Category Archives: Garden Visiting

Bad garden design in America


James van Sweden told Monty Don that ‘Americans just don’t get gardening. Americans don’t go outside. They are frightened of it. Frightened of bugs and wildlife. Frightened of the heat and the cold. They don’t want the work of a garden. Maintenance companies come in and cut and fertilise the grass. That’s it.’ (Around the world in 80 gardens, 2008 p.244) He sounds like a grumpy old man, and seems to have forgotten about California and the Pacific North West, but there are some significant points to be made about gardening in the United States:

  • when it is not too hot and too humid to work in a garden, it is often far too cold
  • though called ‘yards’ much of of the green space around houses is not fenced or otherwise enclosed, partly because a fence would be considered an unfriendly gesture
  • American’s move house more often than Europeans – and pay a higher percentage of the house price to the realtor (leaving less money for the garden)
  • American houses are larger than European houses – so why go out when indoors is so comfortable?
  • Americans have shorter vacations and tend to work longer hours
  • Food is cheaper in the US
  • the American landscape architecture profession continues to regard garden design as an inferior activity

Please correct me if I am wrong – or add other explanations. I am not saying bad garden design is an exclusively US phenomenon, but they do seem rather good at it! The above illustation is from our eBook The Principles of Garden Design. We are of course aware that America has many great public gardens to visit and has long enjoyed a leadership role in world landscape architecture.

The Landscape Man: Matthew Wilson on Channel 4

The Landscape Man launched on Channel 4 today with Matthew Wilson as host and Keith and Ros Wiley as his subjects. Matthew has a pleasant manner but, judged only from this episode, lacks a feeling for design. His talk was all about operations and quantities (of land, soil, money, water, plants etc). One feature was described as a ‘sort of canyon’ and another as a ‘sort of Mexican parterre with a wooden cloister and hot plants’. They call it the Wildside Garden. I would call it a display garden for a plant centre. Before that Keith was the manager for the Garden House, which is admired. The style of the Wildside planting was described ‘naturalistic’. But why make a Mexican parterre in Devon? – and when were parterres a characteristic garden form in Mexico? And what is ‘wild’ about pond liners? Matthew did not ask. Keith did not say. His main aim is to make money, since losing his previous job. Matthew has adopted many of Kevin McLeod‘s speech mannerisms and it would not be surprising to learn that the same production team is involved. But to catch-up with Kevin he must sharpen up his design judgement. The programme was sponsored by B&Q and I wondered if they had helped with the garden design.

Please change the inappropriate planting design in Salisbury Cathedral cloister "garden"

Is the planting in Salisbury Cathedral Cloister designed to hide the 'ugly' medieval stonework in England's largest cloister 'garden'?

Is the planting in Salisbury Cathedral Cloister designed to hide the 'ugly' medieval stonework in England's largest cloister 'garden'?

It takes one’s breath away. How can the managers of Salisbury Cathedral Cloister be so misguided in their approach to planting design? Do they really want to give one of the masterpieces of medieval  European landscape architecture (1280) the character of a Victorian vicarage? The apparent aim is to hide the floral tracery of arcades behind a shrubbery, and to hide those ugly stone columns with some nice green tanalized wooden posts – even the galvanized wire does not make them beautiful. Perhaps the trouble began when some past prelate had the idea of being buried in the cloister, making his successors think the place was a boneyard. Ugh. I wish the Church of England could resolve its problems with women priests, gay priests and planting design. The solutions are obvious and I would give them my advice with free and tolerant humility. Prima facie, I suggest (1) leave the cedars, despite their historical inaccuracy (2) remove the shrubbery (3) manage the grass as even more of a flowery mead than its present condition, (4) perhaps, have an annual design for the layout of mown paths in the millefiori.

(See yesterday’s post on the social use of cloister garths)

The use of cloister courts and garths for memorial plaques is fairly common in England. It can be compared to memorial plaques inside cathedrals and, of course, to the tomb gardens of Egypt, China, India and elsewhere. But it does not feel right and I think the Buddha had the right attitude when he asked for his grave to be unmarked. It was a sign of humility. Memorials smack of ostentation. But placing an engraved stone on a wall or floor is preferable to memorial stones in grass: they are often unsightly; they diminish the vegetated area; they are impure.

