Category Archives: Historic garden restoration

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.

Mass protest against Greenwich Park equestrian event

Protesters shout SAVE GREENWICH PARK on 11 October 2009

Protesters shout SAVE GREENWICH PARK on 11 October 2009

We like to be first with the news. This photo was taken half an hour ago and we estimate there were over a thousand people in Greenwich Park on a wet afternoon, most of them horrified at the prospect of the damage the Olympic Equestrian Event would do to the Park. Those pounding hoofs and crowds of people would damage the Le Notre Parterre and endanger those wonderful old chestnut trees which do so much to feed Chinese chestnut pickers each autumn. See also: Restoration after 2012 Greenwich Olympic Equestrian Event and Olympic Village 2012.

Rescue garden archaeology before the Olympic equestrian event in Greenwich

The space in front of the Queen's House is the site of the only design by Andre Le Notre for a British park or garden. Le Notre was the greatest garden designer and landscape architect of the seventeenth century.

The space in front of the Queen's House is the site of the only design by Andre Le Notre for a British park or garden. Le Notre was the greatest garden designer and landscape architect of the seventeenth century. Archaeological research should be done before the land is sacrificed to the the 2012 Olympic horses.

Andre Le Notre was the greatest landscape architect of the seventeenth century and, many would say, of any century. He completed only one design in the British Isles. It was for a parterre in Greenwich Park, London. The current proposal is to use this parterre for the 2012 Olympic Equestrian. Two conclusions surely follow:

1) the parterre garden and its periphery should have a full rescue archaeology investigation before any work of any kind begins

2) the Le Notre parterre garden should be fully restored if the Equestrian Event takes place here, because horses and stadia damage land.

LOCOG, the London Organising Committee of the 2012 Olympic Games,  say:

– the ground is to be ‘improved’ and strengthened
– to soften the ground there will be some decompaction/aeration
– as part of recovery programme there will be reseeding or returfing
– tree roots would be protected with materials such as woodchip

What will improvement, strengthening, decompaction and aeration do the archaeological remains? They are no way to treat a site of Grade I Garden Archaeological Importance. The first step should be a non-invasive geophysical survey using a magnetometer. This can map buried building foundations (eg of fountain basins) and can even plot the location of pre-historic paths in certain circumstances. The Le Notre parterre was cultivated during the Second World War but (1) the cultivation is unlikely to have been deep (2) it may well have been limited to the flat area of the parterre (3) evedince may survive below the parterre and near Le Notre’s banks, which are the areas most likely to be damaged by the equestrian competition arena.

Let us hope English Heritage supports the call for an archaeological investigation before further damage is done.

Andre Le Notre's plan for the parterre in Greenwich Park, with handwriting in his own hand. The earthworks were implemented and survive in part. An archaeological investigation is necessary to discover the extent to which the paths were built, and what survives of them.

Andre Le Notre's plan for the parterre in Greenwich Park, with handwriting in his own hand. The earthworks were implemented and survive in part. An archaeological investigation is necessary to discover the extent to which the paths were built, and what survives of them.

The embankment forms part of Andre Le Notre's earthworks in Greenwich Park

The foreground embankment forms part of Andre Le Notre's earthworks in Greenwich Park

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 Gardenvisit.com 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

National Trust Gardens Poem

A 'Sissinghurst Border' at Hardwick Hall, built 1590-7 and famous for being little changed

A 'Sissinghurst Border' at Hardwick Hall, built 1590-7 and famous for being little changed

Graham Stuart Thomas knew lots about flowers
So the National Trust gave him unlimited powers
Every Head Gardener was bullied and cursed
“You must make your garden more like Sissinghurst”

This verse was inspired by Marian’s quotation from John Michell and by  many visits to NT gardens. Graham Stuart Thomas was the National Trust’s first gardens advisior.  I don’t have much evidence but I suspect him of making NT gardens too similar – by applying the tradional, and wretchedly simplistic, theory that all you really need for a good garden is some informality, some formality and good flowers from a good nursery.

If the National Trust was more like a cultural organization and less like a commercial organisation then its website would be less like the website of a hotels chain and more like the brilliant  Touregypt website. For example, compare these entries: Philae and Prior Park and Gilpin Lodge Country House Hotel. Which two are the most alike?

Note: one can be as sure they did not have herbaceous borders in 1590 as of any most other details in the history of planting design.


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.

