Category Archives: garden history

Michelham Priory Medieval Garden

Michelham Priory Garden is a delightfully tranquil moated manor house in East Sussex. What I like most about it is the recreated medieval garden. And what I like most about the medieval garden is the ‘flowery mead’ and the turf seats. Our knowledge of Michelham – and of medieval gardens in general – is not enough to say whether or not the details are accurate. But, to me, these details feel right and this is not a feeling I have about comparable recreations, either by the Garden History Museum or National Trust. Nor do I have this feeling about cathedral cloister garths. They are all managed with lawn mowers and this device was invented in 1830. The usual problem with medieval recreations is that their designers are muddled about the differences between medieval, renaissance and baroque gardens. So they use clipped hedges, which were a baroque feature, to make renaissance-style knot gardens. It does not make sense!

Michelham Priory Medieval Garden

The ‘flowery mead’ in Michelham Priory Medieval Garden

Capability Brown: Lenses on a Landscape Genius Exhibition 22 June – 29 July 2016

Capability Brown designed the landscape park at Blenheim Palace

Capability Brown designed the landscape park at Blenheim Palace


The Landscape Foundation has organised an exhibition of photographs of Capability Brown’s work. It will be on show at the Building Centre, Store Street, London WC1E 7BT, from 22 June to 29 July.
Brown’s reputation has been in flux. Sky-high at the time of his death and at the time of his 300th centenary, in 2016, it had a profound slump from late 18th century to the early 20th century. For artists and novelists, this is not uncommon and re-examinations can be done by examining their original works. For works of landscape architecture, this is scarcely possible, because they are in constant change. So a photographic exhibition is an excellent idea. We can examine Brown’s work at one point in time.
See also
Capability Brown in Kent – book review by Tom Turner
Was Lancelot Capability Brown a landscape designer of genius?

Tim Richardson Oxford College Gardens – book review by Tom Turner

Oxford College Gardens

Oxford Colleges have plumped for the National Trust Style of Planting design (right) and are lucky to have excellent gardeners (left)

Tim Richardson  (Author), Andrew Lawson (Photographer) Oxford College Gardens  Frances Lincoln 2015 ISBN-13: 978-0711232181

Tim Richardson’s text is excellent.  Andrew Lawson’s photographs are excellent. Tim is the best informed and most readable of contemporary British garden historians. Andrew is a technically skilled photographer with artistic talent. Working together, they have given us a biography and portrait of Oxford’s colleges and their gardens.

Oxford College gardeners have done a great job too, century after century, and Tim does them justice. But from my standpoint they are too fashion conscious and too determined to make the college gardens look as though they belonged to the National Trust. Modern additions would be welcome but more historical traditions could have been conserved.

Plans of All Souls College Garden, Oxford

Plans of All Souls College Gardens. The new plan (left) has no information on planting design. But the 1598 plan (right) is rich in information.

I have three criticisms of the book. First, there is a lack of integration between the text and the illustrations.  Too many of the photographs were taken ‘in the garden’ rather than ‘of the garden’. They therefore fail to illustrate interesting points which the author has made.

A second criticism concerns the specially drawn plans. Plans are very welcome and I wish garden writers made more use of them. But this set of plans does not show the planting which everyone agrees to be a key feature of gardens – and many see as their defining feature. No trees, no shrubs, no hedges, no herbaceous plants. The plans only show buildings, water, paving and a green tone which might be grass. Future historians could have been very grateful for information about the planting design.

A third criticism is the lack of historical illustrations. There are a few – but there are far too few. Oxford is particularly rich in drawings, paintings, engravings and photographs. It would be great to see more of them. For example: p.35 refers to David Loggan’s engraving of Balliol. It is freely available on the web but it is not in the book; p.51 refers to Loggans drawing of Christ Church showing parterres.

