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

2 thoughts on “The Only Way is Essex: part 1

  1. Beautifully worded Katrina. I love the photo of your mum. Such an attractive lady. You look like her.

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