In a normal summer, during non-pandemic-times, I’d be rattling around in England and in Italy, continuing my explorations of landscapes, architecture, art, cultural history and gardens. But now, in year 2020, the more I’m forced to settle into covid-avoidance-immobility, the more
vivid my house-and-garden-bound days here in rural New Hampshire are becoming; this because I’m compelled to pay closer attention to my surroundings. Really SEEING and savoring, and then flexibly responding to every granule of existence is exactly the approach I’ve always used while traveling and adapting to foreign lands. It’s taken this planet-wide nightmare to instruct me to finally apply that same lucidity to my NON-traveling days, and I’ve begun to develop the patience that’ll be required for me to remain strong, and kind, as horrors beset the World.
My list of the Best Gardens of the Cotswolds and Nearby Regions has been a long time in the making. This DIARY is reference material, to be bookmarked, and then browsed, as pangs of travel-longing afflict you.
But is our contemplation of the beauties of English gardens relevant and seemly, while hundreds of millions of people are suffering and in mortal danger? Of course it is. Whenever we’re outdoors, our animal-spirits mend, and our hopes revive. During this era of the plague, if we cannot be physically present in the wonderful places that I’ll soon show you, we can at least appreciate their splendors while we look forward to a time when we’ll be free to travel, and all of these gardens will once again be open.
I’ve been producing DIARIES FOR ARMCHAIR TRAVELERS now for 12 years: first presented by New York Social Diary, and since 2012 published under my own steam. From the moment I began to compile my travel photos and compose accompanying narratives, I felt my furrowed brow relaxing, and the fraught strands of my life unsnarling. Although the purpose of my travelogues has always been primarily to share news of places that exemplify the best creative energies of human beings, with each act of DIARY-making, my widely-cast net of interests have also organized themselves into a graceful and rational Whole, where there are no more than six degrees of separation between my multitudes of lifelong obsessions.
When I was eight, I began an album of postcards — mostly received from my father — called “Beautiful Places & Nature.” E.B.Quick spent most weeks away, traveling to far-off places for his work, and I craved glimpses of the wonders that I knew he MUST have been seeing!
Although I had no vocabulary then to describe my discontent, I found suburban existence during the late 1950s and early 60s to be sterile and suffocating; my outings were only to school, an occasional movie (BLISS), and to shopping malls. We moved constantly, from my California birthplace, to Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Only my visits with relatives in the Bay Area, or in Princeton, New Jersey sustained me: in those two locales I saw things which confirmed my notion that people doing interesting work
in beautiful places did indeed exist.
In San Francisco, my mother’s sister Audrey Sochor and her husband Arthur took me to the Japanese Tea Garden, Conservatory of Flowers, the DeYoung, the Academy of Sciences, and Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, and we never missed stopping at Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts near the Marina. On the East Coast, during my frequent stays in Princeton with my grandparents Nellie and Clifford Quick, our days were filled with journeys to museums, historical sites and parks, to working farms and to grand gardens (sadly, New Jersey, once known as the “Garden State” is no longer an agricultural paradise). And my architect grandfather, who worked for the University, would always
take me to see the buildings where he’d overseen the construction…most notably the Chapel.
Perhaps more importantly, he allowed me at a tender age complete access to his trove
of architecture books. Although he was a Beaux-Arts-trained architect, his library was full of monographs on modern masters like Le Corbusier, Gropius, van der Rohe, Breuer, and Aalto. At age 10, after I’d returned from another idyllic visit with my worldly relatives, I grimly announced to my mother: “I see nothing has changed.” My parents must have found it unrewarding to have me around. Biding my time until adulthood—when I could begin to refashion my life—was always the goal. Inevitably, several decades passed until the actualities of my existence began to catch up with my dreams.
During all of the summers when I’ve been lucky enough to wander across England and Italy, I’ve never taken for granted the sheer miracle of the ways in which all the pieces of my travel puzzles have smoothly fitted together. Now, in this period of stillness, I am extra appreciative of that freedom of movement.
Finally: With apologies for my extended Preamble, I’ll begin our Tour of some of England’s
most wonderful Gardens! [Note: The contact information provided for each Garden is from pre-covid-times.]
For a decade now, I’ve spent a month or more during the warmer seasons of each year wandering through England’s gardens. Although my own in-depth explorations of English gardens began in Kent (which is often called “The Garden of England”) most Americans who aspire to visit gardens in the United Kingdom start by dreaming about Cotswolds locations. For several years, Readers have been asking me which Cotswolds gardens should be included on their itineraries; these requests have prompted me to reassess and rank the gardens that are rooted in the hills and plains of England’s central and western counties.
Most garden-hunters, propelled by their own sensibilities, go looking for a particular style of garden. However, after having studied hundreds of gardens, my own tastes have broadened: these days, what I most want is to be surprised–and then instructed–by gardens that have been fashioned in ways that fire my imagination. In the Cotswolds and nearby regions an encyclopedic array of gardens created over the past 300+ years can be found (the most venerable destination on our Tour will be the Dutch-style water gardens of Westbury Court, laid out between 1696 and 1705). Whether you’re hankering after vast parklands, topiaries, follies, charming cottages, manor houses, parterres, labyrinths, plant collections, arboreta, antique gardens, contemporary creations, watery extravaganzas, or displays of statuary, within England’s four adjacent counties of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and northern Wiltshire, you’ll discover improbably huge concentrations of Garden Treasure.
I’ve chosen each of the following 19 gardens because all of the creators of these places have designed singular environments. These gardens, with their powerful and different personalities, are all so CLEAR about what they want to be—so stylistically certain of their Individual Selves—and are all so confidently settled upon their particular locations, that none could be mistaken for being any OTHER garden.
The excellence of these intentional landscapes, which range from compact to sprawling, exists because the garden-designers (& each must certainly have been guided by a personal muse…) have woven together myriad elements (of plants, trees, soil, water, structures, sculpture, and hardscapes) to form inspiring and unforgettable spaces which become worlds unto themselves. Whatever your garden-preferences may be, my illustrations of at least some of these gardens will be sufficient to entice you to fetch your suitcase…and yes, that’s ONE suitcase, not two (packing lightly equals flexibility, but I’ve preached about this, many times).
For an overview of our tour, yet another of my hand-drawn maps:
One of the ways I stay healthy during an extended time away from home is to choose a comfortable basecamp; my Own Personal Basecamp Nirvana has been achieved by staying at The Old Parsonage Hotel, in Oxford (which, for the purposes of this garden-tour, is also centrally located). The farthest-flung of the 19 destinations on my garden-map are no more than a 90 minute drive from Oxford (at least, on days when England’s Traffic Gods are smiling).
Simply put: The Old Parsonage is the best-run Hotel I’ve encountered, in England.
In terms of design sophistication, location, dining rooms, amenities, and customer care, the Old Parsonage is operating at top-form. I travel a lot and so have much basis for comparison. In past visits to Oxford, I’d stayed at the Old Parsonage’s sister-hotel, the Old Bank (which is very nice), but during the summer of 2018 I decided to try the Old Parsonage, which I discovered to be a superior lodging-place. The Old Parsonage has two lovely outdoor dining terraces, a cozy indoor dining room, and a modern library and reading room which opens onto an elegant garden terrace. The core of the Old Parsonage was built in 1660, and the front entryway, which leads from the Banbury Road walled dining terrace into the Reception Hall, is still the same 358-year-old heavy oak door, complete with its original hinges and door nails. Various wings of the Hotel have been added over the centuries, but all areas of the structure have been totally restored or renovated, and are excellently maintained. If you’re an Oscar Wilde fan (and who isn’t?) you’ll be delighted to know that, during a time when he’d lost his rooms at nearby Magdalen College, Wilde is said to have sought refuge at the Old Parsonage, which rented lodgings to College undergrads. [Note: as always, there’s NO back-scratching going on here! I pay list price for my accommodations. Whenever I discover a superior Hotel, I’m happy to spread the news.]
Let’s begin our garden visits. The gardens are listed within each of the four Counties.
Note: Open Days & Times vary. Please consult the websites of all Gardens, prior to
planning your trips.