One of its most enjoyable aspects is the balance between comment on the colleges and on their gardens. I knew little of the separate histories of the colleges and found that, as well as being of great interest, they helped me make sense of the gardens. Perhaps the title should have been Oxford Colleges and their gardens. A good map shows the locations of the colleges but there are no details of opening times.

Let me conclude by saying again: I really enjoyed reading the text and looking at the pictures.

Alan Titchmarsh on creating a “Stylish Garden”

Hard to know what I would write if the Sunday Express asked me to do a few hundred words on garden design but I can put some helpful advice in one sentence: ‘don’t take advice from Alan Titchmarsh‘. The concept of ‘style’ on which his article rests is of use in understanding garden history and restoring historic gardens but it often leads amateur designers astray. Or maybe the problem is more basic: to do a design you have to be a designer. Many owner-designers have proved that a design training is not essential – and some professional designers have proved that it is not sufficient. But, somewhat tautologically, you do have to be a good designer to produce a good design – and a fixation on styles or ‘stylish gardens’ is unhelpful.

Pinjore Yadavindra Mughal Garden


Pinjore Gardens deserve more recognition as an example of the Mughal style. There is much more which could and should be done but the restoration work already carried out is good and the water features work most of the time. The lower section of the garden is of particular interest and with more work could become India’s best example of the ‘fruits and flowers’ approach to planting design which was once the predominant character of Indian gardens. Constance Villiers Stuart, who made the first serious study of Indian gardens, was well aware of this and wrote about Pinjore in her book: see C.M Villiers Stuart Gardens of the Great Mughals .

Edwin Lutyens read Villiers Stuart’s book when working on the design of New Delhi and Le Corbusier visited Pinjore when working on the design of Chandigarh. She surely influenced Lutyens design for the garden of the Governor’s Place in Delhi – and Corbusier might have done a much better job of Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex if he had learned more from Pinjore.

 

 

Is Greenwich Park London’s most interesting Royal Park?


I think the answer is ‘yes’ – and it should certainly be included in London garden tours. For a start, it is the oldest of London’s Royal Parks. Greenwich has associations with the period in British history most loved by the BBC and English schools. Only the 1930s and ’40s rival the Tudors.
Greenwich was enclosed by Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, who also built what became the Royal Palace of Placentia. Henry VIII was born here. So was his daughter, Elizabeth I. The design and the design history are also of great interest. Greenwich Park began as a late-medieval Hunting Park with an Early Renaissance garden. It was then influenced by the Baroque Style in the seventeenth century by the Serpentine style in the eighteenth century and by the Gardenesque Style in the nineteenth century. The green laser beam is a Post-Abstract twenty-first century addition – and a great idea. The designers who influenced the park include Inigo Jones, André Le Nôtre, John Evelyn Christopher Wren, Lancelot Brown and John Claudius Loudon.

Sayes Court Historic Garden Restoration Proposal

Sayes CourtFrom the standpoint of design history and theory, Sayes Court was the most important English garden of the seventeenth century. I am therefore delighted to read in Building Design that something of its character may be recreated. But why appoint a firm of architects (David Kohn) to co-ordinate the project? OK, they have good garden designers and plantspeople on board – but if I wanted a design for a bridge I would not appoint a firm of architects as the lead consultants (at least not unless they were very particular fiends of mine). Here is an account of the team for Sayes Court: ‘DKA has been appointed by Lewisham Council to assist a Community Interest Company in Deptford develop ideas for a Centre for Urban Horticulture at historic Sayes Court, a World Monument Fund site. The project is in collaboration with Dan Pearson Studio, the National Trust and Eden Project. The commission follows DKA’s previous work in Deptford for Lewisham Council and the Mayor of London’. Who is the garden historian on the team? Who has made a study of how Baroque ideas came to influence English gardens? Who has read John Evelyn‘s Sylva with the expert knowledge to understand its import? Who brings the essential knowledge, which Evelyn had, of seventeenth century gardens in Italy and France? In the unlikely event that anything is more certain than death and taxation, it is that Lewisham Council lacks this expertise. Mark Laird should be invited to join the team.
See previous post on Sayes Court.

