There’s more to Somerset than Glasto

3 Somerset Gardens 1 and 2 June 2022

In late July a ginger kitten called Seamus, born 7 May, will be taking up residence chez Weeds Roots & Leaves. Knowing that trips away will be limited for a few months while he settles in, I’ve been cramming in some garden visits. Four weeks ago, I made a three-day road-trip to Hampshire and Somerset, taking in four glorious gardens and a horticultural gem of a nursery.  

The first day I made two visits in Hampshire arranged by the Garden Media Guild, to Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants in the morning and then on to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. The Guild asked me to write an account of the visit for the next edition of GMG News which I’ve done. I’ll publish my blog post about the visits later in the summer and concentrate in this post on the Somerset leg of my trip when, incidentally, I met Seamus for the second time. 

I stayed with a very old friend (by which I mean we’ve known each other a very long time, not that she’s very old!) in the New Forest after the Guild visits. Her garden is a delight and includes a beautiful rose garden which was looking stunning. She has planted the raised bed either side of the steps leading down to the rose garden with David Austin rose Harlow Carr and it’s the perfect scale for such a position. Several weeks earlier, a deer had got into the garden and nibbled dozens of buds off the roses, but there was no sign of this when I was there and the roses had revived, healthier than ever. 

The next morning, we drove north west across Cranbourne Chase towards Somerset, our destination Durslade on the outskirts of Bruton. Cranbourne Chase is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I cannot better the Chase’s website https://cranbornechase.org.uk/about-us/the-aonb/ which describes it as ‘a diverse landscape offering areas of rolling chalk grassland, ancient woodlands, chalk escarpments, downland hillsides and chalk river valleys each with a distinct and recognisable character’. What struck me in particular was how few villages there are and how remote and unspoilt it is. 

In Durslade, we met another old friend at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the impressive arts centre which is, remarkably, free. The current exhibition ‘Henry Moore Sharing Form’ is housed in the converted farm buildings with some pieces displayed outside.

I’ve been wanting to visit the centre for a number of years, attracted by Oudolf Field, the perennial meadow designed by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. The date was 2 June and the prairie effect less obvious than I imagine it to be further into summer when the members of the daisy family with warm colours and distinctive seedheads will dominate the planting. For now, the overall impression is of cooler blues and mauves, with Siberian irises, alliums and foxtail lilies adding height and grasses movement.

The site rises gently towards the squat white Cilic Pavilion with grassy paths winding around the metal-edged island beds. There is a broad central gravelled path interrupted by low grassy mounds which have been closely mowed and resemble smooth green pebbles. 

The pale blue flowers of what I’ve since learnt is called bluestar (Amsonia– see more below) matched the blue of the sky and toned with the slate roofs of the gallery buildings. I noticed that the starry flowers were an attraction for bumblebees. Its needle-like leaves will, I have been reading, turn yellow in autumn. Like so many of the plants here, it has been chosen to extend the period of interest in the garden beyond spring and summer. I want to see this fascinating place in the winter when I anticipate that Oudolf’s signature seedheads and grasses will dominate the site. 

Another unusual plant that caught my eye on the margins of the wildlife pond was the flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus. The planting combinations throughout are so clever: for example here are the flat umbels of a pale pink Achillea alongside the leaves of the chunky but also horizontally inclined Darmara peltata. 

I have read that the garden resembles a giant artist’s palette, an appropriate description for a garden in such a location.

Photo: Alex Delfanne

In a location to the edge of the ‘field’, stands a piece of land art by Richard Long, Stone Circle 1980, made from Swedish Granite. Our lunch at Hauser & Wirth was delicious, sitting in the large courtyard café and enjoying being together in the sunshine. 

Oudolf Field was created in 2014. Our next stop, The Newt, is even younger. The garden in its present form opened to the public in 2019. I say present form, because there has been a garden here since the C18, namely the grounds of Hadspen House, now a luxury hotel. An English landscape garden with a parabola shaped walled garden, was transformed in the 1960s and 1970s into a C20 arts and crafts garden by designer Penelope Hobhouse, whose family owned the house. The estate was bought in 2013 by South Africans Karen Roos and her billionaire husband Koos Bekker who have created a visitor attraction in the mould of the garden attached to their South African winery, Babylonstoren. 

