrived early in the Peak District. A generous blanket of snow covers the Chatsworth Estate, courtesy of Storm Arwen in the early hours of last Saturday morning. When I entered the park this morning via the ingeniously designed Cannon Kissing Gate, it felt like entering a magical kingdom, or should that be dukedom?

Like other grand estates Chatsworth has its own colour paintwork, meaning that all estate buildings, even if situated several miles from the main house, share the same shade of ocean blue woodwork and metalwork. Even the front door of my comfortable Air BnB cottage in the village of Baslow, which forms part of an estate farm, Yeldwood Farm, is blue. There’s something pleasingly uniform about this branding exercise though some might argue that it perpetuates a feudal system that has no place in the 21st century!

The predecessors of the Dukes of Devonshire have occupied the site since the mid 16th century, although it wasn’t until 1694 that the dukedom was created, courtesy of William II, in gratitude for the 4th Earl of Devonshire’s role in bringing him and Mary to the English throne six years earlier.

Knowing that it would be too ambitious to see both the house and garden on the same day, I went to the house today and shall visit the garden tomorrow. I kept seeing tantalising glimpses of the garden from the windows of the house, and was delighted to see the famous Emperor fountain playing, despite the temperature not having risen much above freezing this morning. But the grandeur of the interiors and the joyful manner in which the interior has been decorated for Christmas, ensured that my attention didn’t wander to the scenes outside.

The Emperor Fountain from the house

Many of the Dukes of Devonshire have been great art connoisseurs, both collecting and commissioning artworks. The present Duke (the 12th) and Duchess are no exception. Contemporary works are displayed throughout the house, complementing their surroundings, rather than appearing incongruous. I particularly liked the modern ceramic pieces, often in the form of groups of vessels displayed on mantelpieces and in fireplaces , echoing the practice of showing collections of blue and white porcelain in such places.

In the Dome Room just beyond the magnificent library, stands Sowing Colour, porcelain flasks of varying heights in vivid colours, created by Natasha Daintry in 2018. In the guidebook the artist is quoted as saying that ‘Making the piece I did feel I was sowing colour. Sowing is a direct action, a conscious and controlled act of cultivation, while colour represents the wild and unknowable phenomenon of nature’.

With DNA sequencing being more important than ever in the development of anti-COVID vaccines, the installation in the North Sketch Gallery could not be more relevant. The work of Jacob van der Beugel in 2014, it consists of 659 ochre coloured ceramic panels based on the mitochondrial DNA of the 12th Duke and Duchess, their son Lord Burlington and his wife Lady Burlington, forming four individual ‘portraits’, with a fifth depicting ‘Everyman’ showing the DNA we have in common. I loved the deceptive simplicity of this light-filled gallery after the darker, lavishly decorated state apartments.

I was also happy to find some old ‘friends’ on display:

A Christmas card from the sculptor in wood, David Nash, reminding me of his period as sculptor in residence at Kew Gardens when I worked there.

A triple portrait by John Singer Sargent, Portrait of the Acheson sisters, 1902. In a blog post last year, I wrote about an excellent Garden Museum talk on his garden paintings.

The family’s dogs, immortalised in panels in the Oak Room, which also contains elements of a Chatsworth Christmas a few years ago, with the theme of Mr Toad.

A couple of portraits of the late Duchess Deborah, as she is styled in the guidebook, one by Lucian Freud dating from 1958-1960. What a fascinating life this youngest of the Mitford sisters led. In a documentary several years ago I remember learning that alongside her passion for chickens, she was a diehard Elvis fan!

My eldest great nephew would have appreciated the Firebolt broomstick, signed by JK Rowling.

A life-sized musical box in the Chapel which opened to reveal this dainty ballerina from the Nutcracker.

This account of my visit barely scratches the surface of Chatsworth House and its treasures. I can’t wait to see the garden tomorrow, to discover more of them.