Canterbury Cathedral and the social use of cloister gardens in English monasteries

Canterbury Cathedral Cloister garden

Domestic use of Canterbury Cathedral Cloister is appropriate, but I do not think it should have been used as a graveyard

Canterbury Cathedral has beautiful cloisters. They were rebuilt in the fifteenth century on the site of the eleventh century cloisters built by Archbishop Lanfranc (c. 1005–1089) for Christ Church Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia (Italy) and brought to England by William the Conqueror. A water system was installed and a plan of the cloister drawn c1165. ‘This is a bird’s-eye view of the entire convent, drawn in accordance with the artistic methods of the time, and exhibiting the cathedral and monastic offices, viewed from the north. The water-courses are minutely shewn, with all their arrangements from the source to the convent, and its distribution to the monastic offices, supplying lavatories, cisterns, fish-ponds, etc., and finally flowing, in conjunction with the rain-water from the roofs and the sewerage of the convent, into the town ditch. As the drawing was probably made after the system was completed, we may for convenience assume its date at 1165, two years before the death of Wibert, and five years before the murder of Becket’. But what was the cloister used for? We can discover something from The monastic constitutions of Lanfranc By Lanfranc (Archbishop of Canterbury), trans David Knowles and Christopher Brooke:

p. 27 After their meal they shall sit in the cloister until the servers leave the refectory.
p. 35 There shall be a precession through the cloister as usual on Sundays.
p. 49 On Maundy… the cellarer and almoner and others appointed shall lead the poor into the cloister and cause them to sit
p.65 When all have received Communion the board shall be struck and the evening prayer take place. When this is done they shall go out into the cloister and wash their feet in warm water, and put on their day shoes.
p. 75 On Rogation Days… no sleep is taken in the afternoon… but at a fitting hour the masters shall waken the children as quietly as possible, and when these are reading in the cloister those who are still abed shall rise without delay p. 109 If it be an abbot who is received, he shall stand before the dore of the chapter-house and kiss the bretheren as they come out.
p. 131 Whossoever wishes to speak with the abbot, prior or any monk of the cloister shall use the guestmaster as his ambassador.
p.139 On other days when there is talking in the cloister, he who needs to he shaved may, by permission of the abbot or prior, be shaved in the cloister.

Note1: Technically, the ‘Cloister’ is the part of a monastery to which the public do not normally have access. The ‘Garth’, or garden, was the green space we now call a cloister.

Note2: in view of the appalling revelations of what catholic priests did to children in the 20th century, one worries about how much worse things were in earlier centuries. Rogation Days were set apart for solemn processions to invoke God’s mercy.

Kerb – is landscape architecture dead? – a magazine review

RMIT University in Australia publish the annual publication Kerb and Vol 17 asks the question ‘Is landscape architecture dead?’. It is a good question and a handsome volume with interesting illustrations. But most of the articles in Kerb led me to think that ‘if this is the future of landscape architecture, then it deserves to die’. The images do not have either captions or any discernable relationship with the text. Most of the 26 articles are inconsequential: significant questions are asked; random assertions are made; obscure paragraphs abound eg1 ‘Contemporary landscape architecture has not produced an aesthetic paradigm that describes the vicissitudes surrounding the idea of nature today’ (p 10),  eg2 ‘landscape is not an object. yet this image of landscape is projected upon the world with each project you undertake’ (p.73)  eg3 ‘interpret ‘scape as meaning ‘pretty dress up’. Dig up a Chinese creek bed, polish the booty, and dress up my ‘scape outside the screen door’ (p.92). But I must be wrong: many young Australian landscape architects come to work in London and they have earned a good reputation for Australia’s landscape schools.

Triclinium Roman dining tables

A re-created Triclinium at Fishbourne Roman Garden

A re-created Triclinium at Fishbourne Roman Garden

How did they do it? Romans ate on ‘three couches’ (a triclinium) with a table separating them (see Wiki on triclinium). There is a garden re-creation of a triclinium at Fishbourne Roman Garden and one can find some photos on the web of students eating this way. When I first came across the idea, I assumed the couches were only for orgies, so that you could eat yourself sick and misbehave at will. But no, a triclinium seems to have been the normal way for wealthy people to eat. I tried arranging the sofa to eat in this way. It was not good for my digestion,  drinking was  difficult and I did not explore my earlier ideas. The only advantage I discovered was that if one was eating sloppy food without a knife or fork then it was easy to get one’s mouth vertically above the plate, as one still does for spaghetti. I remain puzzled, but here are some German students with a foodless triclinium and here is a painting of a Roman banquet.

Cothay Manor Garden

Channel 4, in the UK, did a programme on Cothay Manor Garden this evening. Mr Alastair Robb (78) and Mrs Mary-Anne Robb (68) spend £40,000/year on running the house and only get £15,000 from opening the garden to the public. Mrs Robb said, rightly, that ‘most National gardens have lost their soul’ and that running the garden as the National Trust do would wreck its character. They have four children who say ‘we don’t want to spend every waking hour working, as you do’. But the parents gave the property to one of the children, to ‘keep it in the family’ and preserve their life’s work. Not all the other children were happy with this, understandably.  Ruth, for Channel 4, suggests the solution re the income is to organize events (like sculpture exhibitions) to attract more visitors and make more money. I saw this tried in several gardens last summer, including Chatsworth, Hatfield House and Mellerstain, and thought the sculpture and the gardens did nothing for each other (or for the  income at Cathay). Ruth also persuaded them to build a cafe-restaurant, which made the Robbs their first ever profit, with visitor numbers up from 5,000 to 15,000. Giving the property to one child, hopefully 7 years before the parents’ death, saves £1m in inheritance tax on a £3m property. Interesting.