This was my second visit and like my first, merely scratched the surface of the place. On both occasions, I have had limited time to explore and shall do so on another occasion. But what I have seen each time has made a huge impression on me. The sloping parabola planted with apple varieties from all the apple growing counties in the country, intersected by rills and pools, was a magnet for my great nephews when we were there on a hot July day after the first lockdown two years ago. Fantastical birds feature in topiary fashioned atop hedging alongside the brick wall surrounding the parabola. Beyond the huge kitchen garden, are the Colour Gardens, a series of rooms each dedicated to red, blue and white. An interpretation panel explained that the gardens pay tribute to Sandra and Nori Pope who created colour gardens when they leased the gardens in the 1990s. The gardens are separated by wattle screens, into which oval ‘windows’ have been fitted, offering tantalising glimpses into the garden next door. 

I was excited to see that Amsonia featured in the Blue Garden, and thanks to another panel, that it was the same species as that I’d seen that morning at Oudolf Field, Amsonia tabernaemontana. Retreating to the shade of the Cottage Garden for ice-cream, we didn’t explore any further and I’m saving that treat for another occasion. I was anxious by then to drive the dozen or so miles to my niece’s house where I was taking over cat-sitting duties for a day or so. I had in fact met Seamus the previous week when he was only three weeks old and I was struck by how much the four kittens had grown in a week. Their eyes now open, they were beginning to explore a little beyond the warm security of mum, though not venturing far and still a little unsteady on their legs.

In the Cottage Garden

The next morning, having made sure all was well with the cats and kittens, I headed to a delightful National Trust property, Lytes Cary Manor, a short drive away. With origins as a mediaeval manor house, the house was extended in the C16 and restored in the early C20 by Sir Walter and Lady Flora Jenner. I enjoyed the tour of the house very much. Its scale is modest in comparison to many historic houses, and does still retain the air of a home, thanks to its being fully furnished and lovingly tended by the Trust. A late C16 occupant of the house, Henry Lyte I (c.1529-1607) was a botany scholar and translated a Flemish herbal illustrated with 870 woodcuts of plants. The book is on display in a glass case, protected from light by a leather covering when not being scrutinised by visitors. It was open at a page featuring thyme and pennywort. In a mirror frame dating from the C17, the stumpwork embroidery had been added to by Sir Walter’s sister in law with a panel depicting the house and part of the garden.

The present garden layout dates from 1907 when the Jenners began to create a garden in the Arts and Crafts style so fashionable in Edwardian times. Three sides of the house are surrounded by a series of ‘garden rooms’ divided by yew hedges and stone walls. The main entrance to the house is on the east front, reached by a stone path flanked by 12 yew bushes, each topiarised into an immaculately clipped half sphere topped by a cone. This is the Apostle Garden. I hope the photos capture a flavour of the gardens with their formal  topiary, stone walls and gateways and exquisite planting. 

‘. 

And finally, Seamus the kitten!

Kew

2 July 2022

Hever Castle & Gardens revisited

My last blog post about the gardens at Hever Castle was in July 2019. I had the good fortune to return to Hever last Monday with a great group from the Garden Media Guild. Head gardener Neil Miller lead a tour of the garden. Our visit coincided with peak season for the 40,000 tulips planted at Hever. Neil demonstrated throughout the tour that in a garden nothing stands still, it’s an ever changing space. Plants outgrow their site, new areas are cleared and planted, Yew topiary is cut back to the bone and re-shaped.

Despite being a listed garden there is scope for experimentation and innovative practices at Hever. With a third of a million visitors a year compaction is a problem in the Yew Maze so the opportunity was taken when the garden closed during the first lockdown in spring 2020 to revitalise the yews. Terrain Aeration was engaged to pump air and dried seaweed one metre below the compacted soil. Elsewhere in the garden digestate (the odourless by-product of anaerobic digestion of e.g. sewage sludge) is used to enrich the soil around established plants. In an area known as the Acer Dell a swathe of red and white tulips (a tribute to the Tudor Rose) was created last year using a bulb planting machine operated by Dutch firm Lubbe & Sons. The tines of the machine act as ‘dibbers’ to create the planting holes, the machine drops the bulbs into place and then backfills the holes.