Baslow, Derbyshire

29 November 2021

The Only Way is Essex: part 2

RHS Garden Hyde Hall

Once a year throughout my teenage years we took Sean, our black Labrador cross, to Mr Montgomery’s kennels or ‘Monto’ as my dad called it. Mr Montgomery was an elderly Scotsman whose boarding kennels were down a country lane about 12 miles from our house in Brentwood. Mr Montgomery loved Sean and we knew he would be in safe hands while we were on holiday. The kennels were in the tiny village of Rettendon close to the Hanningfields reservoir which supplied water to much of south Essex. In those distant days there was no indication that from 1993 a remarkable new garden would develop in Rettendon, to be run by the Royal Horticultural Society: RHS Garden Hyde Hall.

My last post described my visit to the Beth Chatto Garden near Colchester. The next day we went to Hyde Hall. The only other RHS garden I have visited is Wisley in Surrey, not too long a drive from home for me and where I go a couple of times a year. I was curious to compare Hyde Hall with its older sister garden and the most striking immediate differences for me were the wide skies and open vistas of the Essex garden. If I say that a couple of areas reminded me of a golf course it is not meant as a criticism, it is to describe the openness of much of the site. It was fascinating to see the extent of the tree planting being undertaken and to imagine what the same views will look like in 40 years’ time when the trees have matured. It made me think about the work of the great 18th century landscape designers like Charles Bridgeman, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton who moulded the land to their vision of the perfect landscape, moving trees and creating lakes and mounds. In the 21st century powered machinery has replaced men, horses and ingenious (and huge) tree planting devices.

The route indicated in the visitor map leads you first to the Winter Garden, always of interest to me for ideas for year round interest. I hadn’t gone very far before spying a low-growing plant with lobed and serrated leaves in a neat crown with a mass of starry white flowers flushed pink and held on dainty red stems: Saxifraga Sibyll Trelawney JP.

Saxifraga Sibyll Trelawney JP.

Grasses feature throughout much of the garden, such as at the foot of these birches, blended with Cornus, yet to be shed crimson leaves masking the scarlet stems which will come to the fore during the winter months.

Birches, grasses & dogwoods

I was surprised to find a Daphne already in flower, expecting these sweetly scented evergreen shrubs to flower in very early spring, but here Daphne x transatlantica Blafra was covered in waxy white blooms, smelling quite divine. Not far away, I was pleased to identify a tree that I have seen growing near my niece’s home in Somerset, Fraxinus angustifolia Raywood, the leaves of which turn a faintly metallic crimson shade from early October.

It was the third weekend in October and thanks to a blend of grasses and late flowering perennials such as Verbena bonariensis and Anemone japonica the Clover Hill Borders were both colourful and full of movement. The stems of Lythrum virgatum Dropmore Purple are garnet-coloured in autumn and complement swathes of Persicaria. Another combination that caught my eye was russet flowered Mahonia nitens Cabaret and the blue flowers of Ceratostigma willmottianum.

The area known as the Queen Mother’s Garden is composed of a series of woodland areas, packed with interesting trees and shrubs. This being an RHS garden I saw many unfamiliar cultivars, such as the white berry-bearing Callicarpa japonica Leucocarpa, its autumn leaves almost as pale as its fruit. Or Berberis Georgei, festooned with bunches of plump berries resembling scarlet jellybeans. Cornus Norman Hadden also bears unusual fruits which look for all the world like very large raspberries.

A tree cultivar suitable for a smallish garden thrust skywards through a grove of bananas: Liquidambar styraciflua Slender Silhouette. And the sun illuminated the plumes of a Pampas grass (Cortaderia).

Beyond the shaded slopes of Clover Hill the garden opens out to reveal a light-filled cafe and buildings such as a thatched barn, which once formed part of the farm on the site of which the garden has been created. Echoing Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden from the day before, but built on a sloping site, it was interesting to explore the Dry Garden where another pampas grass swayed gracefully in the breeze.