Hyde Hall RHS Garden in Essex

Hyde Hall RHS Essex Planting

Hyde Hall RHS Essex Planting

The Hyde Hall garden was begun by Dr Robinson in 1955 and given to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1993. Dr Robinson was no designer and the RHS has been struggling with his legacy. They employed good consultants (Colvin and Moggridge) but the place is still disappointing. The planting is much improved but the underlying spatial structure is, as it always was, dreary. This summer I made my third visit since the RHS took over and the really surprising thing was how popular it has become. So the design is a success from this point of view, just as McDonalds is a very  successful restaurant chain. But, from my standpoint, McDonalds needs a plenipotentary Chief  Chef and Hyde Hall needs a plenipotentary Resident Designer. My strong impression is that good design consultants are not enough. The garden manager needs to be a trained designer, as well as a manager. This is how most of history’s great gardens were made: by owne- designers or by patrons who worked hand-in-glove with a designer, as Louis XIV did with Le Notre. Making a good garden is a hands-on job. You need drawings but you cannot do the job with drawings alone. You have to live in the garden, to see it every day of the year and to have the requisite authority to change the layout and the planting.


In Britain, most gardens open to the public are now managed by managers who are not designers. This is a great mistake. To create or maintain a good garden, or park, you must be a designer. A formal training is not essential, though it is a great advantage. But design talent is essential. It must guide every decision, from the smallest to the largest. Committees cannot possibly undertake this role and it is rare for someone with only a horticultural training to have the necessary skill-set.

Hyde Hall RHS Essex spatial and construction design

Hyde Hall RHS Essex spatial and construction design


National Trust Flag flies at Charlecote Park


National Trust Flag flies at Charlcote

National Trust Flag flies at Charlecote

I was shocked to see the National Trust flying its flag over the Charlecote gatehouse in May 2009. Have they conquered the place? Wikipedia reports that ‘The Lucy family, who came to England with William the Conqueror, has owned the land since 1247. Charlecote Park was built in 1558 by Sir Thomas Lucy, and Queen Elizabeth I stayed in the room that is now the drawing room.’ So why can’t we have the Cross of St George flying over Charlecote? ‘White for purity and red for valour’. The colours would be better, the symbolism far better – and the pulse would beat faster. Does the National Trust associate England’s ensign with lower class football hooligans?


250 Congratulations to Kew Gardens

Wildflower planting outside Kew Gardens

Wildflower planting outside Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens are 250 years old this year and far more beautiful and interesting than at the time of my first visit. But if the quality is twice as good as it was, it  still less than half as good as it could be. I was therefore delighted to learn that an excellent landscape architecture firm (Gross Max, of Edinburgh) has been appointed to advise on the development of Kew Gardens.

The change which has made the greatest difference, so far, is the adoption of a ‘sustainable Kew’ policy. You see this in the wildflower meadow outside the main gate (photo above, taken today) and you see it in the long grass under the trees covering perhaps 50% of the garden area.  The other big changes are the restoration of old features (eg the garden of Kew Palace) and the creation of new features, including the Sackler Crossing and the Tree Walk.

The two missing elements, which Gross Max may be able to provide, are a connection with the River Thames and an overall sense of spatial composition. The latter problem is difficult, because so much of the tree and shrub planting is ‘spotty’ and the new features are being dotted about like rides in a theme park. But the problems are not insuperable and I much look forward to seeing them resolved.

One other point: the increase in quality has has been accompanied by a rise in the entry price from one penny to thirteen pounds sterling. There being 240 old pennies in an old pound, this equates (see comment below) to an increase of  three thousand one hundred and twenty percent. Kew will be a very great garden when the visual quality has risen proportionately!

Landscape setting of the Avebury Stone Circle

The landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle: it is a visually contained enclosure

The landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle: it is a visually contained enclosure

Avebury is a more appealing place than Stonehenge. It is more beautiful and, to me, it has a greater sense of ‘spiritual mystery’. The Unesco summary is that “Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world” and that “Avebury prehistoric stone circle is the largest in the world. The encircling henge consists of a huge bank and ditch 1.3km in circumference, within which 180 local, unshaped standing stones formed the large outer and two smaller inner circles.”

I wonder if the reason for my being more attracted to Avebury is that, because of the remaining trees and the  high earth bank, it is still an enclosure. As noted in a previous post on Stonehenge, I believe it must have been an enclosure in woodland. Avebury more-or-less retains this condition and it is highly significant. It was a sanctuary: a sacred place in the sense of a place which was ‘set apart’ from, yet related to, the wider landscape. The  photographs, above, show the site of Avebury from Windmill Hill (top). The church steeple can be seen in the centre of the top photograph and on the right of the middle photograph. The road and the barbed wire in the third photograph are an absolute screaming disgrace, equivalent to using  Rome’s Forum as a coach park. I am very pleased that they are going to deal with the roads around Stonehenge but, first, they should implement a much cheaper and very much more important project by closing the wicked road through Avebury to motor vehicles.