Persian garden tour April and May 2014 Iran

iran_persia_garden_toursPersian Gardens have a 2500 years history. They overcome environmental constraints and manifest the cultures and beliefs of people living in an often-harsh climate. In collaboration with the Iranian Society of Landscape Professionals (ISLAP) offer a specialized tour and workshop called “Taste Paradise”. This is a unique opportunity for Landscape professionals, architects, botanists and Landscape historians to exchange information with Iranian specialist experts while visiting Persian Gardens. After our very first successful international tour and workshop “Taste Paradise I” in May 2013, The Cultural Landscape Association (CLA) is planning to offer another journeys (Taste Paradise II and III) for experts and professionals all around the globe, to visit and enjoy the cultural beauty of Persian Gardens. You can find More Information here: http://www.shahromanzar.org/component/k2/item/400-tour/%20400-tour#
The dates are:
Taste Paradise II: April 12-18, 2014
Taste Paradise III: May 03- 09, 2014
Further information on Garden Tours in Iran and on Iranian Gardens:
http://www.gardenvisit.com/gardens/in/iran
http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden_tours/in/iran

Stourhead Landscape Garden in autumn with Radio 4, Eddie Mair and Alan Power

Stourhead is more than a tree garden: it is an important work of art

Listening to Eddie Mair on Radio 4 I often think ‘Eddie is Britain’s Best Broadcaster, ever’. He towers above the entire Dimbleby family as the Shard towers over London. Well, for several years Eddie has been chatting with one of Britain’s nicest gardeners: Alan Power looks after Stourhead. Eddie went to Stourhead Garden today and spent two and a half hours walking round with Alan. It was a vintage disappointment. Alan mentioned several times that Stourhead is a work of art and that it has many temples. Eddie missed the point and was interested only in the trees and the autumnality – so we kept coming back to Tulip Trees and Maples. It was like walking round St Paul’s Cathedral and talking about the materials and the paint colours – interesting enough for specialists, but not the main point for a high profile discussion. Reyner Banham observed that ‘The purely visual aesthetic of Stourhead, free of sentimentality and allusion, is what puts it in the class of European masterpieces… in a manner that escaped Capability Brown for most of his life’. I do not know why Banham thought Stourhead ‘free of sentimentality and allusion’ but he is surely right about it being a masterpiece and a work of art – and there are only a handful of gardens in this category. Don’t get the wrong idea: I am very interested in why, for example, TS Eliot wrote ‘Let us go then, you and I’ instead of ‘Let us go then, you and me’ but if I were going to present Eliot to a mass audience on Radio 4 then I would not take this as the most important point about either him or J Alfred Prufrock.
Let’s hope Eddie Mair returns to Stourhead with a determination to understand its importance as a work of art.

What is a 'Zen Buddhist garden'? and is the idea Japanese, Chinese or Western?