We cut through to the Global Growth Vegetable Garden, built in a circular design around an octagonal glasshouse. All manner of edible plants are displayed here including dahlias. When I’ve seen dahlias growing on allotments it’s usually for decorative purposes but here I learnt from an interpretation panel that they can be eaten! But when you can mash, fry or roast the common or garden spud, cooking dahlias seems like a lot of bother particularly if it means missing out on spectacular flowers like those on view here.

The crisp precision of the yew hedging in the very formal and traditional Rose Garden and Herbaceous Border was a testament to the high standard of horticulture at Hyde Hall, showcase as it is for the RHS.

Formality of a more contemporary kind anchors the last two gardens we saw on this visit. Located near the garden exit, the Modern Country Garden and Cottage Garden. In the former, yew pyramids at bed corners and drums created from (I think) olive trees, provide structure amidst grasses and Allium seedheads.

Vivid foliage shone out in the Cottage Garden: button snakeroot (Liatris spicata Kobold) and Euonymus alatus. Uplifting sights before facing the Sunday afternoon traffic on the A12 and M25!

20 November 2021

The Only Way is Essex: part 1

Beth Chatto Gardens

Writing about my gardening heroes and their gardens is like standing on the shoulders of giants. In this post I shall try to do justice to Beth Chatto (1923-2018) whose unique garden in Essex I visited a week ago today. In the same way that Christopher Lloyd stamped his personality and vision for his garden on Great Dixter (see my last blog post) the garden in Elmstead Market is redolent of its charismatic creator. You find yourself referring to ‘she’ and ‘her’ as you walk around the place, noticing details that she introduced, such as the three grass-covered bridges crossing the Water Garden and the pot garden in the courtyard close to the house, the displays changed according to the seasons. It was easy to imagine her walking around her domain chatting to visitors and inspecting the precious plants in the Stock Beds from which she and her team propagated the plants sold in The Nursery.

Reading Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook and Dear Friend and Gardener, the latter a collection of letters between Beth and Christopher Lloyd, I’d already formed an impression of the garden itself and the daily influence Beth Chatto exerted on the Gardens that she and her husband Andrew began to create from an unprepossessing wasteland in 1960, the site ranging from ‘parched gravel’ to ‘boggy ditches’, according to the blurb on the visitor map. So when a conversation with a friend earlier in the summer revealed that we both wanted to see both Beth Chatto’s garden and RHS Hyde Hall near Chelmsford, a plan was hatched for a weekend trip to the county of my birth!

At this stage I shall digress to sing the praises of a much maligned county. Essex is far more scenic and interesting and indeed record-breaking than its detractors would have you believe. It boasts what has been described as the prettiest village in England (Finchingfield, also the home of Dodie Smith, of One Hundred & One Dalmations fame), the longest bar in England (in a pub in Southend, one of its several seaside resorts) and arguably the largest village green in the country in Great Bentley, a mile or so from Elmstead Market. And not forgetting two world class gardens: Beth Chatto’s and Hyde Hall. Once you travel beyond the commuter belt to the east of London, the countryside is dotted with picturesque villages and small towns, many with ancient churches and market halls built with the wealth generated by the wool trade in mediaeval times.

Essex also boasts a relatively low average rainfall in comparison to other parts of the country and this was a major preoccupation of Beth Chatto in her vision for her garden. Whilst the lower-lying, boggier parts of the site were excavated to create a water garden consisting of three elongated pools fed from the reservoir on neighbouring land, the dry upper section of the land, on which a car park was originally built, was transformed in 1991 into the Gravel Garden. As I write this in the week of COP 26, this garden is a pioneering example of one watered only by rainfall. In her book The Dry Garden, Beth reiterates her planting philosophy of ‘right plant, right place’, demonstrating that plants will grow in difficult places if you choose the species that will thrive in that location. In the third week of October, the Gravel Garden was as attractive as it would have been in high summer. The palette is beige and grey with occasional pops of purple. Felty silver-leafed plants from the Mediterranean form low mounds punctuated by dozens of swaying grasses, substantial lumps of Verbena bonariensis and related species tinting the aspect with deep mauve.