We can view Stonehenge and Avebury in the light of  Ken Dowden’s comment (European paganism 2000, p.27 ) “If there was an Indo-European homeland, there were no temples there, only landscape. Sacral area must therefore in origin be identified by geography, not buildings. The buildings we have today, where they do not represent long-standing religious tradition, continue a geographical sense of sacrality. In this sense ‘nature’ inevitably underlies the choice of place in which to perform ritual”

Kenilworth Castle Elizabethan Garden Restoration

Kenilworth Elizabethan Castle Garden

Kenilworth Elizabethan Castle Garden

It is not beautiful. This is the main problem with the Kenilworth Castle garden restoration. They should have put a talented garden designer in charge of the project, with instructions to listen to the historical experts and be sure to produce a beautiful result. Tudor craftsmanship was excellent. This project looks as though it belongs in an upscale garden centre near the M25.  The aviary is too big. The fence is too low. The obelisks are too high. The lawn-fringed paths are a total historical anachronism. The elements of the composition are out of scale with each other. It does not have the charm of a medieval garden or the dignity of a renaissance garden. It is a codge-up.

Press coverage of this significant garden restoration has concentrated on the cost (£2.1m). I disagree: if anything the budget was too low for a worthwhile project, justified by (1) an archaeological investigation which found the base of the original marble fountain (2) the remarkably detailed description in the Robert Langham Letter, describing Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575.  An excerpt from this letter is quoted below. I worry about Simon Thurley’s garden judgement with regard to gardens.  He made a similar mistake with the restoration of the Privy Garden at Hampton Court. There many other things which could have been done with the money – and I would rather have seen a re-creation of a medieval castle garden.  We have enough Tudor re-creations from the BBC without EH jumping on this bandwagon – they must be wondering how they could manage some Jane Austen re-creations. If EH thought renaissance gardens looked like this, they should visit Italy and France.

An excerpt from Robert Langham’s letter about Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575: “Along the castle wall is reared a pleasant terrace of a ten foot high and a twelve broad, even underfoot and fresh of fine grass, as is also the side thereof toward the garden, in which, by sundry equal distances, with obelisks, spheres and white bears all of stone upon their curious bases by good show were set; to these, two fine arbours redolent by sweet trees and flowers, at each end one…. Then, much graced by due proportion of four even quarters, in the midst of each upon a base a two foot square and high, seemly bordered of itself, a square pilaster rising pyramidally of a fifteen foot high, symmetrically pierced through from a foot beneath until a two foot from the top, whereupon, for a capital, an orb of a ten inches thick…Redolent plants and fragrant herbs and flowers, in form, colour and  quantity so deliciously variant, and fruit-trees bedecked with their apples, pears and ripe cherries. And unto these in the midst against the terrace a square cage, sumptuous and beautiful, joined hard to the north wall…. In the centre (as it were) of this goodly garden was there placed a very fair fountain, cast into an eight-square, reared a four foot high, from the midst whereof a column up set in shape of two atlantes joined together a back-half, the one looking east, the other west, with their hands upholding a fair-formed bowl of a three foot over, from whence sundry fine pipes did lively distil continual streams into the receipt of the fountain”




Sissinghurst garden farm news

As guessed, the rumpus was a publicity stunt exercise in TV dramatics. The BBC and the National Trust knew when they were planning the TV series on Sissinghurst that  Adam Nicholson and Sarah Raven’s ideas were going to be accepted.  So in Episode 8 of the longest-running docudrama in the first 5,000 years of garden history, we saw some of the farm land being used to grow vegetables and Sly Steve in the kitchen admitting that Sarah’s Moroccan Lamb had been popular with the guests. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00jclx2/Sissinghurst_Episode_8/ Adam shoehorned in a final attempt to make Sissinghurst into the World’s Lesbian Capital or, at least, the World’s Sexiest Garden (with the line “Harold Nicholson loved Morocco more than any place on earth. He often had an affair there”). Adam Nicholson also remarked that “Writing is the family business. Butchers chop up pigs. We write books.” Nicely put, but was he laying a foundation for a new family business: TV? Watch this space.

PS Why does the National Trust want publicity for Sissinghurst? To attract more visitors and to have more money to spend. But to conserve the garden’s character it needs less publicity and fewer visitors.