Wybe Kuitert, a notable scholar of Japanese garden history, has challenged the the theory that stone and gravel gardens, like Ryoan-ji, were inspired by Zen Buddhist ideas. He argues that the theory did not appear before the 1930s and that it then arose from an American scholar (Loraine Kuck) who was influenced by Japanese nationalist thinkers who wanted to argue that Japanese culture was more harmonious and less aggresive than western culture. I am persuaded by Kuitert’s account of the origins of the now-common classification of Ryoan-ji but doubtful that his alternative explanation is adequate. From a knowledge of Japan which is much less than Kuitert’s, it appears to me that (1) stone-and-gravel gardens are very likely to have been influenced by Chinese precedents (2) whether or not the Chinese precedents were specifically Chan (ie Zen) Buddhist, they were certainly influenced by Buddhist ideas and their Daoist parallels.
There are three difficulties in tracing the Chinese precedents of stone-and-gravel gardens: (1) so far as I know, there are no visual or records (2) there may be textual records of Buddhist gardens in Song China but, if so, they would have to be investigated by Chinese garden historians with the ability to find and read the relevant documents (3) research into the influence of Buddhism on Chinese gardens is not a popular field of research in China – because Chinese governments have very often wanted to downplay the influence of all foreigners on Chinese civilization.
I hope these questions will receive the attention they deserve someday. Here are some quotations from Kuitert to stimulate the necessary research (from Kuitert, W., Themes in the History of Japanese Garden Art University of Hawaii Press 2002). But, for what it is worth, my view is that the categorization ‘Zen Buddhist Garden’ is valid- unless and until better information becomes available.
p.130 ‘The Oriental supposedly sees himself not as an individual at war with his environment but rather as fundamentally a part of all that is about him.’
p.133 In previous chapters we have seen that the medieval garden makers were not devoted Zen priests but usually menial stoneworkers…
P.133 The present pages on the evolution of a scenic garden style, however, show that this is not the only interpretation. From the preceding it is clear that this type of garden stemmed in theory (and at least part of its practice) from the Chinese intellectual and literary canon of landscape art. The building of a garden was calculated intellectual activity, not an instantaneous act of religiously inspired intuition. It found its place in Zen temples and warrior residences because it enhanced a cultural ambiance. That its appreciation involved religious aspects rather than artistic ones is questionable. A Zen religious experience was interpreted in modern European terms of philosophy by Nishida. It was Suzuki who extended this interpretation to culture and the arts – thereby making the mistake of explaining the intent of the original creator of historical works of art with it. Kuck similarly stated that the Ryoan-ji garden is ‘the creation of an artistic and religious soul who was striving… to express the harmony of the universe’. With this statement she assigned the twentieth-century religious or aesthetic experience she felt on seeing the garden to the soul of a medieval garden maker. Kuck mixes her own historically determined interpretation with an old garden that came about in a completely different cultural setting.
The above photograph of Ryoan-ji is courtery jpellgen. It captures the aspect of the garden which attracts and mystifies western visitors: ‘Karesansui. Ryoan-ji in Kyoto has a world famous zen rock garden. Here you can see some of the simplicity that makes this garden so impressive. The position of the stones and the carefully maintained sand is a sight to behold. Ryoan-ji is a famous temple of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. It dates back to the 1400’s and was originally associated with the Fujiwara family (big suprise there). The most famous aspect of Ryoan-ji, however, is the karesansui (dry landscape) rock garden–believed to be the finest in the world. It contains 15 stones, although I had trouble finding the last one. Apparently, most people can only see 14 unless you have the right perspective of this 30mx10m garden.’

Garden tourism: 'Is London the World's Gardening Capital?'

I am a Londoner – and with understandable bias regard London as the capital city of world gardens, garden design and gardening. As argued in the above video, the reasons for this are both geographical and historical. Britain was emerging from the Pleistocene when horticultural techniques were devised (about 12,000 years ago) and they did not reach Britain until c3,800 BC. The art of making pleasure gardens came to London with the Romans, ended when they left and resumed when the Normans invaded England in 1066. Since then, there has been a steady advance in the popularity of gardening. Long may it continue! Britain is always likely to have a hard time competing with the Mediterranean countries for beach holidays – but it has very considerable opportunities for developing garden tourism. We were delighted to hear of the 2013 Garden Tourism Conference to be held in Toronto, Canada, in March – and have entered the Gardenvisit.com Website in hopes of receiving an award in the Garden Tourism Website category. Further information on the London Gardens Walk – and free routemaps.