No garden is immune from the ravages of the weather and Neil showed us a 120 year old poplar tree near the drawbridge across the moat which was blown down by Storm Eunice in February this year. Its rootball was winched back into position and it is hoped it will regenerate. Beside the Italian Garden it was sad to see that the severe frost about four weeks ago had taken out most of the flower buds of the Wisteria trained over the pergola*.

Neil explained that the herbaceous border alongside Two Sisters’ Lawn, named for Ann and Mary Boleyn who were raised at Hever, is planted in the style of Edwardian garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. In the summer, cool shades of white and silver will progress through the colour spectrum to warm reds and golds. The opposite border is punctuated with dainty standard forms of the earliest flowering rose, Rosa xanthina Canary Bird.

Beyond the Festival Theatre, a curving raised bed (the dahlia border) is graced with 3,500 tulips all of which are planted into crates as is done in the Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands. Not only does this make it easier to remove the bulbs in time for planting dahlias in June, it avoids a rogue cultivar finding its way into the scheme. The theme changes each year, this year’s being cream (Tulipa Avant Garde), red (Tulipa Red Wing) and purple (Tulipa Purple Flag). The tulips from this area and those in the Italian Garden are lifted later in May and planted in less formal areas of the garden.

Neil introduced us to the six acre Italian Garden by telling us that it was designed to house the huge collection of ancient and renaissance statuary collected by William Waldorf Astor while US ambassador to Rome. Individual garden ‘rooms’ occupy the niches along the south facing border inspired by the ruins of Pompeii. These have been planted with tulips and complementary spring flowers. I was struck by the unusual Evergreen tulips underplanted with wallflowers, the fringed purple tulips interspersed with blue pansies.

One of the garden ‘rooms’ in the Italian Garden
Ditto

The south-facing border is also a perfect site for exotic shrubs like pomegranates, pistachio (mastic) and olives, the latter wall-trained so immaculately it resembles a trompe l’oeil painting. A fig and a loquat have been trained in a similar fashion against the wall opposite the Pavilion Cafe.

Espaliered olive tree in the Italian Garden

The long border on the other side of the Italian Garden, at the foot of the colonnade, is ablaze with the scarlet, orange and yellow of Olympic Flame and Apeldoorn Elite tulips.

Venerable camellias occupy the shady side of the colonnade. They are pruned back after flowering to keep them from growing too far across the pathway and pressure washing is used to treat those specimens affected by sooty mould. In the rose garden no insecticides are used, any aphids on the 4,000 roses are soon consumed by visiting blackbirds and invertebrates like ladybirds and hoverflies. Because the roses are planted very close together in a walled garden, airflow is impeded and blackspot can be a problem from July onwards, causing defoliation. To prevent this, the roses are sprayed fortnightly from the end of April until late September. A foliar feed is also added to the spray to encourage healthy growth. Deadheading is carried out throughout the flowering season. Neil’s pruning regime is to reduce the roses by one third in November to prevent windrock and in March to cut stems to three or five buds (hybrid tea roses) and five or seven buds (floribunda roses).

The Rose Garden in April

After a very sociable lunch we were taken to a newly planted woodland area of the garden: Church Gill where, seven years ago, long-forgotten stone steps and a pathway were uncovered when laurels and bracken was being removed from the top of the stream-side Sunday Walk, along which the Astor family would have made their way to the Hever parish church. Over the last three years the area has been revitalised with a scheme of shade-loving woodland and alpine plants designed by Graham Gunn and Monica Wylie of Kevock Garden Plants in Edinburgh. The steep sides of the valley through which the stream flows must have made planting very challenging.

The natural atmosphere of this part of the garden is a complete contrast to the colour and formality of the Italian Garden but it’s a beautifully realised example of how Neil Miller and his team of 10 gardeners develop new projects as well as maintaining the highest standards of horticulture throughout the gardens at Hever.

Kew, 1 May 2022

*In my own garden about 50% of the buds were checked by that frost but happily the rest have flowered successfully and it is currently looking and smelling divine.