Asian landscape architecture and garden design in the twentieth century

Singapore skyline by Gyver Chang

Singapore skyline by Gyver Chang


Why were Asian garden design and landscape architecture such a disappointment in the twentieth century? There is much work which looks anti-ecological, anti-contextual, almost anti-human – and far too American or far too European (see note on Chinese context theory). Luckily, there are some exceptions, including the twenty-first century landscape designs for  King Abdullah International Gardens and the Abu Dhabi Corniche. Instead of writing an essay (which is is in fact what I have done for the final chapter of Asian gardens) I offer the short statement that the problems with Asian garden and landscape design in the 20th century resulted from a poor understanding of design history and theory. There were lacks of appreciation:

  1. by many landscape architects that their profession’s design theory was at least 4000 years old on 14  May 1863 ( Norman T Newton gives this day as ‘the first official use of the title Landscape Architect’ – he knew the art was older but his perception of the theory was post-1863)
  2. by the Asian clients and designers who believed Asia should be ‘modernized’ by being ‘westernized’
  3. by the World Bank and associated development agencies which were certain that western is better, because it is based on science , and because science is the ultimate criterion of truth
  4. by a host of architects, engineers and planners who believed too fervently in ‘master planning’ and therefore fostered the tragedy of feminine design
  5. by bankers and property developers who believed that calculation of short term profit was the way to distinguish good projects from bad projects
  6. by the abstract and anti-contextual nature of international modern design theory
  7. by an inadequate knowledge of Asian design history and theory

The corrective to these Seven Deadly Design Sins should be gulping that wonderful Asian virtue – HARMONY.  History matters, theory matters, science matters, beliefs matter, profit matters,  ecology matters, design matters, people matter -we all matter!

See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes

Indian water gardens history and restoration


Ruchir75 put this photo on Flickr with the caption 'The watering system in Ram Bagh gardens'

Ruchir75 put this photo on Flickr with the caption 'The watering system in Ram Bagh gardens'

On the evidence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (see quotes below), Ancient India had the most fabulous gardens. But they were lost and the Indian gardens we know today were made by, or influenced by,  Islam. Various acts of violence have made Muslims unpopular in India and this may have contributed to the comparative neglect of India’s gardens – despite India having the world’s finest examples of Islamic gardens. So what can be done to revive and restore this wonderful heritage? One of the great tasks is to get the water back into the canals, as in the gardens of the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb. But how can this be done? The task requires local enterprise. Garden managers should be informed that pools, baolies, canals and plants require water.  An Indian Decade of Water Gardens should be declared during  which local garden curators and their malis can raise entrance fees on days when the water systems are working and share the increased revenue with staff. The present system of charging foreign visitors 10 times as much as Indian visitors should be replaced with a system of charging higher entrance fees to all non-local visitors. India now has as a middle class equal in size and wealth to a large European country, providing a resource which should be ‘tapped’ to fund the restoration of India’s water gardens. When things start getting better they are likely to continue getting better.  The Ram Bagh Gardens were made by Babur, the first Mughal Emperor,  but are now named after Lord Rama, hero of the Ramayana (image courtesy ruchir75). [Notes (1) a mali is a gardener (2) it costs more to enter Versailles when the fountains are working]

Ramayana on gardens

Beyond the sea my Lanka stands
Filled with fierce forms and giant bands,
A glorious city fair to see
As Indra’s Amaravati.
A towering height of solid wall,
Flashing afar, surrounds it all,
Its golden courts enchant the sight,
And gates aglow with lazulite.
Steeds, elephants, and cars are there,
And drums’ loud music fills the air,
Fair trees in lovely gardens grow
Whose boughs with varied fruitage glow.

Mahabharata on gardens

Within that palace Maya placed a peerless tank, and in that tank were lotuses with leaves of dark-coloured gems and stalks of bright jewels, and other flowers also of golden leaves. And aquatic fowls of various species sported on its bosom. Itself variegated with full-blown lotuses and stocked with fishes and tortoises of golden hue, its bottom was without mud and its water transparent. There was a flight of crystal stairs leading from the banks to the edge of the water. The gentle breezes that swept along its bosom softly shook the flowers that studded it. The banks of that tank were overlaid with slabs of costly marble set with pearls. And beholding that tank thus adorned all around with jewels and precious stones, many kings that came there mistook it for land and fell into it with eyes open. Many tall trees of various kinds were planted all around the palace. Of green foliage and cool shade, and ever blossoming, they were all very charming to behold. Artificial woods were laid around, always emitting a delicious fragrance. And there were many tanks also that were adorned with swans and Karandavas and Chakravakas (Brahminy ducks) in the grounds lying about the mansion. And the breeze bearing the fragrance of lotuses growing in water and (of those growing on land) ministered unto the pleasure and happiness of the Pandavas. And Maya having constructed such a palatial hall within fourteen months, reported its completion unto Yudhishthira.