Buddhist Gardens and the Dragon Garden in Shey, Ladakh

If anyone would like a (free) ticket, I am giving a lecture about the influence of Buddhism on garden design – to be followed with a lecture by Simon Drury-Brown on the design of the Dragon Garden for the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India. Tickets are available from Eventbrite. The design of the school, by Arup Associates, is based on a mandala. The design of the garden extends the mandala concept and gives it a wider application.
The great Italian scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, Giuseppe Tucci, explained the mandala concept in a way which makes it well suited to forming the basis for a landscape plan for a school community. Tucci wrote that ‘First and foremost, a mandala delineates a consecrated superficies and protects it from invasion by disintegrating forces symbolized in demoniacal cycles. But a mandala is much more than just a consecrated area that must be kept pure for ritual and liturgical ends. It is, above all, a map of the cosmos. It is the whole universe in its essential plan, in its process of emanation and of reabsorption. The universe not only in its inert spatial expanse, but as temporal revolution and both as a vital lprocess which develops from an essential Principle and ratates round a central axis, Mount Sumeru, the axis of the world on which the sky rests and which sinks its roots into the mysterious substratum. This is a conception common to all Asia and to which clarity and precision have been lent by the cosmological ideas expressed in the Mesopotamian zikurrats and reflected in the plan of the Iranian rulers’ imperial city, and thence in the ideal image of the palace of the cakravartin, the ‘Universal Monarch’ of Indian tradition‘. The Druk School will become a place where teachers, students and visitors are encouraged to think about the nature of the cosmos and the nature of human life. The landscape design is being developed by landscape architecture staff and students from the Univesity of Greenwich. Design, construction and fund-raising are managed by a UK Charity, the Drukpa Trust. The school has won a sheaf of international awards. The architects, Arup Associates, explain that

  • Classrooms face the morning sun to make the most of natural light and heat.
  • The school is largely self-sufficient in energy.
  • Two boreholes and solar pumps supply the school site with all the water it needs.

Christian symbols in garden design

Christian symbol in a designed garden

This Christian symbol, in the garden of a chuch in India, is pleasing - and startling: it highlights the LACK OF CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS in European gardens, be they sacred or secular.

Ian McHarg, the most influential landscape architect of the twentieth century, criticised the Book of Genisis for giving man dominion over our planet’s animials and plants ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:26) McHarg, following Lynn White, saw this as a Biblical basis for not recognizing rights in non-human life. McHarg thought it was a reason for Christians not identifying an ethical duty to conserve the environment, biodiversity or ‘wild nature’. Forests, for example, which were associated with paganism, need only be conserved if, as part of their ‘dominion’, humans make this choice in their own interest. Aldo Leopold, who trained as a forester, argued that humanity should adopt a ‘land ethic’.
Christian Ecologists have responded by interpreting ‘dominion’ as ‘stewardship’. I see this as an incomplete re-interpretation of the Bible, because a steward takes instructions from a lord. A steward is ‘An official who controls the domestic affairs of a household, supervising the service of his master’s table, directing the domestics, and regulating household expenditure; a major-domo’ (OED). A steward would have a duty to conserve the environment only if the lord issued such a command. The etymology of steward is ‘most probably Old English stig a house or some part of a house’ (OED)
But what of Christianity and garden design? There is a Biblical injunction to grow food ‘…and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.‘ But, as the magnificent words of the King James Bible testify, growing food was more of a duty a pleasure. Then, when Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire, the injunctions against idolatry (eg in the First and Second Commandments) came to the fore:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