GARDENS IN OXFORDSHIRE:
*Buscot Park & The Faringdon Collection
Faringdon SN7 8BU
NQ’s Notes: An 18th century house (1780) surrounded by several hundred acres of parkland, complete with a 20 acre lake. Since the early 20th century, successive Lords Faringdon have commissioned the leading artists of their various eras to redesign and decorate the pleasure grounds. Buscot Park remains the family homestead of the current Lord Faringdon, Charles Henderson, but it’s opened to the public during the warm months of every year. Once you escape from the overpopulated Tea Rooms, you’ll have acres upon tranquil acres to explore. You’ll see Harold Peto’s world-famous 1904 Water Garden, and the parklands are decorated with a stunning array of art, ranging from ancient monuments to site-specific contemporary installations.
The owners of this monumentally grand estate clearly have
refreshingly UN-stuffy, eclectic, and forward-looking tastes.
Here’s what Buscot Park’s website has to say about The Peto Water Garden:
“Designed by Harold Peto, who was, in his day, the leading exponent of formal Italianate garden design, the Water Garden was laid out in 1904 for the 1st Lord Faringdon, and extended in a second phase of building in 1911 to 1913. The garden creates a link between the house and the Big Lake that is such an important feature of the original eighteenth-century parkland landscape. Consisting essentially of a chain of stairways, paths, basins and a central canal, the Water Garden is flanked by box hedges, sheltering statues and terracotta jars.”
“The stone-edged canal follows the bold linear axis of the earlier Victorian arboretum, carried for the greater part of its length through woodland. Variety is given to the design by a series of secretive enclosed lawns, surrounding rectangular and quatrefoil pools, and by effectively placed Italian marble seats and statuary. The canal stream is made to perform every possible manoeuvre before it reaches the lake, running over narrow rills and miniature cascades and beneath a hump-backed balustraded bridge. At one point the water is thrown into the air by the charmingly playful Dolphin and Putti bronze fountain. Water-lilies decorate the surface, and box hedges are flanked by stone figures on columns, and herms portraying Roman gods. Where it meets the lake, the vista continues eastwards to the domed and columned garden temple, also designed by Peto, which sits on the opposite shore.”
*Broughton Grange Gardens & Arboretum
Wykham Lane, Broughton, Banbury OX15 5DS
NQ’s Notes: Begun in 2001, Broughton Grange has already become one of England’s best gardens. Voluptuous plantings, organized by dramatic swathes of color & combined with crisply-detailed hardscapes and boldly scaled water features, blend seamlessly in this design by Tom Stuart-Smith (a many-times Gold Medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show). This is a garden where the heads-and-hearts of the gardeners are perfectly balanced; their planting schemes are simultaneously inventive and impeccable. Even when the gardens aren’t in full bloom, plenty of visual interest is provided by the
strong structural planting of beech, lime, and pencil yews, which complement the terraces, waterfall-fed pond, and geometric pathways. I’ll continue to visit this garden, whenever I’m based in Oxford. At Broughton-Grange we have the thrill of watching a first-rate garden evolve, from the ground up.
*Oxford Botanic Garden
Rose Lane (by the Magdalen Bridge)
Oxford OX1 4AZ
NQ’s Notes: Founded as a physic garden in 1621, Oxford University’s Botanic Garden has evolved into a collection of over 7000 types of plants. The Garden’s 3 areas (the Glasshouses, the Walled Garden, and the Lower Garden) present us with one of the most bio-diverse little plots of land in the world. Go at opening time (10AM) to best experience this wonderful City Oasis. Each garden bed is labelled (bring camera and notepad and LEARN) and the friendly gardeners are always happy to speak with Visitors. And, for Philip Pullman fans: find the bench (set in the Lower Garden, near the Orchard and the River Cherwell) where Lyra and Will said their farewells in THE AMBER SPYGLASS.
An imposing bell tower, just across the High Street from the Botanic Garden, is a reminder that you ought also to visit the grounds of Magdalen College, where you’ll enjoy elegant courtyard gardens, canal-side gardens, and a woodland walk which encircles the improbably huge Deer Park.
Highlights of the Oxford Botanic Garden:
Per the Botanic Garden:
“The Garden worked in collaboration with Professor James Hitchmough from the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield to develop the sustainable Merton Borders. The borders occupy an area of 955m2, and are an example of sustainable horticultural development, with the aim of having minimal impact on the environment in the long term.
The planting is based on an ecological study of natural plant communities to produce an ornamental yet sustainable display. 85% of the plants were established through the direct sowing of seed. This has two benefits: firstly, it is more sustainable than planting thousands of plants grown in peat-based composts and plastic containers. Secondly, sowing from seed makes it possible to establish plants at much higher densities. This increases the diversity of the plantings, and ensures a long succession of flowering through the season.
The plants have been selected for their ability to withstand drought conditions and originate from seasonally dry grassland communities in three regions of the world:
• The Central to Southern Great Plains (USA) through to the Colorado Plateau and into California
• East South Africa at altitudes above 1000m
• Southern Europe to Turkey, and across Asia to Siberia
Selecting plant species from these drier plant communities will build in a greater tolerance of warmer, drier summers.
The planting is colourful from spring to autumn, and represents a dynamic style of planting. It is also drought-tolerant, requiring no artificial irrigation, staking or fertilisers. It is allowed to die back over a long period after the autumn, providing a rich habitat for many types of small birds and mammals.”
*Rousham House & Garden
Rousham, Bicester OX25 4QX
NQ’s Notes: These gardens still look very much as they were designed to be in 1738 by William Kent, when he substantially revised and enlarged the original garden, which had been laid out between 1715–1720 by Charles Bridgeman. This miraculous feat of garden preservation is due entirely to the Cottrell-Dormer family, whose descendants have lived continuously at Rousham since 1635, when the first house was built on 25 acres of rolling pastureland in the Cherwell river valley.
The Cottrell-Dormers understand the enormous cultural significance of their estate, and generously open the grounds to the Public, 365 days a year, from 10AM until dusk. There’s no Visitor Centre: find the ticket machine, feed your 8 Pounds into a slot, and the sublime parklands and gardens can then be yours for the day. Dogs and children (under 15) aren’t allowed, but your picnic baskets are. Just THINKING about Rousham lowers my blood pressure.
As you explore this extraordinary and hugely important example of an Augustan Landscape Garden, you’ll feel you’ve traveled
nearly 300 years into the past. Rousham is my favorite garden in England.
Whenever I’m based in Oxford, I spend a morning at nearby Rousham. I have yet to inhabit these gardens on a sunny day, but
have come to adore my rainy day visits. All of my photos were taken during inclement weather. (On a stormy day, wear waterproof boots with good traction; you might find yourself sloshing along pathways covered with seriously-18th- century-quantities of MUD.)
Charles Cottrell-Dormer has created a booklet for Visitors about his magnificent home. Here, for some necessary context,
some passages from that publication:
“In 1738, the gardens were remodeled by Kent, who laid out the slope down to the Cherwell on the north side, and ornamented the grounds with terraces, statues, and buildings in the Italian taste.
The original plan appears to be by Charles Bridgeman, who also laid out Kensington Gardens and Stowe. Kent’s plan was described as ‘a rarity, an organic yet disciplined design, applying order loosely, yet lucidly, to a slice of English country, achieving an effect crystalizing Nature.’
Many of the features which delighted 18th century visitors to Rousham are still in situ, such as the cascades and ponds in Venus’ Vale, the Cold Bath with its elaborate waterways, & the seven-arched Portico known as Praeneste.
The relationship of the layout to the charming view over the Cherwell valley aptly illustrates Addison’s vision of ‘a whole estate thrown into a kind a garden;’ and although the parts are formal, the irregular intricacy of the plan, with its sylvan glades and classic features, goes far to confirm Kent as the father of the English art of landscape design.”
Let’s begin our tour of the Gardens:
When I first encountered this Rill, I was certain that it could not possibly be original to the Gardens. The space feels utterly 21st century ! When I got home, I emailed Charles Cottrell-Dormer for a clarification. Mr. Cottrell-Dormer’s prompt reply: the course of the Rill was set by Charles Bridgeman, and William Kent added stone
edging to the sides of the Rill. In my humble opinion, The Rill and Cold Bath and Watery Walk form an environment which is so perfect that it exists outside of time.
GARDENS IN GLOUCESTERSHIRE:
*Bourton House Garden
Bourton on the Hill, GL56 9AE
NQ’s Notes: Since Saxon Times, various grand houses have occupied this site. The charming 3-acre gardens you see today were begun in 1983, and they surround a Jacobean manor house. In contrast with the other enormous estates on my Very Best List, Bourton House is almost a Pocket Garden. But every corner of this little garden is overflowing with exuberance, horticultural excellence, and creativity. Though compact, there are so many design-details here to savor that I’ve always lingered for several hours.