Sericourt – A Garden for Remembrance Sunday

The Yew Army at Sericourt

The Yew Army at Sericourt

The title of Yve Gosse de Gorre’s book about his Jardin de Sericourt translates as ‘Wisdom and Folly in the Garden’. The garden lives up to the name and is filled with deep thinking leavened with humour.

Like Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation it is concerned with the meaning behind the form, but less about the nature of nature, and more about the nature of man.

In the classic French manner there is much use of box and topiary, but not only to provide the framework of the garden as you might traditionally expect – here the evergreen sculptures provide the form, the content, the rythmn and the meaning of the garden. There is one early ‘mixed border a l’anglaise’ created in the 1980’s, but after that the garden is an intricate grid of pathways and allees, rooms and vistas, all exploring a concept, and all inviting intervention and interpretation by the viewer. Charles Jencks garden was criticised last year for having become a ‘monologue’ instead of a ‘dialogue’, but Yve Gosse does not speak so much as open the pages of his book for the viewer to make up his own mind.


The Council of War at Sericourt

The Council of War at Sericourt

The Council of War – monumental, menacing or amusing?

The Millenium

The Millenium Cross

Charles Jencks Portrack Garden of Cosmic Speculation

Charles Jencks has been making the most interesting postmodern garden in Britain, with the Prince of Wales Highgrove garden as its only rival. Jencks, as the leading theorist of postmodernism, has the stronger theoretical base and I daresay there is not much to chose between the gardens with regard to resource costs. The Prince is the clear winner on sustainability grounds.

Apart from its striking visual character, the most interesting thing about Jencks Portrack garden is the way it carries forward the ancient project of making gardens which imitate (mimesis) the Nature of nature. Jencks seeks to understand the nature of the world, through science, and to embody the nature of the world in a garden design. The pharaohs, Plato, the emperors of China, Alberti, Capability Brown, William Robinson and Charles Prince of Wales  had the same intention. The results differ because their understandings of nature differ.

One criticism I have heard of Jencks’ Portrack Garden is that he is too literal in his ‘imitations’ of physical and chemical laws, principles and formulae. While not seeing this as a fault, I agree with the observation. The alternative would be to use the revelations of science as Jencks’ renaissance predecessors used optics and mechanics to produce remarkable visual effects and devices in gardens. Outside the garden realm, one of the most dazzling examples of what might be done, from the nineteenth century, is the Foucault Pendulum, demonstrating the rotation of the earth. “The direction along which the pendulum swings rotates with time because of Earth’s daily rotation. The first public exhibition of a Foucault pendulum took place in February 1851 in the Meridian Room of the Paris Observatory. A few weeks later, Foucault made his most famous pendulum when he suspended a 28-kg bob with a 67-metre wire from the dome of the Panthéon in Paris. The plane of the pendulum’s swing rotated clockwise 11° per hour, making a full circle in 32.7 hours.”  It is not too late to be making Foucault Gardens, Foucault-inspired gardens and other gardens inspired by a scientific understandings of Nature.

Charles Jencks Portrack House

Charles Jencks Portrack House

Image courtesy Marilyn Mullay

Prince Charles' Postmodern Garden Design for Highgrove

The cover of The Garden At Highgrove by the Prince of Wales and Candida Lycett Green illustrates the postmodern character of even the central vista

The cover of The Garden At Highgrove by the Prince of Wales and Candida Lycett Green illustrates the postmodern character of even the central vista (the cedar tree has since died)

Gods bless the Prince of Wales

I once wrote that ‘Royal leadership in the art of garden design began to decline after the accession of George I in 1714‘. His successors lacked the garden enthusiasm of their predecessors. No one could say this of Prince Charles. With talent and resources, he is making one of England’s great gardens. Should he become Charles III, as I  hope, he will be the most talented garden designer ever to sit on the throne of England or Great Britian. He has substantial talents in garden design, landscape architecture and landscape painting. Charles is already The Green Prince. But will future historians state that ‘royal leadership in the art of garden design resumed when the Duchy of Cornwall bought Highgrove from Maurice Macmillan in 1980’? It is possible. But it is too early to judge. The Prince has, he tells us, put his soul into Highgrove. You can find a few images on the web and many in his book  but unless you manage a visit, as I was lucky to do, you will not get a good idea of the garden. With 6 full-time gardeners and 4 part-time gardeners, it is a fast-changing and, as yet, a rather admirably untidy place.