Some more photographs of the gardens at Hever follow:

Magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden

I love the view from the window of the spare room in March. An early flowering cherry, a starry flowered Amelanchier and a large Magnolia with pale pink flowers grow in the gardens behind mine. The Magnolia is now very large indeed. Sometimes on a dull day the sun breaks through the cloud and illuminates the shell pink petals, which shine out all the more against the grey of the sky. This year the Magnolia seemed to come into flower earlier than usual.

On a walk with a friend in Kew Gardens on 2 March several of the Magnolia Grove trees were flowering, including a couple of the very large old specimens, the flowers high above very difficult to capture in a photograph. Welcome as the sight of these gorgeous flowers was, after the dreariness of winter, we both expressed the same thought, that we hoped the magnolias would last until 29 March! I had persuaded my friend and her husband to join me on that date for a magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden in West Sussex. I rationalised that the trees in Kew were more advanced because the temperatures in London are higher than in the countryside. Driving to jobs in the weeks that followed I saw magnolias in glorious bloom everywhere, and had begun to resign myself to having to imagine Borde Hill’s trees in flower rather than seeing the real thing on the day of the walk.

Thanks to Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke, the great grandfather of the current owner of Borde Hill, this 35 acre garden a couple of miles from Haywards Heath is home to around 150 different species and cultivated varieties of Magnolia, including summer flowering evergreen specimens. Colonel Stehenson Clarke (‘Stephie’) bought the Elizabethan house and the surrounding estate in 1893 and created the garden, planting trees and shrubs collected by some of the famous plant hunters of the early C20.

The walk was led by Borde Hill’s Head of Horticulture, Harry Baldwin, and Dori Whatmore, Senior Gardener. Harry joined the team last November from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where after attaining his Kew Diploma he worked as a Dendrologist and Horticultural Taxonomist. The two-handed presentation by these knowledgeable gardeners worked really well and it was inspiring hearing about the work being done at the garden and Harry’s five year plan for it.

Dori and Harry at the start of the walk

In his introduction, Harry explained that the Borde Hill private archive includes letters to Colonel Stephenson Clarke from plant hunters like Ernest ‘China’ Wilson and George Forrest forming a fascinating record of the creation of the garden and the stories behind the introduction of new species. As we had noticed earlier in the month, magnolias are indeed beginning to flower earlier as a result of climate change, but Harry reassured us that because of the vast range of magnolias at Borde Hill we would still see plenty of trees in bloom during the walk. Colonel Clarke chose the property because of its geology: eight different types of clay have been identified on the site. It stands on an east-west ridge meaning it has both north and south facing slopes creating several different climate niches.

The Magnolia Trail

At our first stop near the entrance to the garden we were shown four trees which derived from seed collected by Ernest Wilson, including the fabulously named Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’, the Goddess magnolia. Near a pathway along the perimeter of the garden stands another Wilson discovery, not a magnolia but a rare tree which flowers so infrequently that when it does it’s a very special event: Emmenopterys henryi. Searching Wikipedia later I read that flowering (apparently the flowers resemble lace cap hydrangeas) seems to be triggered by long hot summers and that the tree is part of the Rubiaceae family, another member of which is the coffee plant! At Borde Hill, it last flowered in 2018.

We skirted the part of the garden called the Azalea Ring to find the next trees on our route. Named after a former head gardener from Caerhays near St Austell in Cornwall, Magnolia ‘Philip Tregunna’ is a young tree whose goblet like blooms are shaded deep pink at the base and fade upwards to a paler pink. Nearby, Harry described M. ‘Peachy’ as having ‘sickly looking flowers’. They reminded me of that shade ‘nude’ which was so popular in shoes a few years ago. Next was a tree which survived the Great Storm of 1987 despite being blown over, M. x soulangeana ‘Brozzonii’. Harry explained that the species from which this white-flowered beauty derives was named for Etienne Soulange-Bodin (1774-1846), who founded the French equivalent of the RHS, Le Société d’horticulture de Paris. We then encountered the first of the TROBI champion trees* at Borde Hill, a 60 foot high M. campbellii, a champion because of its great girth.