*Hidcote Manor Garden
Hidcote Bartrim, near Chipping Campden GL55 6LR
NQ’s Notes: Because Hidcote suffers from Industrial Strength Tourism
(endless arrivals of coaches, overflowing with garden lovers who’ve traveled there from Earth’s farthest reaches)
this place is not one of my favorite destinations. But, despite being mobbed, due diligence requires that we visit. Along with Sissinghurst, in Kent, Hidcote is one of most renowned gardens created in England during the 20th century.
In 1907, the wealthy American expatriates Lawrence Johnston and his mother Gertrude Winthrop made an offer to buy a 17th century manor house, along with 287 acres in the Cotswolds. 7200 British Pounds sealed the deal, and Lawrence busied himself with house renovations and also began to accumulate rare plants. To create settings for his horticultural collections, Johnston then built greenhouses, terraces, walls, gazebos, bridges, ponds, streambeds, paths, and steps. He seeded lawns, fenced in paddocks, and planted trees, hedges, flowers, and vegetables.
Everything we see today at Hidcote is maintained to the same exacting standards which applied during Johnston’s lifetime. Hidcote’s layout is maze-like; from no vantage point can the entirety of the landscape be understood. Each space seems a place unto itself, and wandering from one area into another is sometimes disorienting. But the constant element of surprise holds the design together, and the lushly-planted grounds present a master-class in flower-bed color-blocking. Were it not for the crush of garden-globetrotters, Hidcote would be a lovely place to spend the afternoon.
The illustrations which follow are intentionally deceptive because they do not include hundreds of humans. My photos resulted from patience: I’d wait for clusters of visitors to disappear from view. For parts of the garden where my patience wasn’t rewarded, I’ve borrowed pictures from designer Anne Guy, or from Hidcote’s website.
*Kiftsgate Court Gardens
Chipping Campden GL55 6LN
NQ’s Notes: Literally across the road from the madhouse of Hidcote you’ll find an entirely different world at Kiftsgate Court.
These tranquil 100-year-old gardens surround the home of Anne Chambers. You’ll marvel at the voluptuous blossoms and verdant greenery, stunning views, and bold landscape architecture. The older areas of the gardens are laid out in formal style, but are softened by cascades of flowers, which include many varieties of peonies and roses. Three generations of self-trained women gardeners have created Kiftsgate. In 1919 Heather Muir began to make gardens for the manor house (which was built in 1887-91); as she undertook this massive project she was encouraged by her friend and neighbor, Lawrence Johnston. During the 1960s, Heather’s daughter Diany Binny expanded and modernized the gardens. In the early 1980s, Diany’s daughter Anne Chambers took over, and since then she and her husband have made additions which they hope will “reinvigorate and enhance the garden well into the 21st century.”
The most recently developed areas include mesmerizing water features and landform art, and intriguing pieces of sculpture dot the grounds. Throughout, the horticulture is first-rate (and envy-inducing). The lay of the land varies widely, and thus bestows surprising views and extra dynamism upon an eclectic sequence of spaces: the gardens cling to steep hillsides, ramble through dappled woodlands, lounge upon terraces, and stretch across rolling pasturelands. Kiftsgate Court is one of the gardens in England which continues to evolve in ways that make my heart sing.
But before we clamber down the many flights of steps that lead to this enticing half-moon pool, we’ll explore the garden that is closest to the House.
Per Kiftsgate’s garden Brochure: “In the 1930s the steep banks to the southwest of the house were tackled. Italian gardeners terraced them and a summerhouse was built with steps descending to the lawn below.”
We’ve returned to the top of the hill, and now admire the Wide Border.
Anne Chambers explains: “For some years we had looked for an opportunity to add our own mark the the garden. When the surface of the hard tennis court started to break up, we decided in the late 1990s to design a water garden that reflected our own enjoyment of contemporary design and materials. Our starting point was the existing mature yew hedge. A rectangular pond now covers the area of the doubles court. This is surrounded by slim white paving stones which contrast well with the black water.”
“The sculptor Simon Allison answered our request to design something that provided height and movement by producing twenty-four stainless steel stems topped with gilded bronze leaves moulded from a philodendron. They sway gently in the wind and reflect well in the dark water. The sound of water dripping off the leaves provides refreshment on a hot afternoon.”
Per Anne Chambers: “The edge of the Mound has been planted with a hedge of rugosa roses. From here a lovely view awaits you up the tulip tree Avenue, to the stainless steel leaf sculpture by Pete Moorhouse. The veins of the leaves are replaced by an Islamic pattern. Inside the Mound, coloured stones are formed in a chevron pattern and four olive trees in planters lead your eye to the far end of the Avenue.”
*Miserden Park Gardens
Near Stroud GL6 7JA
NQ’s Notes: These gardens—–which aren’t huge but FEEL huge—have simple, rectangular layouts that date to the 17th century. Set upon a hilltop overlooking a pretty arboretum, the garden’s virtuosic combinations of variegated and colored-leaf trees and shrubs, as well as its sculpted hedges, a dramatic yew walk designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, gorgeous terraces, flights of grass-steps, and clever decorative flourishes, make Miserden Park an inspiring destination. Because the gardens have only been opened to visitors for a few years, the place (a family home) still has that “Serene-and-Not-Yet-Tainted-By-Tourists-Vibe,” which I cherish.
*Painswick Rococo Garden
Gloucester Rd, Painswick, Stroud GL6 6 T H
NQ’s Notes: With a design dating from the 1740s, this is the only example in England of the short-lived fashion (from 1720—1760) for making gardens in the Rococo-manner. The gardens we see today have been restored, using as a Guide the realistic painting made of them in 1748. Painswick’s gardens deserve to be seen because they are an Historic Curiosity; their hodgepodge of features
don’t conform to the notions of other eras about how grandly-scaled ornamental gardens ought to appear.
Per the Rococo Gardens guidebook:
“Gardens at the beginning of the 18th century were starting to change.
Previously they were formal and regular in design and tended to be close to the dwelling. By the middle of the century they were developing on a much grander scale, incorporating or even changing the local countryside. The ‘English Landscape Garden’ had been born. The
Rococo period was part of this transition.”
“Rococo gardens captured the aristocratic and pleasure seeking atmosphere of the times. They were lighthearted, flamboyant, even frivolous. Gardens became almost theatrical sets in which to hold lavish parties. Here at Painswick this light-heartedness can be seen in the juxtaposition of serpentine paths with formal vistas, and brightly coloured follies of different architectural styles.”
“But these gardens went out of fashion almost as quickly as they came into fashion. They were seen as being a sign of vulgarity of the owners of the establishment.”
The Red House, per Painswick’s guidebook:
“This particular building is interesting for its asymmetric façade. Asymmetry was popular in Rococo designs. No third wing was ever intended and the two sections are angled to line up with the approach paths. The façade is finished with lime plaster and a red lime wash.
The building was designed as a dramatic backdrop to the main vista that runs through the garden. The first room is simply furnished with ashlar stone. This would have contrasted dramatically with the inner room which was finished with ornate paneling and mouldings. It still retains the fireplace and the Hyett family Coat of Arms.”
The Exedra, per Painswick’s guidebook:
“An Exedra can variously be described as an outside seating area, an apse, or indeed a large recess in a wall. Our Exedra also serves as an
eye-catcher to be seen at the end of a straight vista running through the Kitchen Garden. No trace of it had survived, although archaeologists
found the base of its associated pond, allowing this reconstruction to be placed correctly within the garden. It has been built using traditional methods of timber and lime plaster.”
The Maze, per the guidebook:
“1998 was the 250th anniversary of the Robins painting of Painswick Rococo Garden and the garden’s Trustees decided an anniversary
Maze would be a fitting commemoration. Although none was included in the original design, it was felt the light-heartedness of a maze would fit in with the mood of the garden. A site was chosen outside the original perimeter and levelled. Professor Angela Newing, who lived in Painswick, was fascinated with mazes and had always wanted to design one. She developed the idea of incorporating the numbers 2, 5, and 0
into the layout.”
