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Stourhead is one of the finest examples of an English landscape garden.

Inspired by politics, travel, literature and painting, the eighteenth century English landscape movement introduced a radical new style of naturalistic garden across England and, soon, across much of the world. Clipped, geometric gardens became viewed as static and old-fashioned, and were ripped out in favour of free-flowing romantic styles more directly inspired by nature, by designers such as William Kent and Capability Brown.

Stourhead and its Pantheon from Fenton's Tour of 1811.

Stourhead and its Pantheon from Richard Fenton’s Tour of 1811.

From 1744, Henry Hoare II laid out a garden in the new style at the estate he had just inherited at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Nestled in a valley, it remains today a perfect combination of seemingly natural water, trees and grassy slopes. Walking around the lake offers pleasing glimpses and reflections of classical temples and grottos.

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When we visited last month – even with the Pantheon temple obscured by scaffolding, the lake level lowered for maintenance work and the water covered in algae – it was still quite breathtaking.

Yet visitors this summer may come away with quite a different sense of the history of Stourhead. Its current owner, the National Trust, has decided to celebrate the story of “young Harry Hoare,” who briefly helped his family restore the house and grounds between 1911 and his death from wounds sustained on a distant battlefield in 1917. His story was chosen no doubt to mark the centenary of the start of WW1. It is told in large information boards at the visitor centre, in a massive mock book at the entrance to the garden, in panels on the zigzag entry path, and in the official map and guide given to visitors.

I am not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I am a great fan of history being seen as a continuum, with stories from various points in a garden’s life just as important as the tale of its creation. Recently I wrote in favour of exactly this approach at another National Trust property, at Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. In a way, it is good to hear about later members of the Hoare family and their time at the garden, to learn how Stourhead had become unloved and derelict before their stewardship.

And yet Stourhead is such an important example of such an important movement, it seemed to me bizarre not to highlight that part of the story. The casual visitor could easily be misled into thinking this was a late Victorian garden rather than a supreme example of an eighteenth century one. Only panels in the woodland with quotations from Alexander Pope (including his famous instruction to garden-makers to “consult the genius of the place in all“) make reference to the period when the garden was created. Even then, to grasp the significance, visitors would probably need already to be familiar with Pope’s influential role in the English landscape movement.
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Stourhead is an embodiment of one of England’s greatest contributions to the world of art. Relegating the story of its creation to a footnote in the tale of a later bit-player must surely be a disservice to the garden’s many visitors this summer. Or maybe that’s just an old-fashioned view from a pedantic landscape historian?

 

Three years ago I wrote rather disparagingly about the jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé Pierre, in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. It is a new, self-proclaimed sustainable park, and I wondered quite what visitors were meant to do there, other than admire how desperately sustainable it all was.

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A second visit this summer has made me somewhat change my views. The park is still undeniably scruffy, with unremarkable native plants sprawling and straggling over the paths. Clumps of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica subsp. dioica) lurked right by at least one set of steps.

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But there is now a clearer contrast between the mown grass and the meadow areas, which make it clear that the park is meant to look like this, rather than (as a commenter on my initial review remarked) as if the city had stopped maintaining it four years ago. The plants generally had grown in and looked more settled, and thickets of guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) offered bright red clusters of fruit to enliven the otherwise overwhelmingly green palette.

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Plus water was now duly flowing and gurgling as intended in the many rills and channels around the site (my first visit was during a drought).

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And, most importantly, people were now present, doing … well, what people normally do in neighbourhood parks: sitting on benches chatting, pushing babies in buggies, people-watching (from the rather snazzy curved bridge over the site), even a group of kids playing a version of Pooh Sticks with leaves in the water channels.

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Maybe it was just that my expectations were lowered by that first visit, but overall I rather warmed to the jardins des Grands Moulins.

There are a plethora of possible treatments available for historic properties. Experts talk about preservation, conservation, safeguarding, protection, restoration, adaptive re-use, repair, stabilisation, maintenance, rehabilitation, reconstruction. It can seem baffling.

So it was good last week to see a very clear example of preservation, at Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland. English Heritage defines this treatment as essentially preserving from harm, while the US standards explain it as the “retention of the landscape’s existing form, features and materials.” Put simply, it means keeping what you have.

