When 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 strongly 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 Sibylle 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.
Planting detail at Hampton Court
Over its 500 year history this was a royal palace for over 200 years from the Tudor through the Stuart and into the Hanover period. Each successive period saw the house and gardens develop with the combination of great wealth and a need to impress. At this time the monarchy set the style and the court followed. In an ironic twist George III decision to abandon Hampton Court as a palace allowed it to slip into a state of slumber as the house became grace and favour apartments and the garden was largely ignored until the 20th century. This meant a lot of the garden from the mid-18th century could be reconstructed in the 20th century as the land was still gardens and little had been done that couldn’t be undone.
The garden is in fact now a collection of different gardens each with its own history allowing to you see a collection of different periods of garden design side by side. More than that though it does have an excellent range of plants and a magnificent Broad Walk herbaceous border which at 580 metres long shows just how effective a herbaceous border can be. Also worth mentioning is the bedding to the east of the palace and the rose garden to the east which is a modern use of that part of the garden. Both are styles of planting now sadly seen less and less due to fashion, cost and practicality.
Sculpture on the cascade at Chatsworth House
One of the most famous gardens in England due to having to of its most impressive water features the Cascade and the Emperor Fountain. There is much more to the gardens than these and you could easily spend a full day going around the gardens and still not see it all. When you do go round them it is important to bear in mind you are in fact seeing the present incarnation of the gardens as this has been the site of a grand garden since the Elizabethan times and is still being developed by the present owners. This long history of occupation by one family has seen a complex garden develop with parts from over four century of garden styles, helped by the sheer scale at over 100 acres. This scale means large features have room without anything over bearing the garden or its neighbouring features. Thus though the cascade though very large doesn’t in any way over shadow the garden and seen in context it is just one facet of the bigger picture.
Planting details at Great Dixter
This was the home of one of the last centuries greatest garden thinks and writers, centred on a property remodelled and extended by Edward Luytens for his parents this was the lifelong home of Christopher Lloyd. Though initially he inherited the garden from his parents it became the practical extension of Lloyds thought experiments in horticulture. Christopher Lloyd was a plantsman first and foremost and this is demonstrated by the gardens reliance on plants with little importance in its layout to hard landscaping. His parents were very much of the Arts and Craft movement but he took this forward creating a plant centred garden at odds with the “outdoors Room” style which tends to prevail with its heavy reliance on paving and gravel.
With his death in 2006 the house and gardens passed to a charitable trust, he never married or had children, and his head gardener is now responsible for the garden. The nursery he ran from the garden is still trading and there is a continuity so the gardens future financially seems very sound. The question has to be what happens to the garden in the longer term, during Christopher Lloyd’s life it was in a constant state of development as he tried out new ideas but with his death that driving force has gone so is it to remain preserved as a lasting monument and national-trustified or will some very brave individual take it on evolve it into a new form; something a trust could never do.
The reflecting pond at Hidcote
Few gardens have had the impact that Hidcote Manor has had and this is reflected in that not only was it the first garden to be acquired by the National Trust on the garden alone merit but it passed to the Trust prior to its creators death. Divided into compartments by hedges to form individual gardens it could become claustrophobic and inward looking but this is prevented by the use of vistas and borrowed views of the surrounding open countryside.
Much is said of the structure of the garden but Lawrence Johnson was a plantsman at heart and this structure was merely there to display the plants he gathered around him. Like all great gardens this was very much one man’s obsession; Johnson never married and was a quiet man about which little is known. His gardening philosophy he never discussed or recorded so why he design the garden in the way it is we can only speculate on bases in the garden he left.
Hidcote is very much a one off which you can comfortably spend hours exploring and which no one has successfully reproduced. It is often held up as an example of how dividing up a garden makes a small garden bigger but this shows a lack of understanding of how the garden works. For a start the gardens cover about 10 acres so each room can be on a human scale, which a smaller area would not allow. Also the garden makes use of long vistas out into the surrounding countryside.
Bog garden detail at Hillier garden
This garden started out as a small garden around the home of the late Sir Harold Hillier, of Hillier Nurseries. Here he set out to create as large a collection of woody plants that could be grown outdoors in southern England as he could and as the head of Hillier Nurseries, with its vast plant list, he had a good start. The garden has now grown to 180 acres and is now run as a trust by Hampshire County Council.
Initially referred to as a garden and arboretum it is far more than a living collection and covers all forms of ornamental plants. The gardens were very much Hillier’s belief of what a garden should be and that was to show off the beauty of plants. The garden is therefore the result of the rare combination of a passion for plants, a vast horticultural knowledge and the resources to bring his vision to reality.
The garden manages to be both a stunning garden and a valuable horticultural resource full of rare and important plants, holding several national collections.
Built in the 1620’s, the hall it is typically Tudor in appearance, and occupied up to middle of the 20th century by which time the house and gardens were derelict. The gardens themselves did not appear to be developed until the end of the 18th century when the road was moved away from the house and the parkland to the north and east of the house was screened from the road by a wall of knapped cobbles. The wall is still present and cobbles, knapped or not, are a common building material in the area.
A map 1839 shows the house and outbuildings set in parkland with woodlands and a lake formed from damming the Kiplin Beck to form fish ponds. By the1860’s the garden boasted an extensive plant list and the 19th centre also saw a new drive leading through the parkland to a lodge which is still on the Scorton to Nothallerton road, although the drive has long gone. The entrance to the front of the house was further improved by the addition the existing grand gate way and lime avenue. Most of the hedging also date from this time and by the end of the century the garden had probably reached its peak.
Like many Victorian gardens it was to prove unsustainable and by the 21st century only the major structural elements could be found. Fortunately a local group of volunteers where able to take charge of the property and with help from the grants and the earnings from the gravel rights have begun to return the gardens to their Victorian appearance.
At present the gardens are still in the early stages but are showing great promise notably in the walled vegetable garden and the front of the house. The rear now has a large lake formed from the extraction of gravel but this has been sympathetically landscaped and the gothic styled folly, believed to date from the mid-18th century or early 19th century, has been preserved now looks over the lake.
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.
The Palm House Kew Gardens
Formally called the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew the gardens are said to have begun in 1759 when Princess Augusta started constructing a 9 acre garden around Kew Palace, though there may well have been some garden around the palace before this. It has now grown to over 300 acres in one of the world’s biggest cities.
Kew is where horticulture and botany overlap and merge. As well as being a stunning garden this is a vast living collection of plants from all around the world many of which reached the west via Kew. If you are looking for to find what a specific plant looks like you can go onto the Kew Gardens website and see if they are growing it and where, alternatively you can trust to serendipity and allow the garden to inspire you.
Although not really a “garden” it is one of the finest living collections of plants in the world and therefore worth several visits by anyone interested in plants.
Sculpture at Brodsworth Hall
Situated just 6 miles North West of Doncaster this is a garden you will find or hear little about which is a great shame as it is an excellent example of a garden of a wealthy English gentlemen in the mid-19th century. Funded as a result of a most peculiar will, the house and grounds were created for Mr Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson in the 1860s and as a result of remaining the house remaining in the same family, all be it with a decreasing ability to afford it upkeep, meant it remained virtually untouched from the manner Charles Thellusson left it in.
This unusual history means we are left a rare glimpse of what a mid-Victorian garden might of look like. I say “might of” not as a criticism of its present owns English Heritage, who have done an excellent job of restoring the house and gardens, but because it is just one person’s garden and therefore their personal view of what a garden should look like at that time.
As it was Charles Thellusson chose what has been described as an Italianate style, with grass terraces linked by steps to the north and west elevations of the house along with the extensive use of statuary in the classical style. The house is not visible from the gates and is revealed as you approach it along a sweeping drive through a large lawn, in the manner of the early landscape movement but greatly scaled down. The majority of the garden lies to the north and east with a rose garden, rockery, bedding, topiary and wild garden each in its own allotted area. 50 years later the idea of compartmentalising a garden into areas or rooms fully matured with the creation of Hidcote.
Bodsworth Hall therefore shows a step in the evolution of the English garden from the sweeping vistas of the landscape movement towards what would become the arts and crafts gardens in the early part of the 20th century as gardens sort to accommodate the influx of plants from around the world.