Per the guidebook:
“A large kitchen garden is a surprise feature to find right in the middle of a stylized mini landscape, but there is no doubt that one existed here.The re-creation of this part of the garden was helped enormously by the fact that archaeologists found significant evidence of perimeter paths.In today’s kitchen garden, all vegetables are the same types (if not the exact 18th century varieties) as were originally grown.”
*Painswick St.Mary the Virgin Churchyard
In the Centre of Painswick, on the A46 Road, between Stroud & Cheltenham
NQ’s Notes: Just down the street from the Rococo Garden, in the Village centre, stop at the Church (begun in 1377), and wander through the churchyard, where 100 ancient, sculpted yew trees present a surreal sight. On a sunny day there, the yews cast long shadows which make the churchyard seem like a de Chirico painting, come to life.
Per St.Mary’s Church:
“There is a legend about the Yew Trees in Painswick Churchyard.
It states that there are only 99 trees and that the 100th will never grow.
Many of the trees date back to the 18th century.”
“Why 99 Yew Trees? One theory is that the trees thrive over a good source of water. In the past a view has been expressed locally that there are 99 ‘blind’ springs in the Churchyard and the 99 trees grow over them.
What IS known is that an underground stream runs under the path,
which leads from the Town Hall to the east end of the Church.”
“In 2000 the Church planted the 100th tree when every parish in the Diocese of Gloucester was given a yew tree to plant to mark the
New Millennium. This tree thrives to this day.”
“The Yew Trees are trimmed every September because it is late enough in the year to ensure that no noticeable re-growth happens in the same year. The clippings from each of the trees are very poisonous but they
also have medicinal qualities.”
The Yew Trees enjoy longevity due to their unique growth pattern. The branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then rise
up around the old central growth as separate but linked trunks. The central part may decay leaving a hollow tree. So the Yew Tree has always
been a symbol of death and re-birth.”
Here are some of my Churchyard photos, taken on an overcast June afternoon:
*Sezincote House & Garden
Near Moreton-in-Marsh, GL56 9AW
NQ’s Notes: Sezincote is still a family home…but WHAT a home!
The house’s exterior is a 215-year-old reproduction of a Mogul Indian palace, in the style of the Emperor Akbar ( but you can skip touring the interior…it’s purely classical: aka Greek revival ). Surrounding this architectural confection are Hindu-and-Muslim inspired gardens, collections of rare trees and shrubs, water gardens, and elegantly-decorated hideaways…all cradled in a verdant Cotswold landscape that’s dotted with grazing cattle. Somehow, this utterly bonkers Onion-Domes-in-Albion mix actually works! Strolls through the charming but always surprising gardens, followed by afternoon tea in the exquisite Orangery, have always elated me.
Let’s explore the Gardens….and please don’t be confused by the dramatically different qualities of the light, and varying foliage conditions. These photos were taken on several afternoons, over the course of six years. The owners of Sezincote assume that garden designer Humphrey Repton was initially consulted regarding the overall layout of the Gardens, but Repton wrote that oversight of the project then “devolved” to Charles Cockrell’s architect-brother, S.P.Cockrell.
*Upton Wold Garden
NQ’s Notes: This private garden and arboretum, which lies at the center of a working agricultural estate, has been created over the past 47 years. It began with the help of landscape artists Hal Moggridge & Brenda Colvin, but has been greatly expanded and refined by the owners of the estate, who are horticulturalists and collectors of trees…particularly of walnuts (they’ve established one of England’s National Collections of Juglans, with nearly 170 cultivars). Upton Wold’s gardens—simultaneously refined and unpretentious, lucid and mysterious—
masterfully combine views ( distant, and close ), movement routes ( instinctual, rather than authoritative ), deep shadow and blazing light, and structure (living, and of stone). On July 4, 2018, as I explored the grounds, the serenity and beauty of this Creation stunned me.
Only later, after I analyzed what I’d seen, did I begin to understand the finely woven brilliance of the garden’s seemingly-organic architecture.
Visitors are welcome, but all viewings must be by appointment only.
Customarily, I provide Maps, and then present photos of the gardens in these DIARIES in a sequence which matches that of my wanderings through those spaces. But to illustrate Upton Wold, I’m going to organize my pictures thematically.
On the hot, breezy July morning of my visit to Upton Wold, I met the Gentleman of the establishment in his walnut orchard, where he and his
gardeners were wielding chainsaws and loppers as they did some serious tree-pruning. I asked him when his interest—or perhaps obsession—with walnut trees had begun, and he told the charming tale of how his love for these trees had started, when he was just a boy. If you
visit the gardens, and happen to find the owner in a voluble mood, perhaps he’ll share his story with you! Following our chat, he was itching to get back to his tree-shaping, and I was eager to discover the gardens. As we parted, he declared that he’d intentionally never drawn a grounds-map for visitors, chuckled, and then declared “You’re a garden writer. See if you can find everything that’s here; I want to see how good you are!”
And I did discover it all, but not because of my garden-exploring expertise. Instead, I found that by simply opening myself to the sensory clues around me, the garden gently told me where to go next. When passing through shadowy areas, patches of sunlight ahead always led me forward. Curving pathways of low-mown turf directed me across broader expanses of grasses or fields. Arching tree limbs created enticing tunnels. Gateways and portals beckoned… almost always visible from a distance. Countless windows carved through what seemed to be endless barriers of precisely-clipped greenery tempted me to find ways around those living walls, and into adjacent garden “rooms.” Sounds of water splashing, of rustling leaves, of breezes sweeping in from the high pasturelands, encouraged me to move along with the wind. And whenever I felt as if I needed a sit-down, I’d turn a corner and find a bench…a resting-spot which seemed to have been put there, just for me.
We’ll take a few more turns around the Labyrinth, and will then wander through the Walnut arboretum. But then—and although I could very well draw you a serviceable Plan of the place—my photos will not reveal the routes I took through the gardens. Instead, these images from that July morning will be organized in groups to illustrate the ways in which seemingly-simple devices of design are repeated throughout the gardens.
I’ll show you bunches of paths, portals, ponds, precisely-clipped greenery, perching-places, and peep-holes. It is this rigorous use of a visual vocabulary—but a vocabulary which is then consistently tweaked to be just a BIT surprising—that lends harmony, and also provides direction, within the intricately-composed spaces of Upton Wold.
So…NO MAP ! If someday you find yourself at Upton Wold, I want you to enjoy those same pleasures of discovery, as I did.
Always acquiring new cultivars of Walnuts, the owners continue to expand the Orchard. The following 5 photos show walnut trees,
at different stages of maturity.
PEEP-HOLES (formally known as CLAIRE-VOIE, which means “let the light through”)
And for our final view of the Gardens at Upton Wold: The Sky above the Rose Garden’s Pergola:
*Westbury Court Garden
Westbury-on-Severn GL14 1PD
NQ’s Notes: This is the only restored, Dutch-Style water garden in England. It’s small, but mesmerizing (and often empty of Visitors).
Laid out in 1696 in the wetlands adjacent to the Severn River, what remains today is but a small portion of the original, which is thought to be have designed by the owner, Maynard Colchester, and subsequently elaborated upon by his son. Pass through the entry gates and be transported into a fragment of a very rare late 17th century formal water garden.
In 1796, a Lady Sykes wrote of her visit to Westbury:
“…here we saw a Stone Mansion, with formal old Gardens, long
Fish Ponds, High Walls and Stone Neptunes, but sweetly situated on the banks of the Severn.”
By 1745, Maynard Colchester II, had demolished the Tudor-style mansion shown above, and replaced it with a grand, Palladian-style edifice. Maynard 2nd had previously added a large T-Canal, a Walled Garden and Summer House, along with many statues of heraldic beasts.
The very existence of this snippet of once-grand gardens is a miracle. The Colchester family decamped from Westbury in the late 18th century, and the bones of the garden quietly crumbled until 1960, when [per the National Trust]:
“…it was sold to a property developer, who planned to fill in the canals and bury the garden under bungalows. Fortunately, the local council came to the rescue, acquiring the remnants of the garden and handing it over to the National Trust in 1967. Over the next six years, the Trust brought Westbury back to life, in what was the first scholarly garden restoration of its kind.”
But threats to the garden’s existence continue:
“Westbury was rescued from the brink of extinction, but now faces new challenges. With global warming, flooding from the Severn has become
more common, waterlogging the roots of the yew hedges, which are now suffering from the phytophthora virus.”