Rome’s public places, and Roman gardens, had been rich in statues of pagan Gods. After Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, by Theodosius I on 27 February 380, these statues came to be regarded as idols and graven images. So they were removed or destroyed. This was a blow to the classical tradition of garden design, though not to the practice of gardening. Christian monks became expert gardeners and cloister garths are widely interpreted as examples of sacred geometry – as symbols of God’s perfection. The Vatican has great gardens but they do not have Christian symbols. The gardens of Lambeth Palace are sadly neglected. Some cloisters, like Salisbury, have had wholly inappropriate designs. Other cloister garths (eg Certose di Pavia) have parterre designs – which are not Christian symbols.
During the renaissance period, ‘graven images’ re-appeared in gardens. This was an aspect of what is called ‘renaissance paganism’. The Belvedere Court, in the heart of the Vatican, had the greatest collection of pagan sculpture in all Europe. I do not know of a contemporary justification for their presence but the argument seems to have been that since there is only one creator god, he must have created the pagan gods – and so they could be used to symbolise the Christian virtues. Venus is the prime example. Seen as a symbol of Love, she became an excellent reason for placing statues of nude girls in gardens. Protestants seem to have been less confident about her presence, as they were about other ornament and decoration, but even the Baroque gardens of the Counter-Reformation allowed for the siting of graven images in gardens, with two qualifications: they had to be pagan symbols and they could not, of course, be worshiped. It is odd that statues of pagan gods were allowed but statues of the Christian God, Jesus, Mary and the Apostles were not allowed. Should this policy be re-considered? Yes. Representations of the Holy Family are allowed in Christian art – so why should they be banned in Christian gardens? I look forward to the English churches helping to organise the sponsorship of Christian Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show and as part of the Chelsea Fringe so that they can be kept as features of London’s garden heritage. Also, there is significant scope for improving the management of the gardens associated with cathedrals and churches. These projects would be demonstrations of new life in old institutions. There is a particular opportunity to use flowers of special importance to Christians, including red roses, white lilies and ‘flowery meads’.

[Note: the relationship between Christianity and gardens is discussed in British Gardens: History, philosophy and design London:Routledge 2013 p.148ff]

Fire bowls, bonfires, garden waste and health hazards


Garden bonfires are one of the pleasures of country life and, if the fire is in a bowl or pit, you can use garden waste instead of barbecue fuels. In towns, outdoor fires can be a nuisance but the advice given by municipal authorities is variable. Some say little more than ‘be considerate and don’t inhale the smoke’. Others, of which Milton Keynes is a notable example, appear to have been written by people suffering from severe asmatha, tinged with pyrophobia and boosted by bossiness. They have my sympathy – but not my support. Those who live in cold climates love fire.
But if I lived in Australia I would probably be violently opposed to garden fires. To look at the tourist photos, you would think all of Australia was always warm and always sunny. Yet I heard that Sydney had a temperature of 42°C two days ago and 21°C one day ago. Every aspect of garden design and management needs to be context-sensitive, more so than architecture or interior design.

Shalimar Bagh Kashmir: historic garden conservation



As a generalisation, the condition of historic gardens in most countries is getting better. They enjoy more expert attention, more visitors and more resources. Shalimar Bagh in Kashmir is an exception. When I saw it in 2006, it did not seem to be in quite as good condition as when Susan Jellicoe (black and white photo above) photographed it c1970. And when I saw it again in 2012 (colour photo, above) it seemed in even worse condition. Oddly, there were also far more visitors than in 2006. Does anyone know what the problem is? Lack of money? Lack of will? A concern for the bugs which enjoy rotting timber? A lack of concern for India’s Islamic heritage?

Political Landscapes


Soviet Memorial, Treptower Park

Located in East Berlin, the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park is the last resting place for 7,000 Russian soldiers. Planned in 1945, finished in 1949, the design was chosen in a competition to which 33 submissions were recorded. The winning design came from an artist’s collective that included the architect Yakov Belopolski, the sculpter Yevgeni Vuchetic, the painter Alexander Gorpenko and the engineer Sarra Valerius.The memorial was completely restored between 2003 and 2009, including the shipping of the 70 ton, 12 metre tall main statue – a Red Army soldier holding a child and standing over a shattered swastika – to the island of Rügen and back for repair. The memorial is ca. 570 metres long, 150 metres wide, and the main statue with its base mound stands 30 metres tall.

