garden tales from a Brit abroad
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 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.
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.
At least one of the original trees survives, a vast weeping ash, planted 300 years ago when the estate was new.
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.
All 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.
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.
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.