Seaton Delaval Hall- the North (Entrance) Front by John Joseph Bouttats c.1750

Seaton Delaval Hall – the North (Entrance) Front by John Joseph Bouttats c.1750

Seaton Delaval Hall was acquired in 2009 by the National Trust in rather extraordinary circumstances, with a great outpouring of local sentiment and funds. The Trust then decided against its typical approach of restoration – which would have meant putting the house back to its original eighteenth century state. This was partly because, after a major fire in 1822, the main hall was no longer structurally strong enough to support lost floors. More generally, there was not always sufficient detailed knowledge about original features to allow for their informed reintroduction. But also there was a sense that subsequent history of the house was at least as important as its creation, and that the community needed to be involved in deciding how the estate should be conserved and used.

So at Seaton Delaval there are no plans to put the estate back to how it once was, no programme of works with a defined timetable and a finished state. The National Trust is simply engaged in preserving what is there.

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The hall, designed by Sir John Vanburgh from 1718 in the English baroque style, and possibly the finest house in the north of England, is being made safe. The main section was under scaffolding when we visited but, even when that is gone, it will remain a shell, with the bones of its structure revealed through the holes in the walls that once supported floor beams.

The west wing is being kept as it was when the last owners, Lord and Lady Hastings, lived there, with a dining room in what was originally a laundry in the servants’ quarters.

Early paintings suggest that the landscape around the house was originally laid out with a formal courtyard and curved watercourse at the front (see first image above) and, in the fashionable style of the day, a park of undulating grassland and mature trees to the rear.

View of the South (Park) Front of Seaton Delaval Hall by William Bell 1775

View of the South (Park) Front of Seaton Delaval Hall by William Bell 1775

1860 OS map

1860 Ordnance Survey map, showing Seaton Delaval Hall and its grounds

At least one of the original trees survives, a vast weeping ash, planted 300 years ago when the estate was new.

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In the second half of the twentieth century, small-scale, geometric features were added around the west wing of the house, including a rose garden, a laburnum walk and a parterre designed by Jim Russell, a self-taught landscape gardener and nurseryman. New plantings of trees and shrubs also date to this time.

Seaton Delaval 10 Seaton Delaval 11 Seaton Delaval 12All are being preserved by the Trust, with no attempt to return these parts of the landscape to their eighteenth century form. The parterre in particular is described by the Trust as “a firm favourite with visitors” and is being presented as an important part of the estate. Fashionable meadowland to the east of the house replaces what would originally have been lawn.

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The estate has been open to the public since the preservation work started, with temporary car parking and ticketing arrangements, and local volunteers on hand to explain the hall’s history. Craft and gardening activities in the grounds and informal musical concerts in the hall are designed by and for the local community.

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Some will disapprove of this approach, arguing that such an important house and estate deserve to be restored to their glory days. But I like the way you can see many elements of the property’s subsequent history, from the nineteenth century fire to later twentieth century attempts to restore the dwelling to a home. It is a fine example of history being seen as a continuum, rather than a moment in time, and a splendid case study in the role of a local community in saving and defining its own heritage.

 

 

The start of the World Cup tomorrow has been overshadowed by concerns about the readiness of the infrastructure, and hostility from many Brazilians to their government spending so much money on sport, rather than healthcare or public transport. Even bigger problems lurk for the 2016 Olympics, due to take place in the same country.

The costs and benefits of hosting such events are controversial. Beforehand, governments will claim long-term advantages for their citizens from being host. Afterwards, legacy arrangements are often disappointing. Here in Delhi, the 2010 Commonwealth Games brought mixed benefits, with the wonderful new metro system probably its lasting success. The ruthless eviction of slum-dwellers in places likely to be seen by visitors was a less appealing aspect of Delhi’s role as host. And four years later the stadiums themselves now sit largely unused and falling into disrepair.

So it was interesting earlier this summer to visit the newly reopened site of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in East London, and see how far it had been adapted for the long-term benefit of Londoners. Before it was chosen for the Olympics, the site was an industrial part of the Lower Lea Valley. It was characterful and much-loved, or bleak and noisome, depending on whose view you seek.

Pre-Olympic Lower Lea Valley, photograph from the Guardian

Pre-Olympic Lower Lea Valley, photograph from the The Guardian

There are more photographs here of the area in its pre-Olympic days.

Now named the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site is costing about £300m to convert from its short-term stint as a Games venue into a “new piece of London.”

The new park is  at the centre of a splendid array of public transport links, with rail, tube and bus complemented by cycle paths, pedestrian walkways, coach and car parks. Unsurprisingly then, it was packed when we visited during the Easter holidays. Around 50,000 people were apparently at the park during its opening weekend.