I am always very impressed with designs that rest heavily on trees for their main spatial definition. The Soviet Memorial relies on plane trees – now around 30 metres high – to define its outer boundary, with pleached limes – now around 15 metres high – used to step this scale down as an internal edge. There is an amazing avenue of weeping birches, now with crown diameters of up to 15 metres, planted at 25 metre centres. The western end of the axis is closed with lombardy poplars. One would look far today for a client that would be prepared to countenance a design that would first be ‘realised’ 40 years and more after its actual completion. As the point of the memorial is to convey everlasting glory upon the fallen soldiers, this aspect of the design makes it for me particularly moving.

The detailing of the memorial is superb. Students of landscape design should be encouraged to visit it to learn the importance of step, edge and paving details, and the enormous power of simplicity when ‘writ large’. It is a living memorial, fresh red carnations are strewn throughout on the statuary, and the room below the main statue is filled with flowers and garlands. There is a complete absence of religious symbolism.

Many people will not like this memorial, or this kind of political landscape. I was surprised myself that I found it very moving. Though most visitors were simply out enjoying the sun, one overheard many conversations on political themes, so it does seem that this piece of landscape design is still engendering debate.

The final image, included for contrast and to encourage comment, is taken in Budapest’s Memento Park, a collection of statuary from the Russian occupation of Hungary. The statue is of Stalin’s boots, all that remains of a massive sculpture of him that once stood in the centre of the city, after the population sawed off the rest of it and pulled it down.

Wildflower meadows in London's 2012 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Is this a wildflower meadow in London's 2012 Olympic Park?

The BBC Today Programme (7.45 on 20.8.2012) had an item about the wildflower meadows being one of the great successes of the 2012 Olympic Games. I congratulate Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough on their planting design – and would like to know more about the origins of the planting design idea. Their history may be as follows, but any extra details from readers would be welcome:

  • EDAW (now AECOM) produced the master plan for what was the Olympic Park during the games and will re-open as the Queen Elizabeth Park in 2013. The idea for the planting design may have been theirs.
  • LDA with George Hargreaves produced the design plans – and probably commissioned Dunnett and Hitchmough.
  • LDA were guided by the Olympic Development Authority ODA and by John Hopkins, landscape architect and Head of Parklands & Public Realm at the Olympic Development Agency
  • Dunnett and Hitchmough were probably inspired by Piet Oudolf’s ideas on New Perennial planting design
  • Oudolf probably drew on Christopher Lloyd’s advocacy of wildflower meadows, and his work at Great Dixter
  • Christopher Lloyd was inspired by his mother, the beautifully named Daisy Lloyd, who made a flowery meadow at Dixter which she connected with the meadows in renaissance painting (eg Botticelli’s Primavera) and Pre-Raphaelite painting. Daisy also introduced Christopher to Gertrude Jekyll – and both were surely influenced by William Robinson.
  • Gertrude Jekyll popularised the idea of using plants in ‘drifts’
  • William Robinson shared John Ruskin’s love of the middle ages. He wrote a famous book on The Wild Garden and advocated ‘wild flower meadows’ instead of mown grass.
  • A medieval ‘meadow’ was ‘a piece of land permanently covered with grass to be mown for use as hay’ OED (mædewan, mædua, mæduen, etc in Old English).
  • Meadows contained wild flowers and meadow turf was cut from pastures and laid in gardens, probably as ground cover in small herbers for the delight of ladies and minstrels. ‘Mead’ is cognate with meadow. Deriving from Old Dutch and Old German, it was used rarely in Old English but later became popular with poets etc in the combination ‘flowery mead’.

The flowers in old English meadows were, of course ‘wild’ flowers. Those used in the Olympic 2012 Queen Elizabeth Park were wild somewhere at some time. But many are cultivars from outside the UK. If my plant identification is satisfactory, the above photograph has: Coreopsis (Tickseed, native to North America), Centaurea cyanus (Cornflower, native in the UK), Chrysanthemum carinatum ‘Polar Star’ (a cultivar of the annual chrysanthemum, native to North America), Calendula spp (pot marigold, native to the Middle East). The drifts of annual and perennial plants in the Lea Valley have visual connections with meadows and  the flowers are, or were, wild in some place at some time.  But they will not be used as pastures and one could make a good case for NOT calling them ‘wildflower meadows’. As Immanual Kant observed, paradox is an inescapable aspect of how we understand the world.