I will try to put my analysis into the standard format of a design critic and teacher: classifying the approach, saying what is good, saying what is not so good, and making suggestions re ‘what could do with further thought’.

The style of the Highgrove garden

The house dates from the 1790s and the design theory underlying the garden dates from much the same time. Humphry Repton, who once worked for a Prince of Wales, would have strongly supported the use of a compartmented structure and, unlike Arts and Crafts compartments, they would have had design themes.  I do not doubt that Repton would have approved the use of contemporary themes at Highgrove – and the view of Tetbury steeple from the front of the house is uncannily like a Reptonian sketch. But the visual character of Highgrove is uncompromisingly postmodern – to a far greater extent than the Abbey Garden in nearby Malmesbury by the brash postmodern developer-architect Ian Pollard. In detail, it may well be that Prince Charles has drawn inspiration from his annual visits to the Chelsea Flower Show and, perhaps, from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta and from the work of Geoffrey Jellicoe.

What’s good about the Highgrove garden design

The Prince has been very brave. His skill with pen and brush have educated a discerning eye and a creative imagination, able and willing to work as a patron for talented craftworkers.  Individual compartments are highly experimental, with some notable successes and some requiring further thought. He also has a grand theme – sustainability-  which,  it must be hoped, will unite the compartments into what could become the greatest Postmodern Garden in Britain. At present Portrack, by Charles Jencks, is its chief rival.

What’s not so good about the Highgrove garden design

The Highgrove garden lacks spatial coherence. This flaw may be a consequence of its youth. But it may also result from the lack of a ‘master plan’ at the outset of the project. It is perfectly logical for a Postmodern garden to be without a master plan but its lack may diminish the eventual quality of the design.

Respectful suggestions for the Highgrove garden

I saw Highgrove in early autumn. It may be that a flowing springtime meadow, billowing  around the geometrical core, gives more coherence. But I doubt if this would be enough, even though Miriam Rothschild advised on the composition and management of the wildflowers. My first suggestion to Prince Charles is to get some feint outlines of the garden plan printed onto the best watercolour paper and then to lay some washes to create a shape and a pattern for this space. My second suggestion is to give some more thought to the pedestrian circulation. This should be done first by user analysis (records of walks: by residents, visitors, staff, animals etc) to plot desire lines, and then by the Prince, if he can find the time, doing a series of quick watercolours to show views along a ‘processional route’ (ie a recommend route for visitors). They should be arranged in sequence and used as a design tool for future projects. Eventually, it might be found that they can be edited to tell a story.

PS I use ‘gods’ instead of ‘god’ in the heading for this post for several reasons (1) Prince Charles has stated his desire to be the Defender of Faiths, rather than Defender of the Faith (Fidei defensor), (2) many ‘gods’ appear to be respected and represented at Highgrove, (3) Christianity has not been a fruitful religion with regard to garden design.

PPS I also liked the Orchard Room designed by Charles Morris and consider Jonathan Glancey’s piece on A royal bungalow in the Tesco style bigoted.

Upland Britain with a blanket cover of wind turbines

Palm Springs may show how Upland Britain will look in the age of renewable energy

Palm Springs may show how Upland Britain will look in the age of renewable energy

David MacKay states that onshore wind farms are likely to generate 2W/m2 and offshore wind farms to generate 3W/m2. To supply the UK energy demand of 50kWh/day would therefore require an area twice the size of Wales to meet the demand with from offshore farms and three times the size of Wales to meet the demand from onshore wind farms. Wales (8,022 sq mi ) has approx 8%  of the area of the UK. At present 13.5% of the UK is urbanized. David MacKay asks ‘would the public accept and pay for such extreme arrangements?’ Please study the above photo of Palm Springs in California before giving an answer. Some people might find a blanket of turbines ugly.

Scotland has 32% of the UK’s land area and only 8.4% of the population, so it would be relatively easy to win a democratic vote to blanket Scotland with wind turbines and solve the UK’s energy problem, though the cost would be high. We could omit the Forth-Clyde Valley and include parts of Northumberland and Central Wales  in the interests of ‘equity’. Too many southerners have holiday homes in the Lake District for this area to be included – so it could be a good place for property investment.

Above image courtesy slworking

Would the Scots mind having wind turbines embellishing Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh's historic skyline?

Would the Scots mind having wind turbines embellishing Arthur's Seat and Edinburgh's historic skyline?

Please visit the Jardin Plume before it becomes over copied

the Bassin Mirroir and Orchard at the Jardin Plume

the Bassin Mirroir and Orchard at the Jardin Plume

I vividly remember my sense of injustice and disappointment when a university tutor dismissed the French Romantic poetry I was raving about as ‘cliché’. I had only just met it, and I thought it was wonderful. Please then, go to see this wonderful garden before it becomes cribbed, copied, and eventually clichéd. It is so new and so original, yet the formula is old, because this garden takes the best principles of the past and applies them in a strikingly modern way.