The walk paused at this stage to enable us to examine in detail the structure of a magnolia flower. Laid out on three picnic tables were small branches bearing a few blooms. Harry encouraged us to strip back the petals to the centre of the flower and explained the complex morphology of what is one of the most ancient of the flowering plants, including the fact that magnolias are pollinated by beetles rather than flying insects, which they pre-date.

We learnt that most magnolias dislike alkaline soil and prefer a neutral to acidic soil of 5.5 to 6.6 pH, the ideal soil texture being a good loam. Magnolia stellata is the exception in that it can be grown on alkaline soil. When planting a magnolia, incorporate organic matter into the planting hole and feed with an organic mulch. Harry has already created ‘tree circles’ around many of the specimens where the ground beneath the trees is cleared of grass and any competing growth. This not only looks attractive but makes mowing easier and prevents damage to the tree or shrub. He was asked if he would stake a newly planted magnolia and explained that he tends not to do so, preferring that the plant becomes stronger when allowed to move with the wind. Were he to stake he would angle the stake towards the south west and attach it to the tree with a rubber tree tie. In Harry’s five year plan for the garden the priority is to propagate the collection, ensuring its survival for years to come. Propagation is done by grafting one year’s growth from seed onto material taken from the tree’s own rootstock.

Continuing the walk we passed the rear of the house with a view across to the property’s North Park. In the area of the garden called the Garden of Allah, we were shown a couple of evergreen species, M. obovata from eastern Russia and Japan and M. fraseri from the south-eastern USA. Both bear scented flowers in early summer. the M. obovata is a TROBI champion tree by girth and the species’ wood is used for furniture making.

In the same way that we all exchange plants and cuttings and cuttings with our friends and neighbours, the next tree M. officinalis was a gift in 1933 from a neighbour, Col. Messel of nearby Nymans. In its native China an extract from the bark is used in traditional medicine as a cold remedy and the tree is becoming increasingly rare. Harry shared a sobering statistic: 48% of the approximately 240 species of magnolia across the globe are threatened with extinction, through logging and change of land use to agriculture and development. Which makes it all the more important to preserve and propagate collections of these magnificent trees such as that at Borde Hill. Because fleshy magnolia seeds are ‘recalcitrant’ they cannot be dried and stored in seed banks such as Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, a few miles away from Borde Hill. Like acorns and chestnuts, they have to be planted and grown on in order to be preserved, which makes gardens like Borde Hill with botanic collections of rare plants, conservation communities in their own right.

Perched on a knoll across from M. officinalis is a near relative of the magnolia, the tulip tree. Liriodendron chinense again hails from China and was collected in the wild by Ernest Wilson. Harry described the leaves as saddle shaped, with their blunt upper edges. Like its American cousin, L. tulipfera, the tree flowers in early summer.

In the north-west of the garden, in an open space called Gardiner Grove, named after magnolia expert Jim Gardiner, several specimens of two species of magnolia have been planted: M. springeri and M. acuminata. The young trees are protected with guards against rabbits which are attracted to the sap in the wood. They are soon to be fitted with TreeGator watering bags, zip up bags which release water over a three day period whilst the plants establish themselves. As the walk continued we all admired M. Black Tulip with its dark purple tulip-shaped flowers.

Magnolia Back Tulip

The final stop on the tour was the Italian Garden, a formal space with a rectangular pond at its centre, created on the site of a tennis court, with a view out to the South Park. To one side of the garden stands a large example of M. stellata with its open long-petalled flowers, which are slightly scented. It’s a popular choice in small gardens or as a border shrub.

Chatting to Harry and Dori at the end of the tour we discovered that a small horticultural team looks after the garden, supported by a small group of volunteers. They must work tremendously hard to keep this varied space looking so good. We were strongly recommended to return in June to see the Rose Garden.

After the walk we had delicious freshly made sandwiches and excellent coffee at the open-air Gardener’s Retreat Cafe and then retraced our steps and explored the area around the Rose and Italian Gardens more thoroughly, finding some fascinating plants and intriguing pathways as we went. Tucked in the south-western corner of the garden are the roofless remains of the old potting sheds which have become a charming garden in their own right, planted with tree peonies and primroses, a vivid Japanese quince (Chaenomeles x superba) scrambling across the mullion windows which still contain their leaded lights.

Thanks to Harry and Dori’s informative tour of Borde Hill’s extensive collection of magnolias I’ve learnt a great deal more about this elegant tree. Borde Hill Garden is a delightful place and I shall definitely return at another season to discover more of its treasures.

10 April 2022

*TROBI (Tree Register of Britain and Ireland) champion trees are the tallest and largest trees in Britain and Ireland. There are 75 champion trees at Borde Hill.

Here are some more images from the day at Borde Hill Garden giving a flavour of the different sections of the garden and the diversity of planting.

Mills, Moats & Monets

What links a grand house on the Strand, a textile town in Essex and a mansion in south east London? Answer: the Courtauld family. The weaving dynasty has left its mark on Somerset House, Halstead and Eltham Palace.

Halstead

In the 1820s Samuel Courtauld established Townsford Mill on the river Colne in Halstead, in north Essex, for the manufacture of silk crepe. Throughout the C19 and much of the C20, further textile factories were built in the town, but with manufacturing costs soaring, production moved abroad and those buildings have been re-purposed to accommodate, for example, the Co-op supermarket. When a friend and I visited Beth Chatto’s Garden and Hyde Hall last October, we stayed at a pub in Halstead. The names displayed on the front of the 1920s houses opposite the pub piqued our interest: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park. Spotting a pattern, we soon found Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Emma. Each house also bore the initials, SAC. A spot of googling revealed that these were built by Samuel Augustine Courtauld as homes for his workforce. Apparently, elsewhere in the town there are houses bearing the names of novels by Fanny Burney. I can find nothing to explain why the Arts and Crafts style houses were named after novels in this way. Unlike the Cadburys who built an entire community (Bournville) to accommodate their workers, the Courtaulds seem to have preferred building such homes throughout the town.

Townsford Mill with the River Colne in the foreground
‘Pride’
‘Prejudice’
‘Emma’

Eltham Palace

The Courtauld name reminded me of a of visit three years ago to Eltham Palace, the unique property now run by English Heritage. In 1933 Stephen Courtauld (1883 – 1967), younger brother of SAC, took out a 99 year lease of the site of the childhood home of Henry VIII. All that remained of the palace was the huge Great Hall built by Edward IV. Stephen and his wife Virginia built a luxurious home in the then fashionable Art Deco style, incorporating the hall into the design. The palace is surrounded by a moat which is an integral part of the garden. The moat is partly dry but this aerial view illustrates the extent of the water-filled section of the moat.

Much of this garden on two levels was laid out by Stephen and Virginia in the 1930s, and more recently English Heritage has developed it further. For example in 2000 they commissioned garden designer Isabelle van Groeningen to re-design the planting in the monumental herbaceous borders. When I was there in late August, these deep borders between brick buttresses were billowing with drifts of golden Achillea, bronze grasses, succulent Sedum (now Telephium) with their burgundy stems and leaves and pink flowers. Elsewhere a mass planting of creamy petalled roses made an impact. Irish yews fashioned into columns stood sentinel at each corner of a rectangular pond in the centre of the rose garden. A charming carving on the wall of the palace depicts Virginia ‘Ginny’ Courtauld in her wide-brimmed gardening hat, surrounded with a garland of flowers and leaves, a basket of fruit, the handle of a border fork and a long-spouted watering can completing the picture.

The Courtauld Gallery

When I began work in a small law practice in the City of London in 1980, there was a weekly run to the Stamp Office at Somerset House on the Strand, where, upon payment of the duty (with a banker’s draft: remember them?) the relevant deed was stamped using an archaic looking machine where the clerk operated a lever to press down on the document to emboss the stamp. I loved this weekly ritual which was a great opportunity to get out of the office for an hour or so and exchange the traffic on the Strand for the C18 elegance of Somerset House*. Now that stamp duty is paid electronically the practice of stamping a document with evidence of payment is no longer necessary. The Revenue (now HM Revenue & Customs) moved out of Somerset House in 2013. Gone are the black and gold stamp machines, to be replaced by a number of organisations associated with the arts including the Courtauld Gallery. This houses the world-famous art collection of Samuel Courtauld (1876 – 1947). The collection has recently been re-hung and I went to see it a week ago, my last visit having been about ten years ago. I concentrated on the top floor of the gallery where the Impressionist and Post-Impressionists are located.