Mandala landscapes for stupas, temples, gardens and the Druk White Lotus School DWLS


We tend to think of a mandala (मण्डल) as a graphic pattern, though the Sanskrit derivation of the word is from the ‘cycles’ or ‘circles’ (ie ‘sections’ or ‘books’) of the Rig Veda. The Vedas were hymns recited on ritual occasions. Mandala patterns were developed to symbolise the rituals and the ideas underying the rituals. Buddhists took on the idea from Hindus and used mandala patterns in the design of stupas (chortens), tankas and many other things. Used in this way, a mandala symbolises the geography of the cosmos. Early mandala patterns had a lotus flower with open petals and the Buddha at its centre. Circles and squares were added and a mandala came to represent the four material elements of the universe (earth, water, fire, wind) with Mount sumeru as the world axis. Energy moves in a cosmic dance from the centre to the periphery, and then back to the centre, encompassing inanimate and living things.
Buddhist Chinese and Japanese gardens are also mandalas. The word ‘Pagoda’ derives from ‘stupa’ and these gardens symbolise the cosmos, with the temple as a house for a Buddha. In later Chinese gardens temples evolved into garden pavilions for the delight of their owners.
A real landscape can also be a mandala, with the Lapchi region on the Nepal-Tibet border a famous example, which includes Milarepa’s Cave. Lapchi’s mandala landscape is conceived to have three sacred triangles formed by the sky, the earth and the three rivers. The central mountain is seen as the Palace of Chakrasamvara.
The landscape around the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh can be thought of as an emerging mandala landscape.

  • It has a modern mandala plan, by Arup and Arup Associates.
  • It is in view of three famous Buddhist gompas: Shey, Thikse and Matho.
  • It is in the valley of a sacred river: the Indus

Time lapse photography of Buddhist monks using coloured sand to produce a sand mandala (courtesy camera_obscura):

Cross country event in Greenwich Park landscape


OK, I am a grunge re the 2012 London Olympics. For example, I drove past the Olympic Park last night at a peak period when the official websites were predicting fortissimo traffic chaos. The A12 was almost deserted and the Olympic Lane had nothing but empty buses. London is being described as a Ghost City, because so many sensible Londoners have fled to the shires.
So what of Greenwich Park? Unable to get a ticket, I looked first to the BBC, whose website had crashed. So I turned to Youtube and thank keirshepherd for the above video. It is nice to see folk having a great day out in the Park but (1) it looks as though I could have had a ticket without the Park becoming over-crowded (2) the competitors look amazingly relaxed – are they judged on the jumps and not on their speed? (3) where on earth did the kitchy ideas for the jumps come from? They make the aesthetics of Disneyland in the 1960s look restrained and tasteful. To find anything as bad in everyday London, the only place I can suggest is a pet superstore. Do we conceive the animal world as inferior to the youngest kids? Are horses imagined to enjoy trashy sentiment and sickly colours?
Greenwich Park was designed as a place to keep deer and for the young royals to learn horsemanship. One can imagine the Queen Elizabeth I taking the park at full pelt. The spirit of the Tudors could have been caught with a wild racing gallop – more Cecil B DeMille than Micky Mouse.

Image courtesy Peter J Dean

Hemel Hempstead Water Gardens to be restored

We contributed to the shaming of Dacorum Borough Council and thus to its decision to restore Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s design for the Water Gardens in Hemel Hempstead. See blog post: Hemel Hempstead Water Gardens are a National Disgrace. HTA Landscape Design has been appointed by Dacorum Borough Council to restore the the gardens. I hope volunteers will be involved and look forward to reporting on the success of the scheme.