Tom Stuart-Smith has put his mark as a landscape architect on numerous gardens across the country. I’ve seen his planting at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and in July 2021 was fortunate to go to the inspiring garden at his home, Serge Hill at Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire. This last weekend gave me the opportunity to compare two more of his creations: the new Royal Horticultural Society garden, Bridgewater, south of Manchester and the Italian Garden at Trentham Gardens, Staffordshire.
Steady rain fell throughout the afternoon at RHS Bridgewater but it meant that the gardens were very quiet enabling us to see the structure of the garden for which Tom Stuart-Smith created the masterplan for the development of the site as a centre of excellence for horticulture in the north-west. He also designed the layout and planting of the Paradise Garden which forms one half of the restored 11 acre Weston Walled Garden, a major feature of the new garden, as well as the Worsley Welcome Garden located close to the Welcome Building.
The joy of a RHS garden (like RBG Kew and other botanical gardens) is that all plants are labelled, so you start learning as soon as you step outside into the garden. A perennial honesty (Lunaria rediviva) soon caught my eye. In borders between the outer and inner walls of the walled garden, massed plantings of tulips and daffodils lit up the gloom of the rainy afternoon. Terracotta rhubarb forcers nestle amongst the bulbs, a clue to the presence at Bridgewater of the National Collection of rhubarb, with 100 cultivars having recently been moved from RHS Wisley. I also liked the gnarly branches (driftwood?) which accent the border every so often, resembling abstract sculptures.
I love to see show gardens from flower shows re-purposed, and the high brick wall of the Weston Walled Garden provided a perfect backdrop for Windrush Garden from RHS Flower Show Tatton Park, 2021, designed by Dawn Evans.
The Weston Walled Garden is divided into two equal halves: the Paradise Garden and the Kitchen Garden. High metal obelisks, designed to resemble the chimney of the original boiler room which heated the glasshouses which served Worsley New Hall, punctuate the enormous Kitchen Garden which contains more than 100 planting beds! Unobtrusive strainer wires are fitted along the walls. to support an impressive collection of wall-trained fruit, including heritage pears.
The heart of the Paradise Garden is a very large body of water, the Lily Pond, fed by two rills which intersect the garden. Partially covered by a decorative grill in a geometric design, the rills are just one example of the wonderful attention to detail manifest throughout Bridgewater. At this time of year and on a wet afternoon, the colours were muted: greens and the reddish brown of the beech columns planted around the Lily Pond. From photographs in the guide book and having seen Serge Hill* in high summer, I can imagine just how colourful the Paradise Garden must be later in the season. One of the features of Serge Hill which impressed me was the Plant Library, trial beds laid out in a numbered grid, designed as an open resource for garden design students to see how plants behave and move, featuring many drought tolerant plants. I’m imagining that some of the species in the Plant Library are also planted into some of the Paradise Garden’s 80 planting beds.
Two new glasshouses in Victorian style have been built along the southern wall of the Paradise Garden, to house tender specimens such as Aeonium. On the opposite side of this wall stands the Old Frameyard, home to the boiler room and its chimney, as well as potting sheds (now an exhibition space), a brand new Propagation House, and beds laid out for plant trials. Near here we spotted another show garden, the Blue Peter Discover Soil Garden designed by Juliet Sargent for the Chelsea Flower Show in 2022.
Just beyond the walled garden stands the restored Garden Cottage, once home to the the head gardener of Worsley New Hall. The cottage is surrounded by an immaculately mowed, semi-circular lawn.
Heading into the wooded area of Bridgewater we found a friendly ent, and in the fields beyond the woodland, the Pig Pen for the black Berkshire pigs which have been used throughout the creation of Bridgewater to act as ‘biological ploughs’ and clear the ground in various parts of the garden before planting. Here and there in the woodland, are remnants of the original gardens and to the north of Ellesmere Lake, the remains of the terraces which stood in front of Worsley New Hall, the large Victorian House which was demolished after the Second World War.
Flowing from Ellesmere Lake down the hill to Moon Bridge Water, the new body of water next to the Welcome Building, is the Chinese Streamside Garden, which is intersected with a series of small pools and crossed by a series of wooden bridges. The planting is designed to reflect the numerous Chinese native plants which are now favourite shrubs and trees in the west: acers, magnolias, primulas included.
Thankfully the weather improved for the second garden visit of the weekend: Trentham Gardens near Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire. Here three eminent contemporary garden designers have made their mark on a garden which has its origins as an eighteenth century landscape garden (the lake around which the garden and parkland are located was designed by Capability Brown). Piet Oudolf designed the Floral Labyrinth which stands beside the River Trent at the eastern end of the garden, near the ruins of the Italianate Victorian house: 32 beds of herbaceous perennials in the Dutch designer’s trademark prairie style. The beds were just beginning to spring to life, with tantalising crowns of greenery promising a lush summer display. Snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) nodded gracefully in several beds.
The Perennial Meadow Garden along the edges of the lake was designed by Professor Nigel Dunnett (Tower of London Superbloom, Gold Meadows London Olympic Park and the Barbican). The third of the designers to shape this garden in the 21st century is Tom Stuart-Smith. When she showed us around her own garden at Serge Hill in July 2021, his sister Kate Stuart-Smith told us her brother’s nickname in the family was GAT, Great Arbiter of Taste! The Italian Garden at Trentham is certainly a class act. Like Bridgewater’s Paradise Garden, it is on a grand scale, a formal parterre style layout of symmetrical beds, some edged with low hedges arranged around low walled formal pools, centred with fountains. The Italian theme is reinforced with classical statuary, monumental urns and slim columns of Irish yew standing in for cypresses. The simplicity of the planting prevents the space from seeming unduly elaborate. One set of beds is planted with white flowers and silver-leaved plants: tulips, narcissus and a white-flowered Brunnera with silver-veined leaves, possibly B. macrophylla Mr Morse.
Low evergreen domes and similarly scaled stands of grasses planted into lawned areas echo the yew domes dotted on the lawn alongside the Worsley Welcome Garden at Bridgewater.
The Italian Garden is divided from the Floral Labyrinth by an arched pergola running its entire length, entwined with climbing roses and Wisteria, yet to bloom. Running alongside the pergola is the David Austin Rose Border, designed by Michael Marriott. I can only imagine how fragrant and beautiful this must be when in flower. The roses were certainly looking wonderfully healthy last Saturday.
Whilst brief, my 36 hour trip to the north west was enormously satisfying, and it was a joy to see Tom Stuart-Smith’s work in both gardens.
20 April 2023, Kew
*Here are some of my images of Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden at Serge Hill, taken in July 2021.