La Montagne Sainte Victoire
Renoir: Spring, Chatou
Monet

Many of these paintings feel like old friends, the images are so familiar from reproductions. I’d forgotten how many of the paintings depict gardens and plants.

If the artworks are impressive, so is the room in which most of them are displayed. The Great Room as it is called hosted the annual Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy from 1780 to 1837.

It’s quite an arc isn’t it, from a silk mill on a riverbank in Essex, via a medieval palace meets Art Deco mansion to a priceless art collection in one of the grandest buildings in London? I’ve enjoyed my visits to all three of these places associated with the formidable Courtaulds.

*There’s a connection here with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: the principal architect of Somerset House, from 1775, was Sir William Chambers, designer of the Pagoda in the southern section of the Gardens.

Sculptures and Serpents

Featured

In the garden at Chatsworth House: Part 2

Since visiting Chatsworth almost five weeks ago I have discovered the Channel 4 documentary Chatsworth House: A Great British Year. I’m glad not to have come across it before as it’s fun to see the house and garden again and learn how such a vast enterprise works. The kitchen garden featured in one of the shows and like everything at Chatsworth it is beautifully designed and cultivated. Even at the end of November when most of the crops had been harvested, there was plenty to see and interesting details to examine.

The kitchen garden occupies a sloping west-facing site of about three acres. A relatively new addition to the gardens, it was created in the early 1990s. As in the wider garden, water has been channelled from parkland behind the garden to feed rills and ponds. I was interested to see tulips being planted in handsome terracotta pots, tucked into a nook beside the cold frames. The lower boundary of the garden is formed by a tightly clipped beech hedge. Large golden stalks adorn a trio of metal frames fashioned into apples and a pear, each housing a yew shrub which in the years to come will fill out the frames to form topiary fruits at the entrance of the garden. Rhubarb forcers from Whichford Pottery in Warwickshire stand to attention like terracotta warriors. A couple of stone plaques caught my eye: a quirky mission statement for creativity from dress designer Paul Smith and a heart-shaped memorial to the late Duchess Deborah. Straight rows of chard and brassicas appear to radiate from the corner of the large plots in which they are planted.

Unmistakeable for their charred finish, David Nash’s sculptures look entirely at home in the Arboretum which occupies the upper slopes of the gardens. The gardens are separated from the surrounding parkland by a ha-ha, the eighteenth century innovation which enables a garden to blend seamlessly with the landscape beyond. Here the ha-ha is a stone retaining wall. I noticed that a meshwork fence has also been fitted near the top of the wall, presumably to deter deer from entering the garden and munching the rare specimen trees. On the subject of dry stone walling, an installation called ‘Emergence’ demonstrates the evolution of this ancient craft, fundamental to the rural landscape of not only Derbyshire but so many other areas of the country. It contains one giant rock, a reference to the practice of using naturally occurring boulders in field walls. The transition from the older random style of limestone dry stone walling to the more modern sandstone wall of shaped stones is marked by a giant pane of glass. The interpretation panel informed me that the glass also represents Joseph Paxton’s pioneering work on the Great Stove at Chatsworth which led to him designing the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Giant redwoods tower above the other conifers in the Pinetum, an echo for me of the area of Kew Gardens devoted to these majestic trees.

More nineteenth century technology features in much of the seating around the gardens at Chatsworth. Cast iron benches with a plant inspired designs are placed around the remains of the Great Stove and in the terrace beside the 3rd Duke’s greenhouse. I found nasturtiums, passionflowers and lilies of the valley, as well as a design showing gardeners sowing, raking, harvesting and scything.