Sylvie and Patrick Quibel are hortics who built the garden to promote their nursery. Now the nursery funds the garden, and the garden has been voted Garden of the Year by Those That Know.

It is on flat ground in the middle of farm land in Normandy, a climate similar to ours in England, so plenty of scope for copying. The Quibels based the design on the principles used at Vaux le Vicomte by Le Notre (a design so successful that the Sun King jealously imprisoned the owner, stole the chateau, and got the designer to do him Versailles). There are grand allées, formal hedging and tightly clipped parterres. The house is raised above the land, and extra land is ‘borrowed’ by carrying the eye seamlessly into countryside beyond. There is a potager as purely ornamental as Marie Antoinette’s, a pool to reflect the heavens, and secluded spots for indulgent reverie. So far so déjà vue, but what makes the garden modern is the way all this is done.

The raising of the house is by one sole brick step, and that is the only new hard landscaping to be seen. The allées are wide paths in an orchard, mown between geometric squares filled with tall grasses and colourful perennials. Thus French formality is wittily contrasted with the billowing grasses which play so well to the wind swept site .The Quibels saw them as undulating and continued the metaphor by clipping the formal hedges into waves.

The parterre in front of the house is filled with the Summer garden – a jumble of hot colours and tall shapes including over 8 different types of Helenium – on close inspection each bed of the parterre has a side missing, ‘to let in the air’. This looks out onto the orchard, and beneath an enormous apple tree, the reflection pool, which is a simple square cut in place of one of the grass cubes in the orchard.

There are traditional box balls in the Spring garden, but there are over twenty of them, of varying sizes and interplanted with mainly whites such as hellebore and solomon’s seal, astrantia and pulmonaria, all brought alive with the lightest scattering of Molinia ‘Fontane’ dancing above.

The Autumn garden is hidden behind hedges on the west side of the house, and Patrick describes how they built the arbour as this is the best spot to enjoy an evening aperitif. In front of the arbour an enormous ‘table’ of box separates the diners from the crowd of ‘vivaces’, a brightly coloured jostling jungle of perennials, with annuals and grasses, mostly over six foot tall. The Quibels site Dixter as an influence, and like Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett they plant in associations. They will try out groupings in situ until they are happy with a combination, when they repeat it again and again, so that the result is harmonious, whilst looking natural. In the spring everything is cut to the ground, weeds removed and, like Dixter, self-seeders scrutinised and allowed tenancy where they enhance the original planting.

The arbour and box 'table' in the Autumn garden at Jardin Plume

The arbour and box 'table' in the Autumn garden at Jardin Plume

As nurserymen the Quibels were influenced by Priona in Holland, and they propagate a huge range of new perennial style plants such as Aster, Cimicifuga, Veronicastrum, Circium, Epilobium Sanguisorbas and Thalictrums and wonderful grasses including their own self seeded Miscanthus ‘saturnia’, a luminous white flowering possible love child of Miscanthus ‘Silver feather’ which is similar but heavier.

It is this mixture of formal and natural, control and laissée faire, old fashioned structure and twenty-first century planting that makes this garden special. It is a very sensual garden, crammed full of colours, scents and movement, and the French are very sensual about their plants. Nursery catalogues talk of finding the plants that have ‘seduced’ you in the gardens, and to overhear the eager replies to Patrick’s question ‘Do you want it?’ (vous le voulez?) in the nursery, you can see why.

The Quibels will be speaking at the Garden Museum on October 20th To visit the garden see

Patrick Quibel in le Jardin Plume

Patrick Quibel in le Jardin Plume

Historic garden conservation and restoration

Richmond Castle garden

Richmond Castle garden

A summer of visiting English gardens and today’s visit to Restoration House and Garden in Rochester set me thinking about historic gardens – and reminded me to take a closer look at the 2007 English Heritage Handbook on The management and maintenance of historic parks, gardens and landscapes. It is an admirable book, well written and illustrated, but it is not the book which historic gardens most needed, because the emphasis is so much more on the technicalities of managing historic gardens than on the the strategic questions of what, why, when and where. To draw a military analogy, it is a book for quarter-masters – not a book on generalship. Also, and understandably, it offers only praise for the work of English Heritage on historic gardens. There is no clearer illustration of this point than the chart (p.47) of Job Titles and Garden Staff Roles. The highest position on the chart is Head Gardener/Garden Curator/Garden Manager and his/her qualifications are described as “M.Hort (RHS), Degree, Botanic Garden Diploma, HND or equivalents + 7 years experience’. The next column summarizes the necessary skills as ‘specialist technical skills and ability. Proven management and policy-making ability’. There is no mention of the two other essential skill-sets for managing a historic garden: historical knowledge and design judgment. It is like putting builders in charge of historic buildings, in full disregard for the need for historical knowledge and design judgment relating to architecture. Lets hope the book goes to a second edition and that this gap is filled. Meantime, we offer readers the notes and guides to Historic Garden Restoration and and Garden Heritage Conservation.