We’ll take a stroll around the Gardens:
The Trust’s Guidebook recommends beginning your visit on the Holm Oak Lawn, but upon entering, I headed north, up the path that runs
alongside the Long Canal toward the farthest reaches of the garden. In gardens (and at art shows and in museums), a contrary instinct often propels me to investigate denouements, first. I like to start my tours at the endings, and then inch my way in reverse, towards the entrance: considering the backs of things before I contemplate their faces helps to keep my mind open and my eyes sharp.
The Long Canal was the first element made in Maynard Colchester I’s new garden. Currently, the Garden ends just to the north of the circular pool, at the brick wall that hides the A48 Roadway. Per the Trust:
“Originally, the vista was even longer, taking in an avenue of trees planted on the far side of the [then much smaller] road, which would have been visible through the clairvoyee, or open wrought-iron screen, at the far end of the canal.”
Even in its current, much-diminished state, Westbury Court is impressive. But to give you an inkling of just what a huge horticultural endeavor it once was, here’s the National Trust’s description of what Maynard Colchester did, once his Long Canal, and framework of walls had been laid out:
“Colchester ordered 500 hollies and yew bushes in the spring of 1698. Then next season another 1000 yews and 1000 3-year-old hollies arrived.
2500 more yews followed during the next five years as Westbury’s immaculate pattern of hedges, topiaries and parterres took shape. The accounts also record purchases of hundreds of spring bulbs—tulips, iris, crocuses, and hyacinths—together with shrubs, fruit trees and vegetables, including no fewer than 2000 asparagus plants. Westbury at its height must have been a delight to both the eye and the taste buds.”
Gardens such as Westbury Court, whose vestiges have been rescued from oblivion, are valuable as living, photosynthesizing, historical sites.
The 90 minutes I spent there in 2017, on a warm June morning, were a sublime form of time-travel.
GARDENS IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE:
(not officially in the Cotswolds, but nearby, & all enormously worth visiting)
*Chenies Manor House & Garden
Chenies, Rickmansworth WD3 6ER
NQ’s Notes: Chenies Manor, at the center of a tiny village (population approximately 170), is a fine, brick Tudor mansion that’s built atop a 13th century undercroft. Surrounding this home of the Russell family are a series of gardens that function as outdoor rooms. In these compact but dazzling spaces, where most of the gardens we see today were established in the late 1950s by Mrs. MacLeod Matthews, the current owners have combined voluptuous plantings with a well-curated selection of contemporary art. Their highly theatrical approach to garden decoration, achieved via exciting juxtapositions of plant material and sculptural elements, produces unforgettable and occasionally surrealistic effects. I visited Chenies’ gardens on a stormy afternoon in June of 2016, when the colors of the rain-soaked flowers and greenery were incandescent. The dramatic weather that day matched the garden’s vivid character.
In their Guidebook to the gardens, the Russells explain:
“The gardens of Chenies Manor have always been closely connected with the house — intended to be viewed from various rooms, and to furnish inward vistas of the ornamental buildings. They are not therefore formed as ‘landscape,’ but as an intimate whole with the house. They represent the old style that had prevailed before the Dutch and French designers, followed by the ‘landscapers,’ implanted their ideas in the late 17th and 18th centuries.”
Long-time Readers may recall my photo-tour of the sunken gardens at Hampton Court Palace, which were created to please the irascible
King Henry VIII ( December 2012: “The Great Canopy of London’s Skies…Garden-Strolling at Hampton Court Palace.”).
The presence of Henry VIII, who visited Chenies Manor, is still felt there, in the house itself, and also in the gardens on the west side of the Manor.
The residents tell us: “An archway leads west…onto a small grass terrace overlooking a sunken garden. This is a close model of the early Tudor
‘Privy Garden’ at Hampton Court and was perhaps laid out in compliment to King Henry VIII. “
During Henry’s reign, John Russell, the master of the Chenies Manor (and the ancestor of the present-day Russells who live there), “several times received Henry VIII and his Court at the Manor, particularly in 1534 (with Ann Boleyn and the baby Elizabeth), and in 1541. On the latter visit he was accompanied by Catherine Howard, his fifth Queen, who was carrying on an affair with one of the King’s attendants, Thomas Culpepper. This culminated in her adultery, Chenies being one of the houses where it took place. The King was suffering at the time from an ulcerated leg; the sepulchral footsteps of a lame man are occasionally heard on the staircase and in the gallery approaching the wing in which Catherine met with Thomas Culpepper,
and are said to be those of the King.”
Luckless Queen Catherine. Her short and unhappy marriage to Henry ended after 1 year, 3 months, and 26 days, in November of 1541,
following her visit to Chenies Manor. She was beheaded in February of 1542.
Under darkening skies, followed by bucketfuls of rain, I moseyed through the Gardens: soggy weather never stops me. The deluge drove most other Visitors into the Tea Room, but bad weather was my good fortune: I soon had these bewitching gardens all to myself!
Cliveden Road, Taplow, Maidenhead SL1 8NS
NQ’s Notes: In a word: Audacious! Cliveden is another of the National Trust’s most popular properties, but I was lucky, and the day I’d scheduled for my visit turned out to be rainy, which resulted in me being alone upon those vast grounds. The 210 acres, where formal gardens and giant greenswards are carved out of woodlands high above the River Thames, are awe-inspiring in their scale. The Italianate mansion (which is now an independently-operated hotel) at the center of the gardens does not so much rest upon the landscape as dominate it. Everything about Cliveden—its succession of deliriously-wealthy owners, its sex scandal milieu, its vestiges of 350 years of the work of each era’s most famous garden designers—is over the top. Whether or not the grandiose nature of Cliveden is to your taste doesn’t matter. The place is impossible to ignore and commands the attention of all who enter.
For me, Cliveden is an interesting and not-obvious addition to this Best-Of-List. The geometric Victorian bedding, filled with blocks of
brightly-colored annual flowers, is not a style that I love. Nearby Waddesdon Manor (a Rothschild estate) is done up in similar fashion, but those gardens are stuffed to the gills with “features,” and are ultimately claustrophobic. However, in Cliveden’s gardens — in its Parterre to the south of the House with those long views over the Thames Valley, along Grand Avenue and up into the Forecourt, and in the Long Garden —– the diverse group of designers also left colossal expanses of empty space. These huge areas between the enormous garden beds and their arrangements of antique ornaments are the lungs of the Garden; they invite a visitor to admire the spectacular sights before her, to then breathe deeply, shake a leg, and embark upon an invigorating walk across the grounds towards the next marvels on display. Despite my design-prejudices, during that showery and solitary morning at Cliveden, I found myself ear-to-ear-grinning from the sheer, surprising silliness of it all!
Any place imbued with such mood-lifting powers is worth seeing.
Here’s a look at the central portions of those Gardens:
Cliveden’s Guidebook relates the history of this amazing fountain:
“When his father died in 1890, William Astor became America’s richest man. He moved to England in 1891, and became part of British nobility when he was granted the titles of 1st Lord Astor in 1916 and 1st Viscount Astor in 1917. His great wealth and undemanding position in the 1880s
as American Minister to Italy had allowed him to indulge his passion for European art and sculpture. So when he bought Cliveden in 1893 for
1,250,000.00 British Pounds, he brought many of the art works he had acquired to the estate. William Astor also commissioned pieces for his new home, including the spectacular Fountain of Love (1897), which stands sentinel to the House at the head of the Grand Avenue.”
“William Astor had practiced sculpture. His son, Thomas Waldo, created Cliveden’s neo-Baroque fountain, its base a shell carved from
three pieces of Siena marble, supporting three figures, who are overjoyed to have discovered the powerful elixir flowing from the
Fountain of Love.”
The Forecourt’s borders were first laid out in 1906, when Waldorf Astor and his wife Nancy moved in, having been given Cliveden as a wedding present (SOME gift, huh?) by Waldorf’s father, William. William Astor then moved to Hever Castle in Kent, where he built an entire village, dug a 38-acre lake, displayed hundreds more souvenirs from his bone-picking of Italy’s cultural heritage, and considerably expanded the gardens. [To see what William did at Hever, read my DIARY titled “Part Two. Rambling Through the Gardens & Estates of Kent, England.”]
I walked past the House/Hotel, and found the Parterre, which embellishes the six acres of lawn that stretch immediately to the south.
In the late 1660s, the Duke of Buckingham chose to build a great house for his mistress (would that we could ALL have such appreciative sweethearts!), directly to the north of the current Parterre’s site. We know from flints laid in the pattern of rapier that the Duke created a garden behind his house’s terrace, but are otherwise clueless about the layout of those original gardens.
Per the National Trust: “If Buckingham’s terrace gave the design blueprint for Cliveden, it was the next owner, George Hamilton,
Earl of Orkney (1666-1737), who gave us the garden layout largely as it is seen today. Lord Orkney planned buildings, walks and woodlands, laying out a pleasure ground for his family and guests.”
Lord Orkney was the first to plant a parterre on the flat stretch of land below the House, but his arrangement of beds was simple: he referred to it as his “Quaker parterre.” At the south end of the grass he cut a sunken Circle into the turf; here he exercised his horses. Today, that circle still exists, but no longer for lunging horses. Instead, flower beds ring a centrally placed statue that’s a copy of a 1565 bronze
(another William Astor acquisition) by Vicenzo de’Rossi.
Today’s geometrically-complex Parterre, described on Wikipedia as “featuring two sets of eight interlocking, wedge-shaped beds,” was laid out in 1849 by Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland and her Head Gardner John Fleming. Since 2010, the National Trust has followed Fleming’s original scheme: beds are filled during the warm months with progressive plantings.
Tucked into the woodlands that stretch along the River we find the Secret Garden, which is also called the New Rose Garden.
In the 1950s, landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe designed this Garden for the 3rd Lord Astor, but by the turn of the century the roses were in sorry shape. In 2014 the National Trust restored the Rose Garden to Jellicoe’s original design. Today, over 900 repeat-flowering, David Austin bushes are vigorously blooming.
The Long Garden stretches along the northern-most edge of the Estate. This is yet another of William Astor’s additions…designed by Norah Lindsay in 1896…created because he needed a backdrop for groupings of classical sculpture, and, more importantly, a setting for his prized pair of ancient Egyptian granite baboons. We who make gardens all have our Reasons for doing so.
When William Astor bought Cliveden in 1893, his first act was to create a Yew Maze, which covers 1/3 of an acre. I’m claustrophobic, so being within a Maze doesn’t delight me, but I do appreciate the technical challenges of designing and planting such garden follies.
Adjacent to the Maze, Astor next enlarged a small duck pond. This became his Water Garden, which is believed to be England’s first oriental-inspired garden. On a man-made island, Astor mounted his centerpiece: a pagoda made for the 1867 Paris Exposition.
In 1913 Nancy Astor enlarged the lake, added stepping stones, and planted irises, Japanese cherry trees, and bamboo.
*Stowe Landscape Garden
Buckingham MK18 5EQ
NQ’s Notes: Over 300 years old, this is another of the World’s most significant landscape gardens: bursting with architectural follies,
grand vistas, and fields full of grazing sheep (but watch your feet, as you stride through those pastures…they’re full of dung). At Stowe we see the still-impressive remnants of a garden that, in its prime, was an amalgamation of horticulture, landscape design, architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, philosophy, and politics. All of the garden structures and paths have hidden meanings: this is a place that rewards greatly, if you do a bit of homework. It isn’t essential to be aware of Stowe’s history to enjoy your time there, but knowing, as you ramble down one walkway, that you’re on the Path of Vice, when you could, instead, veer in another direction, onto the Path of Virtue, will tickle your fancy and enhance your visit.
In these ARMCHAIR DIARIES I’ve shared with you my fascination with other highly symbolic and idiosyncratic gardens. In Italy, we’ve visited the Renaissance estates of the Medici, the “Monster Gardens” at Bomarzo, and Niki de Saint Phalle’s phantasmagorical Tarot Garden.
Here on English soil, we see how Sir Richard Temple and his heirs — 18th century aristocrats who claimed to be descended from Leofric and Lady
Godiva, but who actually began as yeoman sheep farmers — carried on the Italian tradition of building gardens that embodied poetry and
politics…where every folly and statue was pregnant with meanings that only the most astute visitors could appreciate.
The succession of innovative head-gardeners and architects at Stowe was the equivalent of a Supergroup: think of Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page and you’ll get an idea of the significance of the five high-powered design talents who configured the 250 acres of gardens at Stowe.
Consider these fellows: even their hair and costumes would befit rock stars.
In 1989, England’s National Trust were gifted with Stowe’s long-neglected Landscapes and soon thereafter initiated major restorations.
The grounds, which Richard Temple, later known at Viscount Cobham, began in 1713 had become mere whispers of their former, assertive selves. Borrowing from the National Trust’s excellent online resources, we’ll cherry pick from their overview about Stowe’s designers:
*Charles Bridgeman, Garden designer: 1711—1730s, at Stowe.
“Bridgeman started at Stowe a gardening career that would create a whole new style of garden design. Though still formal, his ideas and creations in the garden had a much more modern take on classic designs. One of Bridgeman’s most famous additions was pioneering a new system to border the gardens. The expansive Deer Park and farmland surrounding the estate created issues in keeping animals out of the gardens. As a solution, Bridgeman created England’s first Ha-ha, a sunken wall designed to keep the livestock out. It meant views would not be disrupted whereas the use of hedge, fence or wall would be a visible barrier on the horizon. The idea has since been used around the world.”
*Sir John Vanbrugh, Architect: 1720—1726, at Stowe.
Vanbrugh worked alongside Bridgeman.“Vanbrugh’s work there was fundamental in laying the groundwork for the monuments, landscapes and temples that were to come in the earliest phase of the garden design.”
*James Gibbs, Architect: 1726—1729, 1737—1748, at Stowe.
“Gibbs joined the staff at Stowe, just after Vanbrugh’s death. He created the largest and most imposing temples and buildings you see today.”
*William Kent, Gardener and Architect: 1730—1748, at Stowe.
“In his 18 years at Stowe, Kent created some of the most atmospheric areas of the gardens. He formed a landscape used to entertain, and to impress. His first creations were the Temple of Venus and the Hermitage. The Temple of Venus looks out across the Eleven Acre Lake towards Stowe House. It’s dedicated to the goddess of sex and gardening. Four busts overlook the Eleven Acre Lake, representing Cleopatra,
Faustina, Nero and Vespasian, all known for their appetite for lust. Inside, the temple featured murals by the Venetian painter Francesco Sleter. In 1735 Kent became Head of garden design when he created the landscape and some of the temples within the Elysian Fields.”
*Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, Gardener 1741—51, at Stowe.
“Rising through the ranks, Brown learnt his trade experimenting at Stowe, making his mark on the landscape before moving on to transform the English countryside and many aristocratic estates. Brown began as under-gardener to William Kent. He sculpted the large Grecian valley,
whilst naturalizing the shapes of the Octagon and Eleven Acre Lakes.”
I won’t parse the deepest meanings of Stowe’s temples and byways; the fun of scavenging for those Ideas should be reserved for your Actual Visits there. One could write doctoral dissertations about Stowe’s layers of allusions (and many have). Instead, I’ll wrap up my Stowe commentary with a few more excerpts from the National Trust’s website:
“Today, gardening is all about growing flowers in every colour. Eighteenth-century landscape gardens such as Stowe dealt in shades of green. Rolling expanses of grass were framed by artfully placed belts of trees and shrubs and reflected in tranquil stretches of water.”
“STOP AND ADMIRE: Contrasting with these were garden buildings such as the temples and monuments that still survive in the gardens today. Paths were used to entice visitors to certain views, only revealed at the last moment. The grass paths at Stowe have more horticultural interest, such as spring flowers and contrasting foliage.”
“HIDDEN MEANINGS: Stowe was never just a garden. Its creator, Lord Cobham, set the gardens out to reveal his beliefs about the politics and morality of the day. Which path will you choose—Vice, Virtue, or Liberty?”
“THE PATH OF VICE: Greek mythology was well-known in the 18th century. The Paths of Vice and Virtue represent the Greek god Hercules’
struggle between these two choices. The Path of Vice takes place in the garden of love. The temples in this area allude to stories of seductive women, sordid goings-on, and partying to excess. Not for the faint hearted.”
“THE PATH OF VIRTUE: The Path of Virtue takes us through an area of the gardens that represents heaven on earth. The temples here show good values, such as the Temple of British Worthies showing the great and good [NQ’s note: predictably, only men are represented] of Britain’s history. Of course, taking the virtuous path through life isn’t the easiest, so there are many bridges to cross.”
“THE PATH OF LIBERTY: This path represents the political aspirations of Lord Cobham. As a simple metaphor it is the longest and hardest of all three walks, showing that politics is never easy. The temples along the way show Britain’s dominance in the 18th century. Hence the Temple of
Concord and Victory celebrates Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War.”
Although one cannot unmake history, I, of course, wearily discount the tiresome, classical and biblical notion that seductive women and their gardens of love open the gates to vice and ruin. Eve was the mother of Knowledge…
Now…a peek at just some of the Vistas at Stowe:
*West Wycombe Park
West Wycombe, HP14 3AL
NQ’s Notes: I usually avoid house-tours, but this neo-classical villa, built in 1740 by the libertine Sir Francis Dashwood, is an Architectural Fantasyland, and going inside is thus worth an hour of your time. And the 45 acres of landscaped Parklands that surround the house are also theatrical and seductive, which explains why this property is often used for location shoots of films. Some of the television series that have been filmed here are: Little Dorrit, Downton Abbey, Sense & Sensibility, Howards End, Patrick Melrose, and The Crown. Some of the movies filmed here are: Another Country, Labyrinth, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Duchess, Austenland, X-Men First Class, Effie Gray, Queen of the Desert, and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.
An afternoon spent at West Wycombe Park will amuse and rejuvenate you. These Georgian landscape gardens — lacking the hifalutin symbolism of the nearby gardens at Stowe — were made by Francis Dashwood purely for his pleasure. Sir Francis may have had more money than sense — after all, his estate’s Temple of Apollo was used as a cock fighting venue — but he, with his passions for classical Italian art and architecture, the rituals of the Roman church, politics, drinking, and free love (hey, why not have it ALL) — certainly knew how to party, and even on that gray day in June of 2017 when I visited, the house and grounds where his descendants still live felt festive and ebullient.
At the base of this Hill are the so-called Hellfire Caves that Sir Francis Dashwood used as the meeting place for his Hell-Fire Club: his group of high-born but low-behaving “gentlemen.” Mystery surrounds what those fellows actually DID while in the Caves; they cultivated scandalous rumors about their secret activities, but perhaps all that went on was some knitting and gossiping???
Ceiling Murals, in the South Colonnade:
Per Wikipedia: “A fête champêtre was a popular form of entertainment in the 18th century, taking the form of a garden party. This form of entertainment was particularly popular at the French court, where at Versailles areas of the park were landscaped with follies, pavilions and temples to accommodate such festivities.
The term is derived from the French expression for a ‘pastoral festival’ or ‘country feast’ and in theory was a simple form of entertainment. In practice, especially in the 18th century, the simplicity of the event was often contrived. A fête champêtre was often a very elegant form of entertainment involving on occasions whole orchestras hidden in trees, with guests sometimes in fancy dress.”
GARDENS IN NORTHERN WILTSHIRE:
(northern Wiltshire is considered part of the Cotswolds)
*The Courts Garden
Holt, near Bradford on Avon BA14 6RR
NQ’s Notes: Tucked away behind a wall on the main thoroughfare of a blink-and-you’re-past-it-village in Northern Wiltshire you’ll find one of England’s loveliest and most-impeccably-tended gardens. The Courts is a Gardener’s Garden: seven tidy acres where the love of growing and grooming plants is palpable. At the Garden’s core, Arts and Crafts style hedging and topiary are united with Italianate terraces and faux Georgian follies. Water gardens, woodland paths, and orchards cover the perimeter areas. Apprentice gardeners from all across England come here, to learn their craft from the top-notch, on-site gardeners.
These gardens were laid out in the early 20th century on flat, soggy ground where the highly-productive Holt Woolen Mills once stood. When those factory buildings were demolished in the late 19th century, the site’s fine, 18th century Bath-stone House was spared the wrecker’s ball. Sir George Hastings bought the Manor House, and, incorporating some of the industrial buildings’ foundations, laid down formal gardens. But, in 1905, after only three years of frenetic hedge-planting, lawn-seeding, and path-forming, Hastings sold the property. No further garden developments occurred until 1921, when the Goff family moved to The Courts. Major Clarence Goff’s wife Lady Cecilie Heathcote Drummond Willoughby was an excellent plants-woman and a creative designer. Assisted by her head gardener, Rupert Stacey, and following the color-theories of Gertrude Jekyll, they planted lush borders, added three semi-circular yew alcoves to the major lawns, and also built the Lily Pond. Cecilie’s daughter Moyra, who inherited her mother’s gardening flair, took over management of the property during World War II, and began to develop the Arboretum on the four acres that surround the formal gardens. Following Moyra’s death in 1990, the National Trust (to whom the Goffs had bequested The Courts in 1943) stepped in to revive the gardens. Subsequently, the National Trust’s Head Gardeners — beginning with Troy Scott Smith in 1997, followed by Cat Saunders in 2005, and since 2010 under the aegis of Paul Alexander — have imbued Lady Cecilie’s 1920s and 30s planting styles with contemporary twists, while preserving The Court’s intensely personal, Secret-Garden ambience.
I visited The Courts on a hazy and humid morning in June of 2016. This is how those wonderful gardens revealed themselves to me:
*Iford Manor Gardens
Near Bradford on Avon BA15 2BA
NQ’s Notes: It is fitting that this DIARY about 19 of the best-made gardens in England should conclude with a tour of the personal garden of Harold Peto, who was one of the Edwardian era’s trio of most acclaimed designers. All of us who dream of the gardens that ought to surround our homes—and who then struggle to transform some aspects of those dreams into reality—can take heart from the Story of the Making-of-Peto’s-Garden. In this Story, a mature and accomplished man, a man whose business it was to create gardens for others, was, like a barefoot cobbler, without a garden of his own. For a decade he’d searched for a charming country house, set upon land blessed with what Mr.Brown would have called “capabilities.” But of Peto’s real estate candidates, each had a fatal flaw or two. The only House that continually stimulated his imagination was in Wiltshire. It was far too large, set right next to a road, had the main expanse of its grounds to the rear and side of the House on a steep, wooded hill that afforded only a tiny view of the river below…and, not so trivially, the property was far too costly, both to purchase and to maintain. But this House had layers of architectural provenance that beguiled him, a difficult site that challenged him, and its romantic location in the Frome River Valley, facing a fine old bridge ( circa 1400 ) proved too seductive to be resisted. Ultimately, Peto’s love for the Place prevailed over Practicality. And so, with financial assistance from his sister, at age 45, Harold Peto took possession of Iford Manor, where he began to form the sensitively integrated series of garden spaces that would become known as his masterwork.
[Note: Those other two Edwardian star-designers were Gertrude Jekyll, whose own garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey I’ll someday feature, along with her work at Vann Garden in Surrey, Hestercombe in Somerset, and Lindesfarne in Northumberland ; and
Edwin Lutyens, whose work you’ve seen in this DIARY at Miserden Park, and also at The Salutation (featured in my chronicles of Gardens and Estates in Kent), and who will also be represented in a future DIARY about Hestercombe. Lutyens was a sometime-pupil of Harold Peto, and visited Iford on numerous occasions.]
At Iford Manor, the idiosyncratic gardens that Peto began to fashion for himself in 1899 are situated upon a steep incline behind a sprawling House whose various facades resulted from remodellings done over the course of several hundred years. The architectural hodgepodge of the House itself actually creates a hospitable backdrop for Peto’s era-and-globe-spanning assortment of museum-quality garden ornaments. Terraces, lawns, cascading stairways, conservatories, cloisters, & pools—all built by Peto, who was an architect as well as a landscape and garden designer—are decorated with his eclectic collection of architectural fragments and statuary…many of them priceless antiques.
From the start, Peto’s aesthetic tastes were destined to be wide-ranging: he was brought up in the Suffolk countryside, comfortably ensconced in an old house that had been serially overhauled (or maimed) in Moorish, Jacobean and Italian styles. But, in the 1860s, after his father’s flourishing business as a builder imploded, Harold Peto was compelled to fend for himself. At 17 years old, he was apprenticed to a joiner, and a year later became a trainee at an architectural practice. Three more years passed, his expertise skyrocketed, and he then joined the architecture firm of Ernest George, as co-partner; their highly-acclaimed collaboration endured for 16 years, until 1892, when Peto decided to work alone. In parting with Ernest George, Peto agreed not to work on domestic architecture in the U.K. for the next decade; thus in this next phase of his career he worked primarily for clients in Continental Europe.