The Serpentine Hedge separates the Maze from the woodland area beside the Canal Pond. A double row of symmetrically planted beech which curves in and out, this dates from 1953 and was inspired by the ‘crinkle-crankle’ walls found in many old gardens, the alternating concave and convex planes providing stability. Seeing the north face of the house reflected in the Canal Pond, the Emperor Fountain rising skywards in the centre, has to be one of my highlights of 2021. This end of the garden also contains more remarkable sculpture: a horse’s head by Nic Fiddian-Green

and Allen Jones’s Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, a 3D take on Edouard Manet’s famous painting. If asked to name a favourite work from the garden, I would choose Cornwall Slate Line by land artist Richard Long, which runs parallel with the Canal Pond. Not far away Dame Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna strides through a grove of trees.

The family’s dogs appear in several sculptures nearer the house, faithful hounds keeping watch or assembling on the steps leading to the north front with its Ionic capitalised pilasters and windows framed in gold leaf. A frieze above the windows features coiled serpents, part of the Cavendish family crest. This motif is picked out in a pebble mosaic on the terrace near the 3rd Duke’s greenhouse, reminding me of the two dachshunds, Canna and Dahlia, immortalised in similar fashion in the Walled Garden at Great Dixter.

Classical statuary also abounds in the gardens, reminding me that this place has been a treasure house of art for many centuries. More mundane perhaps, but elegant in its own way, is the weather station on the Salisbury Lawns near the Broad Walk where temperature, rainfall and hours of sunshine are recorded and reported to the Met Office.

I shall leave you here with a final image from my memorable visit to Chatsworth, Flora’s Temple decorated for Christmas.

Well, not quite the last image. The finger post pointing the way to Chatsworth marked my exit in the early evening dark from the park into the village of Baslow where I was staying. It’s also inviting me back one spring or summer to explore further and to see Dan Pearson’s Trout Stream planting and Tom Stuart-Smith’s Arcadia in their full glory.

Kew, 29 December 2021

From Chiswick to Chatsworth

In the garden at Chatsworth House: Part 1

A garden in winter reveals its skeleton, shed of most of its green surface layer, enabling you to see the physical structure of the space. Happily heavy overnight rain washed away the blanket of snow which I’d encountered when visiting Chatsworth House the day before. The 100 acre site seems bigger, perhaps because of the terrain: wooded slopes rising from more formal areas either side of the Broad Walk, running parallel with the eastern elevation of the house. According to the health App. on my phone on the evening of my visit, I had climbed the equivalent of 35 storeys!

As you enter the garden, you see a series of garden buildings. I hesitate to call them glasshouses, because the grandest of them is more in the style of an orangery, and is called the 3rd Duke’s Greenhouse. Consisting of two growing spaces, separated by a columned loggia, it houses a collection of camellias, considered too tender for growing in the Derbyshire climate. It immediately reminded me of the Conservatory at Chiswick House (currently closed for renovation) but home to camellias first planted in the nineteenth century. It is perhaps no coincidence that comparisons can be drawn between Chatsworth and Chiswick.

First a little history: when the 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720 – 1764) married Lady Charlotte Boyle, the Cavendish family estates increased considerably for she was the only surviving child of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. As well as an Irish castle (Lismore), two estates in Yorkshire and a house in London (Burlington House, now the home of the Royal Academy), the Earl’s legacy included Chiswick House, a couple of miles from where I sit typing this blog post. William Kent (1685-1748) (who with the Earl of Burlington transformed the gardens at Chiswick House and indeed the house itself) produced designs for remodelling the cascade at Chatsworth and is thought to have influenced the naturalisation of the garden.

As well as camellias, this greenhouse shelters tender climbers such as Lapageria rosea with its elongated bell-shaped flowers. In my last post I mentioned the influence of the late Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (1920-2014), on the property. Amongst the many famous faces of the twentieth century she knew, was the 35th president of the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Indeed they were related by marriage as Jack Kennedy’s sister Kathleen (known as ‘Kick’) married her husband, Andrew Cavendish’s elder brother Billy Hartington in 1944. Billy was killed in Belgium later that year during the Allied advance after D-Day making Andrew heir to the Dukedom. Tragically Kick died in 1948 when the plane in which she was flying to the south of France from Paris crashed. Intrigued by two curvaceous silver chairs in the loggia between the two sections of the greenhouse, on closer inspection I found they were constructed from hundreds of half dollar pieces, all bearing the profile of JFK.

There are three other ‘glasshouses’ near the garden entrance, none of which was open on the day of my visit: