Sunday, 2 November 2014

Great British landscapes - Stourhead in Wiltshire

The Palladian bridge at Stourhead, with the Pantheon in the background
On arrival at Stourhead, you would be forgiven for thinking that this magnificent landscape garden was created by one of the two men who changed the face of landscape design in Britain in the 18th century – William Kent or ‘Capability’ Brown – but it was actually created by a man who belonged to a banking empire, Henry Hoare, with the help of his architect, Henry Flitcroft. And whilst the latter Henry was a colleague of William Kent, he was by no means an established landscape garden designer when work began on the gardens here.
The lake at Stourhead, created by Henry Hoare and Henry Flitcroft in the mid-18th century
The 18th century saw sweeping changes in garden design when William Kent introduced the new concept of landscapes into the imposing English country house vernacular. And although he was more an architect than a gardener, word soon spread about his grand designs at Stowe, Chiswick House and Rousham. Prior to this parterres, hedging and flowers had been fashionable and no English designer had thought to complement the landscape with classical buildings and statuary.
The Temple of Apollo sits high above the lake at Stourhead and offers spectacular views over the water
Architectural detail on the Temple of Apollo

Henry Hoare (who is often referred to a Henry 'the magnificent') had travelled extensively in Europe before settling at the Palladian house, designed by Colen Campbell and built for his father in about 1720. He was well acquainted with both foreign architecture and many of the great European landscape painters. On his return to England, his intention was to create a formidable panorama in the grounds of the country house he had inherited and when work began in the mid 18th century he set about creating the huge lake that forms the centrepiece of the grounds at Stourhead today.
    The lake was created by damming the River Stour and whilst work continued on the buildings in the garden, which include the pillared Temple of Flora (1744), the Temple of Apollo and The Pantheon, Henry was also busy planting the trees that make this landscape so spectacular and creating the pathways that wind through both the wooded areas and alongside the water.
     It was his grandson, Richard Colt Hoare, who introduced many new plant species to the estate in the first half of the 19th century. His legacy includes tulip trees, Indian bean trees and swamp cypresses, as well as copper beaches and many of the rhododendrons that provide spectacular spring colour in the garden. Subsequent generations of the Hoare family added to the planting during their time at the property and when Sir Henry Hoare eventually gave the estate to the National Trust in 1946, the garden, which was already recognised as one of the finest landscapes in Britain, was well established and renowned for its specimen trees.
The Pantheon seen from the woods below the main house
Stourhead is not a garden to gallop around. It's a landscape to be savoured and is particularly lovely in the autumn, when the leaves are turning and also in wintertime when you can really see the structure of the landscape through the bare trees. It attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually and, to enjoy the garden at its best, you are well advised to visit as early in the day as possible to avoid the crowds, particularly when the leaves are changing colour. 
Part of Stourhead's charm is the magnificent views across the man-made lake
One of the best routes around the garden is from the top path by the main house, which allows you to catch memorable glimpses of the Temple of Apollo and The Pantheon and panoramic views of the lake below as you walk down through the trees. Do make the effort to climb up to the Temple of Apollo, for more magical glances of this Arcadian landscape created by the two Henry's - owner and architect - nearly 300 years ago. Allow at least half a day to see everything, to savour the buildings and to enjoy the statues and finer architectural details. 
The Palladian Bridge glimpsed from the grotto
The gardens at Stourhead are open daily throughout the year (except Christmas Day) 9.00-17.00. Entrance is free to National Trust members. Check website for house opening times and prices. Another memorable garden nearby is Chiffchaffs - a cottage garden on a very different scale and only open during the summer months.

Friday, 24 October 2014

National Trust snubs Sir Roy Strong and turns down his garden. Will The Laskett be lost to the nation forever?

The Laskett is the largest formal garden to be created in England since the end of World War II
The gardening world is so often considered to be gentle and unassuming. We all watch wonderfully crafted television programmes where presenters walk us through other people’s horticultural havens; we listen to Gardeners’ Question Time on the radio and we gloat over gardening magazines that highlight the best possible views of horticultural heavens encapsulated in colourful photographs.

Sir Roy Strong at home at The Laskett in 2014
So when Sir Roy Strong announced that he intended to “destroy” his garden – The Laskett – created during a rewarding and enduring 30-year marriage to his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, both press and public reacted with a sense of shock. The news broke in early October with several national newspapers telling readers that the National Trust had turned down Sir Roy’s invitation to leave his garden to them for the nation to enjoy, because it failed to meet "strict acquisition criteria". 

The gardens at The Laskett in Herefordshire are the largest private formal gardens to be created in England since the end of World War II. Sir Roy had planned to leave the property to the National Trust with a substantial endowment (and to avoid confusion for my overseas readers, it needs to be explained that most properties acquired by this well-known British institution are left on this basis, so that it is not just the property that passes to the nation under their stewardship, but also sufficient funds to make sure that it is self-supporting until the entrance fees make it a viable business proposition).
The Laskett is a series of garden rooms with strong emphasis on topiary
But the National Trust turned his offer down. And, Sir Roy, who is no stranger to the public eye, having been the youngest ever director of the National Portrait Gallery at 32 and who then moved on to redefine the Victoria and Albert Museum as an must-see London venue, rather than a red-brick building housing an extensive collection of artifacts, responded by announcing that his four-acre garden would be “destroyed” one year after his death.  
The Laskett is a series of vistas that draw you in
With just one year to go before he becomes an octogenarian, Sir Roy is well able to make his own decisions and on hearing that his garden had failed to reach the required standards of “historic and national importance” required by the National Trust, he responded by saying he would extinguish many of the notable garden features that he and his wife had created during their marriage at their Herefordshire home.
The garden created by Roy and his wife Julia was once a four-acre field
Just before the Sunday Times broke the story, Sir Roy was interviewed on the popular radio programme Desert Island Disks, where host Kirsty Young was able to pick up on some of the feistier aspects of a remarkable man and self-confessed monarchist who has variously “stormed the establishment” and spent the whole of his life “fleeing his family” and humble origins. His determination to succeed guided him into the spotlight throughout his career, and in 1983 he was knighted. Today he is a household name and respected historian, as well as a committed gardener.
Sir Roy's home at the heart of The Laskett in Herefordshire. It is not open to the public.
The Laskett is a garden that rarely opened to the public until Sir Roy felt strong enough to face the world alone as a widower. There are many poignant memories of Julia in the sylvan landscape, including an urn that houses her ashes. But it has rarely been accessible to the general public and when Julia died in 2003, the garden was only on show to the privileged few lucky enough to join private tours.  Then Strong decided to live up to his surname and re-invented both himself and his garden, opening his doors couple of years back to groups of visitors.
Sir Roy has threatened to "destroy" The Laskett, which he created with his late wife Julia over 30 years
I have visited The Laskett several times and have always enjoyed my forays into the garden. It’s a wonderful eclectic mix of garden rooms interwoven with statuary and artifacts acquired by Roy and Julia during their three decades of marriage. It certainly has its critics, but also its fans including Prince Charles who asked him to become involved with the topiary at Highgrove, where he not only helped to design and style the hedges, but also spent several years cutting and shaping them.
Strong is no stranger to topiary - he helped Prince Charles with the hedging at Highgrove
Stephen Lacey describes The Laskett as “one of the most important and interesting gardens of the 20th century”. Most garden enthusiasts have heard of the garden and many would welcome the chance to see it, so it is a great disappointment that the nation will not now have the opportunity to enjoy a slice of history created by a venerable historian who is also a household name in Britain.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wordless Wednesday - Autumn colours at RHS Wisley

We've been blessed with so many sunny days recently in between the rainstorms and Britain's gardens are overflowing with autumn colours. Family illness has severely curtailed my galloping this year, but RHS Wisley is looking magnificent at the moment and has the added benefit of being extremely wheelchair friendly. I went with a dear friend earlier this week and we had a delightful day there, made entirely possible by borrowing a wheelchair at the entrance gate.
And to see glorious autumn colours at Westonbirt, pop over to Veg Plotting and feast your eyes on Michelle's pictures.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Wordless Wednesday - Autumn colours at Parham House, Sussex

The walled gardens at Parham House (just a short drive from London, between Storrington and Pulborough on the A272) are filled with autumn colour right now - and there's a special "Autumn Foraging" event this Sunday, 28th September. Open 10.30 - 17.00 Entrance to house and gardens is £10 for adults and £5 for children (under fives free).

Thursday, 18 September 2014

La Bambouseraie - an extraordinary plant collection that's survived the test of time

The story of La Bambouseraie  - the oldest cultivated bamboo garden in Europe – located in southern France is fascinating. This plant haven houses in excess of 200 bamboo species, plus some 800 plants and trees, including champion specimens – quercus and magnolia and an astounding collection of oak trees - hidden in a valley near Anduze in the southern region. For plant and garden lovers, this is comparable to a day out at a major theme park for a child!
This extraordinary garden was created by Eugene Mazel over a 40-year period in the 19th century. He was born locally in 1828, but was orphaned as a young child and entrusted into his uncle’s care. As a teenager, he became fascinated by plants and, when he later inherited his uncle’s huge fortune, added to by his own earnings as a successful spice merchant, he created La Bambouseraie at Prafrance, where work began in 1855. As his collection of bamboo and other rare species grew, he became one of the most respected botanists in Southern France.
Sadly his life was to end in tragedy and in 1890 he became bankrupt and was forced to leave his lifetime’s work behind. He later died in Marseilles in abject poverty. But in 1902, another passionate plant lover purchased the estate – Gaston Negre – who, with the help of one of Mazel’s former gardeners, started restoring the recently-neglected property at Prafrance. In 1953 Negre opened the estate to the public for the first time and by 1958 visitor numbers had exceeded 20,000 annually. 
But tragedy was to strike again when the local river – the Gardon – flooded and caused considerable damage to the estate and the plants growing there. Two years later, Maurice Negre who had taken over the running of La Bambouseraie from his father, was killed in a car crash.Yet the family endured all these disasters and today the garden is run by Muriel Negre, daughter of Maurice. It is a major tourist attraction and people visit from all over the world. Diversity is certainly the key to its success because it offers a very different experience to the classical chateau gardens so often associated with France.
At the heart of the garden there's a Laotian village (above), constructed by a committed staff member who worked on the estate, which faithfully replicates the layout of a Laos village, complete with endemic planting. In South-East Asia, bamboo is a major feature of both the economy and the construction of local homes, and any visitor to La Bambouseraie could be forgiven for thinking they were far from home when walking through this bamboo village.
One of the more surprising features of this garden is the Dragon Valley (above), created for the new Millennium – a charming landscape at the heart of La Bambouseraie which comes into its own in autumn when the acers change colour.  Conceived to mark the year of the dragon in Chinese cosmogony, this garden is filled with Japanese maples, a pavilion, and the red entrance archways associated with gardens in the Far East. 
Most visitors will agree that the majesty of this garden is easy to see. It has a remarkable collection of plants; offers extraordinary visual appeal; and affords some amazing photographic opportunities. Remember to look up when you are here because the intermittent light shining through the dense bamboo forest plays wonderful tricks.This is a veritable plant theme park that has survived several tragedies and today carries the coveted French “Jardins Remarquables” label.
La Bambouseraie is open from 1 March to 15 November. Check the website here for details and prices. Certainly one for the wishlist!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Windcliff - Dan Hinkley's wondrous waterview garden in Washington

View of Mount Rainier and Seattle skyline from Windcliff
With a view like this, who could consider living anywhere else? This is what you see when you visit Dan Hinkley's magical garden overlooking Mount Rainier in Washington. On a clear day, the volcano appears to be suspended in the sky and when you first see it, you wonder whether it's an optical illusion. Combine this with the astounding blue sea of the Puget Sound on a summer's day and you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd gone to heaven.
The house at Windcliff, designed by Hinkley's architect partner, Robert Jones
Hinkley is well known in horticultural circles as an intrepid plant hunter, public speaker, author and creator of one of America's greatest woodland gardens just a few miles away in Washington state - Heronswood - which I was also lucky enough to visit on my recent trip to the US. But Windcliff could not possibly be more different. This is a personal odyssey for Dan and his architect partner and they have spent the last seven years creating a house that fits unobtrusively into the surrounding landscape and a garden that takes full advantage of its unique setting.
Windcliff sits on an exposed hilltop overlooking the Puget Sound
It would be hard to imagine a landscape so different to Heronswood, where shade-loving plants thrive under a forest canopy. Windcliff sits on a hilltop and is exposed to the elements and Hinkley has spent time considering what plants will compliment both climate and location. The result is a magical combination of trees, shrubs and grasses interspersed with drifts of perennials that flower throughout the summer months. The evergreen element here is vital to the winter landscape, when the sun can remain behind clouds for months on end.  
Eastern prayer flags add to the intensely sensory experience at Windcliff,  providing colour and sound
As you enter the five-acre garden, you will be struck by the huge number of unusual shrubs, but it is the area overlooking the sea and Mount Rainier beyond that unfolds in front of the house that will imprint itself in your memory. It unfolds like an Impressionist painting,with bold brush strokes of colour, drawing you into its midst and on to the seascape beyond. In high summer, there are great swathes of agapanthus and gladioli, adding bright colour to the grassy palette.
A strategically-placed firepit at Windcliff, designed by mosaic artist Jeff Bale
The house, designed by Dan Hinkley's long-standing partner - architect, Robert Jones - blends into this landscape perfectly and is designed to give the best views of the garden and ocean beyond. There are terraces facing Mount Rainier and I can't think of anywhere better to enjoy the view in the company of this fascinating couple, who have spent the last eight years creating Windcliff as a private sanctuary. 
Hinkley still spends time at Heronswood, in his capacity as director and advisor to the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe who acquired the property in 2012, but Windcliff is so different that it's hard to believe both gardens were created by the same man. This is a garden for sun-loving plants, whereas Heronswood is famous for its shady palette. But if you're lucky enough to see both properties, you'll realise that Dan is a talented plantsman, who not only travels the world in search of plants but who also knows what to plant and where.
Windcliff is occasionally open to the public, as is Heronswood and details can be found on Dan Hinkley's website. For me, this visit was the zenith of a wonderful trip to the Pacific Northwest earlier this summer and this garden, in particular, will always stick in my memory as one of my favourites. It is a combination of skilful planting and incredible views that I shall never forget.