Of all the landscape parks of England, Stowe is perhaps the most typical of the tradition which it represents

–Dame Sylvia Crowe,  Garden Design

Stowe - The Temple of Venus.
Stowe – The Temple of Venus.

Stowe is rightly regarded as a defining example of an English Landscape Garden. Though not as beautiful as Stourhead; it is better than any other garden at capturing the spirit of this school of garden design.  It was effectively constructed in the 18th century and was the product of the century’s great garden designers. Sadly, subsequent development has meant the garden can no longer be truly seen as its creators intended but its structure still shines through.

This is a garden built to impress, and it does! The approach to the house starts proper at the village of Buckingham two and a third miles from the house with the one and half mile long, dead straight, tree lined Stowe Avenue. As you approach the house up Stowe Avenue the view of it through the Corinthian Arch changes as the road follows the undulations of the countryside and having arrived at the arch the visitor can view the vast house across open country and a lake but, true to the spirit of the English Landscape school, they must wait to explore this Elysian Field. Instead they were taken west around the outer edge of the garden only being allowed glimpses of the house and garden as they are taken in a long arc to the house entrance at the north. Unfortunately, and annoyingly common, you no longer approach the gardens as the creators intended but this access can still be walked if you feel energetic or followed on Google Street View if you’re not. You now approach the garden by turning east at the Corinthian Arch and enter though the New Inn where the National Trust has set up its carpark and shops before walking down to an entrance by the West Pavilion.

Stowe - the house viewed over the lake.
Stowe – the house viewed over the lake.

This is the problem with the garden, the garden is no longer approached as intended, the house and some of the grounds have be taken over by a private school with its own needs and a large chunk of best part of the garden has become a private Golf Course. In a perfect world, the whole house and garden would be reunited and the approach reworked to return it to much nearer to the original intention. This is unfortunately unlikely to happen as the National Trust is hard pushed to fund the upkeep of what it has at Stowe

The idea behind this school of design was the creation of the Elysian Fields by the subtle manipulation of the English countryside which was then presented and viewed in a controlled way. So, successful was this at Stowe it is now often to distinguish where nature stopped and man took control. It was a rebellion against the more formal French style and lead to many fine examples both in the UK and the continent being destroyed, but far better suited the English countryside in which it was situated. It also reflects a growing confidence in England with greater political stability and economic prosperity.

Stowe - The Palladian Bridge.
Stowe – The Palladian Bridge.

This great wealth allowed gardens to be created on a truly lavish scale and Stowe was furnished with a very large number of garden buildings and ornaments; nearly all for pure decorative purposes and those from necessity were lavishly ornamented. This is perhaps the problem with the English Garden School; however beautiful and well-crafted a Greece temple has no place in an English countryside. It clearly looks contrived. Beautiful, stunning: but still contrived. That is not to say Stowe is not a great delight to walk around and marvel at: it is without question. It can never though totally blend in with its surrounding countryside and its reliance on quite a narrow range of plants lead to the style giving way to a more plant centred one as the Victorians looked to show off the new plant introductions flooding into the country from the rest of the world.

Biddulph Grange

Biddulph Grange, looking over towards the china garden.
Biddulph Grange, looking over towards the china garden.

The gardens at Biddulph Grange were the creation of James Bateman (1811- 1897), though what you see today is the product of one of  the greatest garden restoration programmes undertaken. James Bateman moved into the property in 1840, two years after his marriage to Maria Egerton Warburton, and was in the fortunate position of starting with a blank canvas. On this site, he created what was at the time a truly original garden. He divided up his grounds into a series of separately themed gardens show casing a range of themes. The rear of the house faces roughly south of south-west and as nearly all of house has been divided up to flats and sold off the garden is entered via extreme west end of the house and into the Italianate garden. This starts a journey through a whole range of garden styles.

Biddulph Grange china garden detail.
Biddulph Grange china garden detail.