Although it is enormous (about 250 hectares), the park is surprisingly difficult to find from the nearest train/tube station, at Stratford. In fact you have to walk though the adjacent shopping centre (taking an escalator up and “bearing left past the Cow pub,” according to the park’s website). Once at the park, signage is plentiful but some of it is out-of-date and all is in need of some clear “You are Here” stickers to help people navigate their way around.

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Other people are better placed than I am to comment on the planned re-use of the various stadiums and other venues. The park itself has been developed by big names such as Dutch master plantsman Piet Oudolf and US firm James Corner Field Operations (probably best known for their work on New York’s High Line). It is divided into various areas, from the more touristy features of the southern end, including the mad ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, to the meadows and wetlands further north.

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The quality of much of the work is apparent, with beautiful high-end benches and a mass of well-designed pathways and fences.

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The wonderfully inventive playgrounds are a real feature. These have clearly been designed with kids’ wishes foremost – featuring much sand, water, climbing and risk-taking, and very little that is staid or controlled.

The planting is generally excellent, creating distinct characters for various parts of the park. There are swathes of large pine and birch trees (although perhaps too many Betula pendula) with interesting ground cover, large patches of rough meadowland, and beds of fancy grasses and bold perennials.

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Some of the areas are only recently planted and it is too soon to judge how they will fare, while others were suffering from (hopefully) temporary overflows from the kids’ water play.

Olympic Park23Less successful were the central walkways, which were dauntingly wide and very exposed, especially in hot weather.

Olympic Park15I was also sad to see no obvious reference to the area’s previous industrial past. It feels like a brand new place, sprung fully-formed from the earth.

Much more development is planned around the site in the next few years, including office space and apartment blocks. For the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park itself, currently new and rather splendid, the key of course will be whether sufficient funds and expertise are allocated to its future maintenance. It will be fascinating to see how it fares, and if all that legacy work really does produce a new and sustainable piece of London.

 

Redoubtable is a word that easily comes to mind when seeking to describe Marylyn Abbott. In her native Australia, she was for many years marketing manager for the Sydney Opera House and developed the garden at Kennerton Green in New South Wales. Under her tenure, it was the most visited garden in the country.

Since 1993 she has also been restoring and developing the gardens at West Green House in the south of England. The house itself is charming, an early 18th century structure restored by the National Trust in the 1990s after an IRA bomb exploded in the forecourt. It is also, fortunately for me, within walking distance of our home in Hampshire, and so we have been frequent visitors to the gardens over the years, observing and enjoying the ever-changing planting and new additions. We were last there a year ago, in June 2013.

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For me, the highlight is always the walled garden, restored to its 1770s layout and planted with a glorious mix of trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and fruit.

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The potager within the walled garden changes dramatically every year.

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Structural planting contrasts with some sophisticated colour combinations, often using lilacs and purples in early summer. Her flower choices are eclectic, and include unfashionable perennials such as lupins and delphiniums next to more trendy poppies and alliums. Rather refreshingly, the only grasses to be seen are in the lawns and meadows, not in the flower borders.

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From the walled garden, a moon gate leads to a water stairway and view of a nymphaeum designed in the 1980s by Quinlan Terry (often described as Prince Charles’ favourite architect).

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Other highlights include the lakefield with its naturalised bulbs and unceremonious perennials:

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the little courtyard garden outside the tea shop (whose former Alice in Wonderland theme is now only visible in the topiary teapot):

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the artfully arranged glasshouses:

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and the lovely trails of iris sibirica through a stream:

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Marylyn Abbott is a great traveller and brings back ideas from all over the world for her gardens. Some of these, such as a Chinese peasant style garden in the potager one year, are delightful. Some seem to me to work less well, including the Paradise garden, a geometric arrangement of water, trees and grass, inspired by Islamic gardens. It sits oddly next to the wild garden and for me lacks the lusciousness and fragrance so essential to a real Paradise garden.

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Set pieces such as this, and new Dragon Garden near the entrance, detract from the distinctive sense of place that is so strong elsewhere at West Green.

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One splendid feature of these gardens is their use in summer for open-air opera productions. Indeed West Green is now being marketed as The Opera Garden. We have enjoyed black-tie evenings with fancy picnics watching a cackling Don Giovanni meeting his end near the lake, and a lovely performance of Traviata in the Green Theatre. This year there will be a week of music and garden-related activities during the long July and August evenings.

Marylyn Abbott must be well into her sixties, but her passion for the new and the quirky continues. She has this year designed her first Chelsea Flower Show garden (inspired by the courtyard garden shown above and winner of a silver gilt medal) and no doubt has more experiments to try and developments to add at West Green House.