All plants are clearly labelled and I repeatedly noticed plants that have not crossed my radar before, such as the deeply veined, penny sized leaves of Marrubium ‘All Hallows Green’. This wasn’t the only hint of the Halloween season. Elsewhere in the garden the propagation manager has placed colourful displays of pumpkins and other decorative gourds, some carved, others displayed for their colour and shape. Rather than hollowing out the gourds, the designs have been executed on the surface of the skin, enabling the artist to create faces ranging from the comic to the macabre.

In the Water Garden the deciduous conifers, the swamp cypresses (Taxodium distichum) were just beginning to change colour, their emerging russet foliage echoing the woodwork of the little rowing boat moored alongside the Gunnera. Elsewhere the still pools reflect the lush planting on the banks. And again, more unusual plants such as the pretty mauve pom-pom flowered Succisella inflexa.

Beyond the Water Garden stands the most recently created part of the garden, The Reservoir Garden, opened the year before Beth died. This series of island beds was a mass of spectacular grasses, asters (now Symphyotrichum) and tempting but poisonous blue-flowered Aconitum. To the rear of the border alongside the neighbouring reservoir, stand multi-stemmed shrubs and small trees, including Sorbus glabriuscula with its small white berries flushed with pink.

The Reservoir Garden
Sorbus glabriuscula

Soft autumn colours are beginning to emerge on the trees of the Woodland Garden, the understorey comprising intriguing ground cover plants. I imagine this element of this area of the garden is at its height in spring, and for now it’s the trees which are the stars of this show, both their bark and foliage.

Between the Woodland Garden and the Nursery is yet another mainly herbaceous border where I spotted the leaves of Bergenia, more asters, a clump of pampas grass and both pink and deep red Persicaria flowers. When so many other plants have finished flowering by late October, the elongated, slightly twisted spires provide colour and low to medium vertical form. Plunging back into the Reservoir Garden we encountered a couple of beds of different grasses, in one the rice grain-sized flowers attached to strands of Panicum Frosted Explosion resembled raindrops.

It took considerable restraint not to linger for the rest of the afternoon in the ‘plantarea’ section of the Nursery, where many of the rare plants we had admired are for sale at what looked like very reasonable prices. I noticed that the sales areas are divided between damp and dry garden plants, which highlights the right plant, right place philosophy evident throughout the garden. There’s even a zone devoted to Scree plants.

We left Beth Chatto’s garden to drive east a few miles to the coast to visit Frinton. Although I’m too young to remember holidays there, this was where we holidayed when my sister and I were very young. Why leave the county when there’s a resort with a safe sandy beach a relatively short drive away? It was fun to walk along the beach and photograph the beach huts, trying to imagine which of them we played in front of all those years ago. I wonder what changes my parents would have noticed? The turbines of the Gunfleet Sands Offshore Wind Farm would not have dominated the seascape to the south as they do now, strangely beautiful in the setting sun and supplying coal-free power to hundreds of homes.

My focus turned once more to Beth Chatto when I went to the Garden Museum in Lambeth last Wednesday afternoon. In a long display cabinet devoted to Beth I picked up a little more background to the creation of her garden.

Beth Chatto celebrated at The Garden Museum

From 1976 Beth was awarded ten consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. In her Garden Notebook she chronicles the painstaking and sometimes fraught preparations for a Chelsea show. As a result of her increasingly high public profile at this time she was offered a role as George Harrison’s head gardener which she declined. As well as examples of many of the gardening books written by Beth Chatto, the display case includes a pile of the nursery’s catalogues, with their distinctive cover design graphics, the stylised nine leaf stem.

Next time I visit RHS Hyde Hall and rediscover the lost art of pargetting.

1 November 2021