This was more though than just experimenting with styles; it was about Bateman’s vision of creation and man’s place in the order of things. Like many of his generation he was a creationist and passionately believed heaven and earth were the creation of God for Man. Though rightly a highly-regarded botanist he could never accept Darwin and Wallace’s theories of evolution which burst onto the world in 1859. The garden was originally entered through a corridor at the east end of the house and this was decorated to show Bateman’s vision of how the emerging knowledge of fossils could be blended with the account of creation in Genius.

His belief in God’s divine order is further reflected in this desire to place the new plant introductions he filled his garden in appropriate locations with a Himalayan garden for rhododendrons and Chinese garden for plants from the orient. This leads to a garden of individual areas or zones each with its own identity; at the time, a new original approach to garden design.



Though there has been some form of building on this site from the middle ages what is visible today is the result of work from the 18th century up to the late 20th century as the property passed through a convoluted chain of inheritance. The structure of the garden dates from 1728 when Sir Walter Calverley Blackett inherited the house and estate. He developed it in the contemporary style which was evolving into what became known as the landscape movement.

The gardens themselves could not be called truly of the landscape style but elements of it are there. The grounds rely largely on grassland and woods with little decorative planting and contain a number of follies and other buildings including a Palladian style bridge but it lacks the bold sweeping statements that the style was to come to represent. The great proponent of that movement, ‘Capability’ Brown, was actually born very nearby but while he may well have been aware of the property there is no know proof that he had any direct involvement it its design.

The walled garden at Wallington.
The walled garden at Wallington.

Over this structure are Victorian influences that have shaped the garden as fashions changed, leaving a garden which has a largely woodland feel to it. If you walk east through the woods, you come to what was the kitchen garden. Originally this was to supply the house with food but on inheriting the property in 1886 Sir George Otto Trevelyan developed it into an ornamental garden which was strongly influenced by the then Arts and Crafts movement. The walled garden fell into disrepair, partly due to the wars, and so it was redesigned in the 1960’s and early 1970’s by Graham Stuart Thomas, working for the national trust, but still in the Arts and Craft style.

A seat in the walled garden at Wallington.
A seat in the walled garden at Wallington.

The walled garden is what today we would see as the most ornamental part of the garden but it does feel out of keeping with the remainder as it shares very little in terms of style with the remainder of the garden and is stuck on the very east edge of the garden, a good 500 metres from the house as the crow flies.

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.


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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Alnwick Garden

Alnwick_gardensThis is not a garden; but a visitor attraction, not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with visitor attractions per se. A garden though is created as a personal folly in purely personal search for pleasure through the manipulation of nature, l can’t help but feel the motivation for Alnwick Garden was of a far more financial nature. That aside; the garden doesn’t work as a garden.  The centre piece is the large and very elaborate waterfeature which is far too big for the site and is only missing the Disney Princess Castle at the top. Any large cascading water feature is going be compared to the Chatsworth cascade but if that was the inspiration behind this one the creator clearly didn’t understand how the one at Chatsworth worked. Any garden water feature has to be in scale with its surroundings and add to them not try to visually swap them. Why it was seen fit to chlorinate the water I don’t know but the smell of chlorine assails you before you reach the water. Such a move prevents any aquatic life, plant or animal, surviving in the water feature which says a lot about the attitudes of the people behind it.

The other dominant feature is the “poison garden” and much is make of the dangers this garden contains. The whole thing it treated with great drama even though most of the plants are common and normal practices, like washing your hands before eating and not eating any plants you are not sure of, have protected us all from for years. Somewhere behind the showmanship there are one or more valid messages but they are drowned out by the ringmaster!

There is no doubt that Alnwick Gardens are controversial, you only have to mention it to an UK nurseryman to see their blood pressure rise, the important question is; has it done anything to assist the development of gardens and the plants grown in them? Personally I can’t see it, which is a shame as the site has plenty of potential and a lot of money was spent on it.