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Veddw is a modern garden, laid out among the gentle hills of the Welsh borders. It has an unusual genesis: not a plantswoman’s garden, not a gardener’s garden. Instead, its creator, Anne Wareham, was driven by a fascination with the garden as art form. With her photographer husband Charles Hawes, Anne has spent 25 years developing Veddw from meadowland.

We visited last June and found lots of things easy to enjoy and admire.

The garden is full of big confident sweeps of plants and patterns of hedging. This is not a timid place, fiddling around in details. It makes bold marks on the landscape.

Veddw 12Veddw 16 Veddw 14 Veddw 01 Despite its confidence, Veddw is not a garden with airs and graces – you take it as you find it, from the home-made sign on the door to Anne (maybe) offering builders’ tea, no cake, and a gossip after the visit. It is full of contrasts, between wild flowers and clipped shrubs, light and shade, open vistas and secret pathways.

Veddw 02 Veddw 19 Veddw 09There are words in the garden – a quirky, modern use of inscriptions – from the apt Wordsworth quote on a bench:

Veddw 15to lists of common plant names in the cornfield garden, stamped in gold lettering on wooden railings. Here I learnt the delightful phrase “snotty gogs” and discovered that it is a child’s term for yew berries.

Veddw 17 Veddw 18The garden is not seen as settled or finished, but is constantly undergoing review and refinement. Since we were there, Anne has announced plans to chop down the trees at the end of this pathway and replace them with a bench as a better focal point.

Veddw 22Although the garden’s most famous feature, a reflective pool, left me rather cold (feeling too self-conscious, too much of a stage-set):

Veddw 24there is a delightful smaller stone pond near the house. It is firmly rectangular and makes no pretence at being natural but, surrounded by mossy stones and seemingly self-seeded alpine flowers, it manages somehow to look like it has always been there.

Veddw 20What I admired most about Veddw was how the garden sat in its time and place: the way the curved hedges echo the rolling hills beyond the garden:

Veddw 27the retention of ancient meadow:

Veddw 21the little tombstones in the wild garden with their inscriptions of lost local names:

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the casually displayed collection of objects found when the cottage was partially rebuilt – allowing us to imagine the former life of the site.

Veddw 13Anne invites visitors to suggest one improvement. I immediately and erroneously plumped for an area in the north garden, full of contrasting grey cardoon and purple heuchera and cotinus. I found it leery and brash; she clearly does not. It did not need improvement as such –  it just didn’t appeal to me (although I know Anne scoffs at the idea that we should explain away critical comments as just a question of different tastes).

Veddw 05 Veddw 04On reflection I think a better suggestion for improvement would have been the grasses parterre (in the background of the photo below). I really wanted to like this area: low hedges are laid out in the pattern of the 1841 local tithe map, and the resulting ‘fields’ are planted with ornamental grasses. It seems a great idea, another novel way of referencing the history of the site. But I found it impossible to understand on the ground. It just looked puzzling and slightly scruffy, like it was trying to tell you something but you couldn’t work out what.Veddw 10

No easy solution springs to mind but, given the use of quirky inscriptions elsewhere, I wondered if the tithe map could be more explicit? Or the area made more aesthetically pleasing in its own right, so that knowledge of the map as its inspiration becomes just a bonus?

The garden is a joy, always changing and growing, and worth repeated visits. Just don’t simper to the formidable Anne that you think it all vaguely “lovely” – and don’t expect roses or cake!

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Juxtaposition

Before on this blog I have written about the mysterious French designer Elie Lainé, and about the placing of modern artworks in historic gardens.

So I was delighted to see the two come together this Christmas, with the installation Winter Light in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor. Contemporary artist Bruce Monro placed six large light-based displays in the glorious landscapes of Waddesdon, which were laid out by Lainé in the 1870s.

The most interesting of the six for me was Field Of Light, a geometric wave that swept down a valley between Lainé’s majestic trees. In the photographs here (from a set by Eamonn McCormack), you can see how, in the late afternoon, the 6,500 tiny lights looked like of a swathe of Spring bulbs; by sunset, they were more reminiscent of a lustrous peacock’s tail; and then a great river of liquid chlorophyll. I like that, close-up, you can see the glass fibre and spheres, understand something of how the display is created, and yet still its magic holds.

Field of Light was not conceived for Waddesdon. It had already been displayed in various locations, in England and the States, and is currently in its first urban setting, in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. It seems to me to have worked beautifully at Waddesdon, with both Lainé’s confident Victorian landscape and Monro’s contemporary artistry enhanced by the temporary juxtaposition.

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