Early on in life, Peto had discovered his thirst for travel, and until 1898, when he’d finally wearied of long-distance journeying, he managed to combine a busy work schedule with trips to Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, Canada, America, Egypt, Hong Kong and Japan. As he toured, Peto also scoured the world for decorative treasures with which to embellish his clients’ homes and gardens; one of his most devoted Patrons was Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner. But of course, being his art-magpie-self, some of the choicest pieces also found their way into his personal inventory of beautiful objects. Despite the financial success of his design businesses, Peto’s refined tastes always strained his purse. He wrote: “I would rather have only a rag to my back and a piece of art for my soul,” which probably explains why, after he purchased Iford Manor, his wintertime guests complained about the lavishly-decorated House’s lack of adequate heating. But the chilly temperature in his elegant home was even more a reflection of Peto’s warring sensibilities: of the ascetic Poet who adored accoutrements that would befit a prince.
More from the Garden-Guide published by Iford Manor:
“Peto was of the opinion that, for the highest development of beauty, a garden must be a combination of architecture and plants. In his manuscript ‘The Boke of Iford,’ he wrote that: ‘Old buildings or fragments of masonry carry one’s mind back to the past in a way that a garden of flowers only cannot do. Gardens that are too stony are equally unsatisfactory; it is the combination of the two in just proportion which is the most satisfactory.’ He was particularly attracted by the charm of old Italian gardens, where flowers occupy a subordinate place amongst the cypresses, broad walks, statues and pools. At Iford, he found a setting where he could try out his ideas over several years and where he could make use of his existing collection of antique fragments.”
Since 1965, the Manor has been the home of the Cartwright-Hignett family, whose mission has always been to “restore, conserve and enhance this stunning place, preserving the valley’s environment, improving biodiversity and allowing others to enjoy its rich
Cultural heritage.” The family has recently engaged the services of Troy Scott Smith (formerly Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, Bodnant and The Courts), who will refresh Harold Peto’s planting schemes. And the Cartwright-Hignetts are approaching the final stages of overseeing their complex project of restoring and protecting the structures of Peto’s architectural additions to the gardens. The Estate was used for key scenes in ITV’s 2019 adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon,’ and the gardens also appeared as the primary location in ‘The Secret Garden’, the film starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters; released in 2020.
Join me now for a stroll across Harold Peto’s wonderful creation. The inconsistent light conditions on that afternoon in June of 2016 made photographing the gardens challenging. During the several hours that Anne and David Guy and I enjoyed there, the weather morphed from humid and sunny, to storm clouds looming, to chilly torrents of rain, and back to a grudging sunshine. If such abrupt and not-in-the-forecast meteorological chaos leaves you crestfallen, then touring English gardens is NOT for you! But if you embrace the absurdity of Britain’s quick-change climate, where highly localized and contradictory weather systems jostle for supremacy, you’ll be a happy traveler (…and always cram a lightweight raincoat into your backpack).
In world-class gardens, each picture’s worth a thousand words. But because the treasures with which Peto adorned his Garden are so remarkable, I shall add captions of considerable detail. To be as accurate as possible, I’ve relied upon the helpful booklet about the Gardens published by the Cartwright-Hignett family, as well as upon Robin Whalley’s definitive survey of Peto’s work: “The Great Edwardian Gardens of Harold Peto.”
THE LOWER TERRACES: A long progression of steps leads up to the higher elevations of the Gardens.
These stairs are interrupted by a series of small terraces.
THE GREAT TERRACE: Upon what was previously an elongated, east-west plateau of lawn that had been carved out of dense woods which loomed behind the Manor House, and just above a little pond, Peto built his Great Terrace, the most complex feature of his gardens at Iford Manor. The ribbon of lawn that Peto began with could only be reached by clambering up a steep (and slippery when wet) slope: nothing about this undistinguished acreage behind the House as Peto first found it suggested that, eventually, a wonderland resembling the gardens of an elegant Roman villa would exist here. And should you think Italian villas in Wiltshire to be incongruous, recall that, nearly two millennia before, Julius Caesar’s minions had built plenty of villas for themselves, on British soil. In his design for the Great Terrace all of Peto’s skills—as architect, landscaper, gardener, historian, and curator—were ingeniously fused, with grace and subtlety. What we find on the Great Terrace today feels simultaneously surprising, and inevitable: this place represents the Zenith of the gardens which were made in England, in the years leading up to World War I.
But throughout Iford Manor’s gardens as we see them today, there are also enlivening features which have been added, since the Cartwright-Hignett family’s arrival in 1965. One of the most soul-killing things that can occur in gardens of historical significance is when the stewards of those places fail to remember that their gardens are living entities; if they don’t evolve, gardens then lose their connection to the vitality of their originating spirits. And so it’s wonderful that the Cartwright-Hignetts understand how important is for Iford Manor’s gardens to develop: with reverence for the past, and with enthusiasm about the future.
We’ll briefly zip up through a green tunnel to that Oriental Garden, which was inspired by the time Peto spent in Japan, in 1898:
Per Iford Manor: “On the right stands the bust of a woman, sculpted and initialled by one of the sculptors to Louis XIV. Opposite stands an Italian Renaissance figure of a prophet. Close by is the fine, 2nd or 3rd century Greek sarcophagus of a boar hunt. Peto paved the whole length of the Great Terrace with York stone, but by the 1960s this was in very poor condition, so the best pieces were salvaged and remainder replaced with gravel. It is hoped that it may be possible to restore the paving in due course.”
THE LILY POOL:
The oval Lily Pool already existed when Peto bought Iford Manor. Directly uphill from the Pool, he built retaining walls to support
the Colonnade of his Great Terrace, and from the Great Terrace he constructed twin stairways that curved down around the upper
edges of the Pool. The unadorned Lawn that slopes from the Pool toward the lower reaches of the property provides a graceful transition between the geometrically-ruled, highly-ornamented, Italian-themed, upper gardens and the more typically-English gardens that lie below, where choice arboreal specimens and mature shrubs have been combined to create tranquil, flowing spaces, with visual interest provided by variations in leaf texture, color, and contrasting plant dimensions.
THE CLOISTERS: On the afternoon of my visit to Iford Manor, the Cloisters were closed, as they were being prepared for one of the
Estate’s frequent, early-evening, musical performances. Peto built this bijou museum by combining much of his
remaining Caboodle of larger-scale architectural fragments with blocks of marble that he had quarried in Italy, France and Greece (those raw stones were later carved by Wiltshire stonemasons, per Peto’s specifications). The remainder of his collection of venerable remnants which were too small to become part of the structure itself were eventually displayed within it.
By the end of 1914 Peto had nearly finished his Cloisters: the most sizable of all of his garden structures at Iford Manor. The exterior of the solid west wall of the Cloisters that faces the rest of the gardens is composed mainly of Bath stone in rubble form, and is pierced by a central portal (the door itself thought to have come from Mantua, dating from 1450); the solidity of this façade suggests the building to be a dark enclosure. But, beyond a barrel-vaulted entry hall is a central courtyard surrounded on all four sides by a cloistered arcade composed of delicately-scaled, twin columns, through which breezes flow freely. This was Peto’s refuge, a hideaway where he could take the air as he examined his trove of ancient decorative fragments. In this building, Peto’s masons (from the local Village of Westwood), skillfully melded all of their newly-carved pieces of stone with the grab-bag of Peto’s archictectual fragments…a bravura demonstration of the Building Arts.
The Cloisters have recently been rescued from a close shave with structural ruin. Hot weather during 2018 nearly undermined its foundations, part of which were rooted on clay, and the other upon bedrock. Extreme drying had caused the clay to contract, and thus half of the building began to sink. The Cartwright-Hignetts immediately hired the structural experts Corbel Conservation, of Somerset, who’ve since added new footings, and have carried out a host of other repairs, both major and cosmetic. The Cloisters once again stand firm.
Late that afternoon, as we prepared to leave Iford Manor’s Gardens, we strolled across the lawns that lie far below the Summer House.
From this vantage point we glimpsed the walls of Harold Peto’s Kitchen Garden.
Copyright 2020. Nan Quick—Nan Quick’s Diaries for Armchair Travelers. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express & written permission from Nan Quick is strictly prohibited.