English Heritage’s strategic weakness in garden conservation is illustrated by their work at Hampton Court and Kenilworth Castle. The handbook boasts of English Heritage’s Contemporary Heritage Garden Scheme – which I regard as almost entirely misconceived. ‘Contemporary Heritage’ is within an ace of an oxymoron – and why should they be building contemporary gardens in the precincts of great historic buildings, like Richmond Castle? To attract visitors? To give proof of their trendy tendencies? The scheme should go for scrappage.

Photo Notes: (1) the top photo shows Richmond Castle with a ‘contemporary heritage’ topiary garden (left photo) and a sensible picture of a fifteenth century orchard-vegetable garden on the English Heritage sign (top left corner of right photo) (2) the left and right photos, below, show two additional views of the ‘contemporary heritage’ garden.

The lawn (right) and the herbaceous border (left) at Richmond Castle Garden

The lawn (right) and the herbaceous border (left) at Richmond Castle Garden

The sky's the limit


Vauxhall Sky gardens:

As garden-in-architecture skygardens are new to the urban design agenda. I suppose what we are talking about here when considering the introduction of skygardens into the garden and architecture typology is a form of greenhouse or biodome in the sky. Vauxhaull it would appear is a semi-private garden akin to the penthouse suite or the executive boardroom. While Fenchurch Street seems to promote public thoroughfare and viewing…even though it is not a podium space but rather akin to  garden- as- observation- deck.

Other projects are shown on  and but it will be even more interesting as the type gains popularity and skygardens become a more developed typology….

20 Fenchurch street:


Glass and thatched roofs at Athelhampton

Glass roof and thatched roof at Athelhampton House and Garden

Glass roof and thatched roof at Athelhampton House and Garden

Here is a really good example of context-sensitive design: the glass roof sits beautifully with the thatched roof. It looks as though the pitch is the same and I can’t even be sure whether the piers which support the glass are old or new. But some of the other details are less than perfect – the trip rail, though suitably rustic,  seems unnecessary and the outdoor lantern is not in keeping with the arts and crafts excellence of the Athelhampton garden or indeed with what is described as one of the finest 15th century houses in England.

Can we trust The National Trust?

When planning a visit to gardens managed by the National Trust, one checks opening times, days/months, and in my case whether dogs are allowed. Lately, though, I have realised there are more things to confirm before a sometimes vast journey is met by disappointment.


A large part of the experience of a garden/landscape is visual, so are we missing out if we cannot take good photographic images or view ‘scenes’ we expected to due to the mismanagement of landscapes?


My displeasure with The NT was prompted by recent visits to two iconic landscapes, and their less than satisfactory responses after I contacted them with my concerns. It would seem the NT has lost its focus and is swamped by policy documents etc and cant concentrate on little maintenance operations. I think this might be because it has become a huge organisation and is too preoccupied with creating strategies for the future and not concentrating on keeping present ‘customers’ happy. It is managing visitors’ experiences now and encouraging repeat visits which will keep these landscapes alive, without visitors there is little point in future management strategies. Customer satisfaction must be the priority and customer satisfaction is, admittedly, a complicated issue but it must rest on the unique experiential qualities of each individual landscape.


The two landscapes I will comment on are Studley Royal and Claremont. At both of these I encountered the same problem of obscured viewpoints. Both of these landscapes contain topographical high points that were utilised as positions from which to overlook the landscape below/beyond. Currently many of these viewpoints are obscured by undergrowth, and in some cases large trees. Most disappointingly is at Claremont where there is a viewpoint indicated on the map shown on the leaflet (more on this leaflet later!) and when one climbs up to where there should be the best view over these iconic grass terraces (the view shown in all images of this landscape) we see only large shrubs and trees in our way. NT do plan to clear it in the future, but apparently it is not a priority because ’not many people use this path’.


As for the leaflet; I was not impressed by the leaflet given to me upon entrance because of the amateur looking drawings of insects and creatures on it. Upon further investigation I became quite disheartened by its contents. The bias towards environmental concerns in this landscape was beyond logic. I thought I had come to a landscape famous for having a number of England’s most famous historical Landscape Architects/Garden Designers work on it, not to a landscape legendary for being where dragonflies flourish. I have nothing against environmental issues and in fact believe quite obviously that the designed landscape and the natural landscape should exist in unison. But let’s get our priorities right here, what is most important about this landscape, what is it special characteristic? If these dragonflies can only be found in this landscape, then fair enough they do deserve a mention, but this leaflet contained one small section on the designers (each of whom have had volumes and volumes of words published about them) and the rest of the leaflet was about bugs and insects etc.


At Studley Royal (which incidentally is a World Heritage Site) I looked forward to seeing the famous Moon Ponds. The photo below shows what I found. When I asked what the NT are doing about green algae I got a very informative response explaining the difficulties in maintaining these pools as they were not designed that well. I sympathised with this and was interested to read further that there is a future £1m redevelopment proposed that ought to alleviate ‘some’ of the green algae problem. I really cannot help thinking that for much less expense than that, why cant they simply scoop out the algae on a regular basis, starting immediately.


Green clouds?

Green clouds or turf?




By contrast, the adjacent river shows the reflections my photos should have captured had the Moon Ponds been clear of algae.


White Clouds

White Clouds

 The NT are custodians of our heritage. There is always a huge bias towards architectural heritage opposed to landscape heritage anyway, this can possibly be excused. But can the mismanagement of important landscapes ensure their survival into the future? Of course I understand that on the whole and as an organisation the NT do a magnificent job as protectors and advocates, in the big picture, but are they loosing focus on the micro scale? Are these small issues only noticeable to garden historians and not the regular punter, am I being fussy? Either way, I will not be recommending anyone visit a NT trust landscape to see some specific scene unless the NT can assure that that scene is actually available for viewing. 


Historic garden management at Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle Garden

Warwick Castle Garden

I drove from Kenilworth Castle, managed by po-faced English Heritage, to Warwick Castle, managed by fun-loving Madam Tussauds, who also run a little waxworks museum in London. The poster, below, gave me cold shivers, and I would not want many historic properties to be run like this. But the actual treatment of the grounds seemed tasteful and enjoyable. And medieval castles were exceedingly busy, so the crowds are like ‘props’ in recreating the bustle of the middle ages. The big problem with management by English Heritage and the National Trust is that they both own far too many properties and want to develop a ‘brand’ in property management. Diversity is better. The comparison with Sissinghurst Castle Garden is instructive.

Warwick Castle Garden

Warwick Castle Garden

Please do not visit Sissinghurst Castle Garden

The Sissinghurst White Garden (right)

The Sissinghurst White Garden (right)

In the interests of conservation, please do not visit Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Unless of course,  you are a garden designer, owner-designer or historian:  in which case you have no alternative and should see our page on Sissinghurst garden visits.
Sissinghurst Garden should never have been marketed as a destination for coach parties, not even for the good ladies of the Gateshead Woman’s Rural Institute. I reached this elitist conclusion in the course of a visit to Sissinghurst Garden on 10th July 2009. At 10.55 am there was a traffic jam in Sissinghurst Village and it then took 15 minutes to negotiate the single-track road from the ‘turn-off’ (double entendre intended) to the Alton Towers-ish car parks. Luckily, an electric float was available for transfers to the Sissinghurst Ticket Office. We had to join a long queue for timed tickets to enter the garden and were given a ticket with a 30 minute wait for the 12 noon entry. Then we spent 20 of those 30 minutes queuing for coffee. There was no timed ticket system for the toilets but it was necessary to queue again, even for the urinals. It was not quite like visiting Bluewater Shopping Centre on the last Saturday before Christmas, but there were similarities.
Inside at last, poor old Sissinghurst Garden looked over-crowded and rather tired. The main show of white in the famous White Garden was sweaty T-shirts and some tasteless muts were dressed in reds, yellows, blues and other colours too. I asked an employee if it was often as busy as this. She said we were lucky to be here on a quiet day.
Remembering Adam Nicholson’s plea for Sissinghurst, to change and to become the World Lesbian Capital.  I remarked to my wife that if she encountered any hot lesbian action in the undergrowth, my blog would benefit from a few good nipple shots. Escaping from the crush, we went to see Adam Nicholson’s new vegetable garden. It is no re-creation of Young Adam’s boyhood rural idyll, or his teenage fantasies. It is a high-tech production facility for the restaurant. We ‘invested’ in 2 coffees and 2 slices of cake, paying £10.80 for them and remembering the bargain eats we have so often enjoyed in motorway service stations.
It all makes me wonder if Sissinghurst should become a Theme Park, managed, like Warwick Castle, by Madame Tussaud’s. Phases 11 and 12 of the Sissinghurst International Development Programme (SIDP) are going to involve cows and pigs. Why not have tended by yokels in smocks with pretty milkmaids in Tess of the d’Urbervilles outfits? Just think of the merchandising opportunities. Later phases of the SIDP are expected to include:
13. The Sissinghurst Blue Garden (over-18s only)
14. The Sissinghurst Trump Hotel
15. The Sissinghurst Resort Spa and Conference Centre
16. The Sissinghurst Golf Course
17. The Sissinghurst International Airport
18. Sissinghurst Eurostar Station
19. The M2-Sissinghurst Link Road
20. The Sissinghurst range of Gay and Lesbian Sex Toys

Fishbourne Roman Palace Garden

The re-created Fishbourne Roman Garden looks too much like a renaissance garden, with a 'formal' hedge and mown lawn

The re-created Fishbourne Roman Garden looks too much like a renaissance garden, with a 'formal' hedge and a mown lawn. The museum building, left, is passable but it would have been a much better idea to use the columns to make a proper peristyle with a tiled roof. Terracotta-coloured sheet steel would be an improvement.

Barry Cunliffe led the excavations at Fishbourne from 1961-8 and wrote a most useful book on the subject. Located near Chichester on the south coast, Fishbourne is the best example of a Roman garden in England. But I am doubtful about Cunliffe’s interpretation.  He began with the proposition that ‘there was a formal and it was discoverable by excavation’ (Cunliffe’s italics). This assumes his conclusion and the term ‘formal garden’ comes from a much later period in garden history. This has been a problem with much that has been written about Roman gardens. Since the term ‘Renaissance’ means ‘re-birth’ too many people have concluded that we can discover the form of  Roman gardens by studying renaissance re-incarnations. But there are several other sources of information about Roman gardens and they do not seem to confirm this picture (or ‘formal’ hedges and a ‘formal’ lawn : (1)  the frescos at Pompeii, Herculaneum and elsewhere; (2) excavation of garden sites in Southern Europe; (3) texts, such as Pliny’s letters. None of these sources confirm the above re-creation of Fishourne. The planting design  comes from a pattern of trenches, but there is no evidence that box was planted in these trenches. Cunliffe calls them ‘bedding trenches’ (p.134) and my experience of growing hedges and flowers inclines me to the belief that they were more likely to have been planted with flowers. Pollen analysis yielded no information but box is of course a tree (Buxus sempervirens). It can grow on very dry soils and it has has strong fibrous roots. Digging up one of the box trees shown on the photograph ( planted at Fishbourne in the 1960s) would provide useful evidence – my guess is that the roots would be found to have outgrown and destroyed the archaeological Roman ‘bedding trenches’ (in fact I do not think they should have been planted, for this very reason – who knows what information future archaeological techniques might otherwise have discovered?). William Melmoth’s translation of Pliny’s Letter LII to Domitius Apollinaris [ Bosanquet, 1909 edn] includes this passage:  ‘You descend, from the terrace, by an easy slope adorned with the figures of animals in box, facing each other, to a lawn overspread with the soft, I had almost said the liquid, Acanthus: this is surrounded by a walk enclosed with evergreens, shaped into a variety of forms.’   I wonder if the tree, shown as a conical specimen on the photograph, was box clipped into an animal form. Conical specimen trees and lawns are modern concepts.  Like everyone, I  would like to know more.

Surrey Garden Tours

Summerhouse at Millmead, designed by Lutyens

Summerhouse at Millmead, designed by Lutyens

Once upon a glorious sunny day (actually last Tuesday), I braved a rather gruesome M25 to join Joy and Jane in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for one day of their garden tour visiting rarely accessible gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll.

We were shown round each garden by the gardener, starting with Jekyll’s own garden at Munstead Wood. She began creating the garden in 1883 and commissioned her friend Edwin Lutyens to design the house.  There is something very casual and comfortable about the garden and it is easy to feel very at home there. The triangular Summer Garden, also called the Three Corner Garden, was densely populated with blooming foxgloves, iris, lupins and dhalias. Both Munstead Wood itself and adjoining The Quadrangle (Jekyll’s experimental garden) are adorned with elegant Munstead White foxgloves, with beautiful green mottling and slightly shiny leaves.

At the restored Quadrangle you can see an experiment that Jekyll never got round to herself.  She suggested that a lovely border could be created backed with redcurrant and Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus) – and now it has been. David Austin Roses introduced a rather lovely crimson rose in 2007 called Munstead Wood and I had the opportunity to admire some fine specimens.

Later, we visted another Jekyll and Lutyens collaboration – Millmead. It is a dignified terraced town garden with a charming summer house, that has been recreated in the Jekyll style garden at Godalming Museum.

Guests stay in either Heath House (Joy’s B&B) or Nurscombe (Jane’s B&B) which I can only imagine is a very great pleasure. I popped into Nurscombe for a quick look round and had lunch at Heath House. Joy is a fine cook and even made an ice bowl embedded with flower petals to serve dessert.  I have every intention of having a go at making one myself.

I would strongly recommend booking yourself a place on the next tour (dates are 7th-10th September 2009) – see Surrey Garden Tours for more information.