See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes

Re-creation of the world's oldest garden design in Egypt

The plan is Sennufer's Garden is the most famous illustration of an Egyptian garden, and the oldest accurate plan of a garden

The plan of Sennufer's Garden is the most famous illustration of an Egyptian garden, and the world's oldest accurate plan of a garden

I heard a rumor that  Sennufer’s Garden is to be re-created. This is a project I have dreamed of  (see note at foot of page on The Domain of Amun) and I believe it is the best tourism investment Egypt could make.

– the project will attract worldwide publicity
– the re-created garden will remind the world that Egypt may well be the country in which the world’s first pleasure garden was made (see blog post Where is the world’s oldest garden?)
– garden visiting is an extremely popular tourist activity, with the Alhambra said to be the most visited garden in Europe
– a new tourist attraction on the East bank in Luxor will take some of the pressure off the ancient monuments on the West bank of the Nile
– a re-created historic garden will fit well with the ambience of the resort hotels being developed on the East bank
I do not know if it has been arranged but the re-created garden is the type of project which could easily attract funding from a hotel chain, an Arab billionaire or from the Aga Khan Historic Cities Support Programme (HCSP) . Since the garden structures would be of mud brick, the cost would not be exorbitant.

The new Sennufer’s garden will  be an invaluable contribution to the world’s cultural heritage. If he has a hand in the project, congratulations to Dr. Zahi Hawass (Secretary General, The Supreme Council of Antiquities). A re-creation of the world’s oldest garden would be a wonderful event.

Other Egyptian garden plans survive but Sennufer’s Garden Plan is by far the most sophisticated and in some respects astonishingly modern. See Marie-Luise Gothein’s explanation of the plan of Sennefer’s garden.

[See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes]

Where was the world's first garden made?

The garden of the House of Venus at Pompeii is one of the oldest surviving gardens in the world (image courtesy John Keogh)

The garden of the House of Venus at Pompeii is one of the oldest surviving gardens in the world (image courtesy John Keogh)

Cultivation and the domestication of plants began in the Levantine Corridor, which runs from Dead Sea to the Damascus Basin, and quite probably outside Jericho. This is known because the earliest domesticated plants are all native to this region and radio-carbon dating reveals that horticultural activity began c9,000 BCE. Plants were cultivated by hand and with digging sticks, not with the plough, but the plants cultivated were all cereals and pulses, making ‘farming’ a better description of the activity than ‘gardening’ or ‘horticulture’ in the modern sense of ‘not ploughed’.

The first literary evidence of gardening comes from Sumer in Lower Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh mentions that his city (Uruk) was ‘one third gardens’ – but the gardens were were palm orchards. Some flowers may have been grown but the main purpose was growing food and the gardens are unlikely to have been beside houses. People lived on dry mounds (tells) and required irrigation to grow fruit and vegetables. The Garden of Eden was ‘located’ in Sumer but its status is mythological rather than historical.

China is another candidate for having made the first gardens but the only places we know of were more like National Parks than anything we would call a garden. Chinese imperial parks were fast tracts of wild landscape set aside for hunting, as at Changan. There were altars in the parks, and pavilions at a later date, and crops were cultivated but they are better described as parks than as ‘gardens’.

The next candidate country for having had the ‘world’s first garden’ is Egypt and since the Egyptians had gardens in the exact sense in which the word is now used,  ‘Egypt’ is the best answer to the question ‘Where was the world’s first garden made?’ Some temple gardens (sanctuaries, like Karnak) survive in Egypt but the only representations of domestic gardens are paintings and models. The oldest garden layout known to archaeology may be at Passargadae in Iran.

So where was Europe’s first garden made? The possibilities are Crete, mainland Greece, Sicily and mainland Italy. The inhabitants of Greece (who did not speak Greek) were cultivators by 7000 BCE, which is 2000 years before the Egyptians, and practiced ornamental horticulture in classical times (500 BCE). But Europe’s first gardens in the modern sense of enclosed and planted spaces designed in conjunction with dwellings were probably in Italy – and the oldest surviving examples are certainly in Pompeii (above image courtesy John Keogh) with some of them made by Greek-speaking people.

[See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes]