Bedding at Brodsworth Hall




Ludwig Messel’s Sussex garden was and still is more about plants than design. When Ludwig purchased the estate in 1890 the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway had built up a large network of railway lines covering the Sussex making the area an easy weekend commute from London and a depressed agricultural sector (caused at least in part by the improved transport infrastructure of the time) made land affordable. The Messel family had been Jewish financiers in Germany and Ludwig had come to England in the hope of making his fortune in what was one of the great financial capitols of the world. Being one of the nouveau rich, and an immigrant as well, Ludwig Messel naturally sort acceptance in the circles of established wealth. At the same time the British Empire had spread over the globe bringing with it discoveries back which in turn fuelled the search for more – not least in the form of plants.

This all came together so that by the latter part of the 19th century you had:

  • Rural Sussex with very good transport links to London.
  • Relatively cheap land.
  • An influx of new garden plants from abroad, notably the Far East.
  • An established wealthy class with a long history of horticultural innovation.
  • A class of new very wealthy and socially ambitious individuals.

This lead to a cluster of fine gardens in the area, but Nymans has two other advantages. One a new owner who not only rapidly developed a passion of gardening but who also developed an excellent horticultural knowledge and in addition an exceptional head gardener in James Comber who guided the garden from 1895 until his death in 1953 at the age of 87.

The garden benefited from advice and help from wide circle as a result of friendship, connections and marriage. This together with, in the early days at least, a ready supply of money created a melting pot of ideas. The many of new plants from around the world found a ready home in the garden where their hardiness and garden worthiness were assessed. This with the active plant exchanges with fellow garden owners and hybridisation created Nymans fame.

Ultimate the depletion of the family’s finances and the lack of skilled staff after the world wars meant a few months after James Comber’s death the house and gardens came into the possession of the National Trust. His successors have taken on the role of maintaining the garden rather than its development. The house is presently a boarded up ruin following its near complete destruction in a fire in 1947 and is likely to remain so without a very generous legacy, but the gardens remain as an excellent example of late Victorian gardening at its best.

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Pinetum Park & Pine Lodge Garden

Slave-garden-detail-at-Pine-Lodge-gardenThis is a private garden open to the public and one of the best modern gardens in the south west of England. It is far more of a garden than the nearby Eden Project or Lost Garden of Heligan and one of my favourite gardens of all time. It all started in 1976 when Ray and Shirley Clemo were looking for a property near their fruit and vegetable business. At the time the property consisted of a bungalow with an orchard and a couple of acres of land. Initially the intensions were modest but, as happens, one they started the project grew and grew!

The garden is in fact divided into 12 gardens each with a different feel but the separation ofJapanese-garden-detail-at-Pine-Lodge-garden individual areas is not as sharply defined as in Hidcote and Sissinghurst with one area being allowed to flow into the next. The bungalow is quiet modest and is easily lost in amongst the garden and its urban location, on the outskirts of Saint Austell, means it makes little use of the surrounding landscape so the garden has to be very self-contained. This is achieved by using the loose divisions between the garden areas to allow you to be drawn through the garden with a central or external focus. The enclosed mind-set of the garden and the restrained use of hard landscaping make the plants the focus of the garden and great effort is placed on naming as many as possible. Over 6000 named plants have made it extremely popular with garden visits and contra to what is claimed by the operators of some other nearby gardens do not in any way distract from the display but add to the pleasure for visiting gardeners.

Ill health finally forced Ray and Shirley Clemo to sell the garden and it is now owned and run by Chang Li who has managed very well to preserve the work of Ray and Shirley while expanding the gardens commercial side. The garden therefore remains an excellent example of garden design in the second half of the 20th century.

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Sissinghurst Castle

Sissinghurst_castleWhen Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson bought the ruined Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, along with its surrounding estate, Harold was initially hesitant until won over by its potential. And at that time potential was all the property really had as it was an uninhabitable wreak. Harold and Vita though quickly started to create plans and as both were practical gardeners by 1937 they already had sufficient of a garden to first open to the public. From these modest beginning they created one of the worlds most visited and written about gardens, at part due to Vita being an enthusiastic gardener by nature and a writer by profession. The couple had differing but complementary garden styles, with Harold more concerned more with the structure and symmetry, and Vita the planting but the two roles were not exclusive being more shades of the same colour.
The starting date of 1930 places it late in the Arts and Craft movement but they were Sissinghurst_borderstrongly influenced by, and meet, Lawrence Johnson at Hidcote, Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood and William Robinson. This contact with many of the leading lights of garden design at the time combined with the extensive travelling necessitated by Harold’s work as a diplomat early in their marriage and Vita sense of history to form a remakable garden. Largely the garden is broken up by walls and hedges to create a human scale as they are at Hidcote; but at Sissinghusrt the buildings, and particular the tower, form a focus for the separate areas of the garden and this whole then blends into the surrounding countryside. This contrasts with Hidcote where the house is relatively unimportant to the garden and the garden rooms work with avenues and vistas to draw in the surrounding countryside.


The white garden at Sissinghurst Castle.

One of the last of the areas in the garden to take its present form was one of the most influential; the white garden. In a small garden such a restrictive pallet would be unlikely to work but here it forms a cool and refreshing interlude to the strong colours elsewhere in the garden. Originally the rose garden it wasn’t started until after the war and is kept exclusively as green foliage and white flowers. It is tempting to draw comparisons with this economy of style with the economies the country was still experiencing through rationing but even with such a narrow pallet great variety is found.
The garden though was constantly a work in progress for them, with plans for areas beyond the present garden, right up to Vita’s death in 1962. Harold survived her by 6 years but her death broke him and by then the joint headgardeners Pam Schwerdt and Sissinghurst_castle_white_gSibylle Kreutzberger had become the garden’s custodians. The estate pasted to their younger son Nigel who, faced with large death duties, struck a deal where the estate passed to the National Trust in 1967 in lieu of the duty but allowed the family to continue its involvement in the running of the house and estate. Financially the estate is now in better health than it has been for a long time. Vita had a large inheritance which she poured into the property but money was often tight for them. From a design point the garden has not fundamentally changed, maintaining the spirit of Harold and Vita, making it now more of historical record of Harold and Vita’s garden style which is still influencing gardens today.

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Strawberry Hill


Horace Walpole first found Strawberry Hill in 1747 and having purchased the house in 1749 set about rebuilding it in the Gothic style with a garden that developed as the house did.  A very well connected and influential man of letters he was an important character in the development of gardens in the 19th century.

The house he built at Strawberry Hill is regarded as a classic example of Rocco regency design and the accompanying garden received a stream of visitors during Walpole’s life. Sadly, the garden was allowed to deteriorate over the years until virtually nothing was left and a large part of it was sold for building. In recent years a gardener has been appointed and volunteers marshalled with the hope of recreating at least part of the garden.

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The Eden Project

Eden_projectThe best way I can describe this is a plant zoo, as it falls in to a category of its own. It’s not a garden, though it does in some ways actually resemble a Victorian Municipal garden, but nor is it a botanical or physic garden. What it is, is a plant centred visitor attraction with the goal of informing people about the plants of the world and their importance to humanity. To do this Tim Smit and his team throw a great deal of technology, and other peoples’ money, at a worked out clay pit transforming it into a design show piece.  In this he has been very successful and his aim of using technology to both benefit and raise awareness of the environment are to be praised. Problem is somehow I don’t think he is a gardener at heart.

The mass ranks of formal plant displays and elaborate greenhouses showing plants from foreign climates growing in near natural conditions chime with the Victorian parks at their most formal. Married with the ethos of a heart felt wish to inform and educate the public leaves you with the strong sense of deja vu. All of this is very noble and shows there is a great managerial talent behind the Eden Project but the love is of the environment not horticulture. For all the money and praise the project has received any benefit to the art of gardening has been only collateral.

Though the Eden Project has been a great success, not least as a visitor attraction, the success has been more of reclamation and public entertainment than pushing back the boundaries of horticultural excellence.  In this respect it more like the garden festivals of the 1980s and early 1990s. These did provide a vehicle for some much needed urban regeneration and I hope the Eden Project can provide a vehicle for an increased awareness of the importance plants pay I the lives of humans.

The Forbidden Corner

Forbidden_corner#1This started simply enough when two friends decided that it would be nice to have somewhere to sit and enjoy the view down Coverdale. That was in 1989 and they are still building! The Forbidden Corner was never conceived as a public garden or visitor centre, it was and largely still is a private folly that has had the role forced onto it. It may not seem a garden in the traditional sense but it actually encapsulates many garden features with centuries of traditions. The idea of a sheltered seat to admire a view from can be traced back to the pleasure gardens of the middle ages, follies also have a long and illustrious history with many fine examples still with us from the 18th century, the use of hidden water jets to wet and shock guests have long been popular, mazes and trompe l’oeil have long been used to surprise and confuse visitors, and the shear self-indulgence of creating such a thing for your own amusement is one of the defining features of what a garden is.

Forbidden_corner#3Though often seen as about growing plants a garden is much more than simply that and the Forbidden Corner does an excellent job of illustrating that. Gardens are about pleasure, their history can be traced back to the pleasure grounds, and it is often forgotten that a garden must give pleasure to its creator and hopefully also its visitors, so by providing further pleasure for its creator.

Forbidden_corner#4In this garden though the creator has reversed the roles of plants and structure so that now the plants largely serve as a supporting cast while the hard landscaping provides the entrainment. Personally the role of the plants has been pushed a little too far to the back but still experience does an excellent job of reinforcing the message that gardens should be fun.


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The Lost Garden of Heligan

Lost_Garden_of_HeliganThis garden has received great praise but I’m not really sure why. My first reaction on visiting it, and one I haven’t change was “they dug up the body but they haven’t brought it back to life”. I think the problem is Tim Smit is extremely good at visitor attractions, and for that he should be admired, the problem is he’s not a gardener at heart. By training he is an archaeologist and anthropologist and this comes through in his treatment of the garden. Heligan is about the social history of the garden and not the horticultural history; as a result, the plants seem to get pushed to the background.

Heligan was never a terribly important garden historically, in part due to its geographical location. It’s heyday was the Victorian era, as with many gardens, and the Tremayne family who owned it managed to secure some very garden worthy plants for it. Unfortunately, the first World War and the social and political upheavals that followed it made the estate uneconomic; as was the case with so many of the large country house estates. The garden was therefore abandoned and the house ultimately converted into flats and sold off.

When the gardens were rediscovered by Tim Smit and John Willis in 1990 the gardens had been derelict for decades and the house was now separated from the garden. This is one of the main problems with garden. The house had been the focus of the gardens and this connection was irrevocably broken leaving a collection of disjoined bits of garden with nothing to pull them together to form a whole. Originally the garden was there to set the house and support it both visually and nutritionally but now the house is there but separate the result is disjointed. Some garden can survive this; at Nymans the house remains as a burnt out shell but is still eternally woven into the design and at Studley Royal the scale and strength of the design can stand on its own. Sadly, Heligan can’t pull this off. Possibly with a more horticulturally centred management the garden could be better, it took the National Trust quite a while to get to grips with looking after the gardens in its care and Heligan, because of the problem with house, will always be difficult; until then it won’t come to life for me.

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The Master’s Garden at Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick

Masters_Garden_WarwickThis is another one of those gardens that take a little finding, I only found it by serendipity, but it is worth the effort. Set in the middle of the Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick; it’s enclosure by medieval timber frame buildings gives it a sense of being old but no one seems clear about its origins. Parts are clearly old, there is an Egyptian urn in the garden which is listed and the site dates back to the 12th century but the garden in design feels much more contemporary.

Hospital in the title refers back to an earlier use of the word meaning “a charitable institution for the housing and maintenance of the needy, infirm or aged” and it can trace an unbroken history back to a chapel in 1136. It can therefore be guessed that gardening has occurred on this site over eight centuries as plants would be grown for the treatment of any sick visitors. The location of this is now lost but the concept of a peaceful area of greenery amongst the bustle of a town lives on with the present garden.

The garden as it is now, is a pleasant collection of features and make an oasis of calm in the bustling town centre. It therefore it is still serving an important function of the Hospital and its visitors.

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Trevarno gardens

Trevarno#1This garden is sadly no longer open to the public following its sale in 2011, but as I visited it in 2010 and it is a very attractive garden I’ve chosen to include it in any case. You never know it may reopen in the future, but that is purely speculation.

There has been a property on the site since at least 1246 and has passed through the hands of many notable owners. In 1874 the property was bought by William Bickford-Smith and the family retained the ownership until the estate was finally broken up and the house and gardens where sold and closed to the public. It was this family that are responsible for the appearance of the garden today. When William Bickford-Smith bought it the house already had a well-developed Georgian garden that he supplemented with the fashion of the day to create a merger of the Georgian and Victorian style, itself an important intermediate stage in the development of gardens.

Garden-detail-at-Trevarno-gardens-#-2The gardens included a lake (complete with listed boat house), grotto rockery, pinetum, lakeside terraces, a bog garden, Victorian walled garden, Italianate sunken garden, yew tunnel and woodland walk. It also provided a home for the National Gardening Museum which, though small, contained an interesting collection of displays. Sadly, I don’t know what became of the exhibits after the gardens closed to the public.

The best part of the gardens was thought the range of plants, many rare and tender, that the garden contained; helped by its very south-westerly location. These included rhododendrons, magnolias, flowering cherries and part of the national daffodil collection. What has become of these and the gardens in general I don’t know but hopefully they are being maintained and at some point in the future some form of public access will be allowed again.

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Wakehurst Place

Wakehurst_placeThough the house dates from the 16th century this is a 20th century garden dating from 1903 when Gerald Loder (later Lord Wakehurst) purchased the property until 1963 when Sir Henry Price bequeathed it to the nation. Two years later Kew Gardens leased if from the National Trust and they still run it. Covering an area of approximately 500 acres it allows Kew to grow a greater range of plants than it can accommodate in its 300 acre Kew Garden site.

Though a garden for the first half of the 20th century its management by Kew has meant it has become more of a living botanical collection. It is though very different in feel to the London site, part due to its size but particularly its rural location. It is a terrific resource with beds laid out of different species and cultivars for comparison.

Where Kew Gardens feels like an oasis of peace in the noise and rush of London Wakehurst Place has a more relaxed and informal feel. Though not a great garden in design terms it still is a very nice garden and a fantastic resource.

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