Category Archives: national trust gardens

Impressive gardens: revisiting the Golden Age in America

‘The Golden Age of American Gardens’ begins “In the 1880s America’s millionaires were looking for new ways to display their new wealth, and the acquisition of a grand house with an equally grand garden became their passion.”

It is said that the style of architecture and gardens, evidenced in Lila Vanderbilt Webb’s 1886 model agricultural farm Shelburne Farm (among others) “was a mix of eclecticism and the latest advances in artistic and cultural developments as promoted in popular English style books and periodicals of the time.” The tubbed bay trees on the terraces overlooking Lake Champlain, as a consequence, were said to have been climatically challenged!

The Golden Age ended with the Jazz Age in which a distinctly American sensibility in gardens and lifestyle emerged. European influences still dominated design ideas, but new approaches were gradually emerging as is shown in the Chartes Cathedral Window Garden (photograph by Saxon Holt shown above), one of three walled gardens on the estate.

Filoli, the home of shipping heiress Lurline Roth, whose daughter debuted to jazz strains in 1939 at the property, maintains a strong jazz tradition.

Perhaps she danced to the classic‘I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate’, said to be a charleston/belly dance fusion, and which inspired The Beatles to release a song of the same name in 1962?

Museum Quality Gardens

A interesting garden typology which seems to be given more attention in recent times is the museum garden, such as the garden at Giverny ‘The Museum of Impressions’. The garden museum was conceived to give visitors an experience of the Seine valley on the impressionists trail and to complement the art gallery experience of viewing impressionist paintings. The museum building is described as “topped by roofs landscaped in heather…inscribed into the natural slope of the land, allowing the minimum of opague walls.”

For the garden traditionalist there is the Musee Rodin in Paris which captures something of the atmosphere of the outdoors indoors and has a an inspiring sculpture garden.

Perhaps an even more interesting possibility with this trend is the potential for the museum-in-the-garden. The museum of life and science in North Carolina demonstrates the potential of the museum outdoors.

Where better to experience and learn about art, physics and the natural world?

Garden as setting for life's drama

Anna Gilman Hill’s ‘Grey Garden’ in the East Hamptons is the setting for a movie on the lives of mother and daughter Little and Big Eddie. Anna Hill has been described as “one of the world’s greatest feminine horticulturalists.”

Yet the women who acquired her garden were challenged by the legacy she left them.

The Grey Garden, and the women’s struggle to maintain a viable garden in a beachside setting, somehow parallel their lives as individuals.

http://www.whatweretheskieslike.com/2009/03/grey-gardens-from-garden-perspective.html

Is there too much of Kew Gardens at Wakehurst Place?

urst Place on the cover of English Garden Design (left) and in June 2010

Wakehurst Place on the cover of English Garden Design (left) and in June 2010

‘Father, forgive them, for they know exactly what they do’. (adapted from Luke 23:34). I have always liked Wakehurst Place and have put it on the dustjacket of a book – but I criticised Wakehurst Place last year and after another recent visit am being driven to conclude that it is being over-Kewed.
A plaque near the house is dedicated to ‘Sir Henry Price Bt. who in 1963 presented these lovely gardens for the education and enjoyment of all who visit them’. Two questions must be asked ‘Education in what?’ and ‘Enjoyment of what?’ The apparent aim is to convert a beautiful place into a spotty collection of specimens.
When Wakehurst Place first appeared on Gardenvisit.com, about 10 years ago, we received an anquished email along the lines ”Call us pigs or Pakis if you must but please PLEASE do not call us Gardenesque’. But why shouldn’t Wakehurst Place be a place for ‘education’ and ‘enjoyment’ related to the Gardenesque Style? Properly understood and executed, it is one of the most-English and most-appreciated styles of garden design. My recommendations for Wakehurst Place are:
– an Arts and Crafts area around the house
– a Gardenesque section at the head of the valley
– a full-scale Landscape transition to a Sublime lake at the foot of the valley
But as Geoffrey Jellicoe argued, Creative Conservation is often the best policy for historic gardens and landscapes. Should this be wanted, the garden managers could also consider
– seasonal and thematic ribbons interlacing the estate
But an even more important step would be to appoint a Design Manager for Wakehurst Place. If the manager’s skills are only horticultural then the future of gardens is to become more botanical, less Beautiful, less Picturesque, less Gardenesque and less Sublime. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Note1: the above photographs of the bridge at the head of the valley are looking in opposite directions

Note2: by ‘over-Kewed’ I mean ‘too much of an emphasis on botany’ – Kew Gardens are in fact getting better looking year-by-year.

Cerne Abbas Giant, Oliver Cromwell and assisted suicide

Cerne Abbas GiantLong viewed as a Celtic or Roman god, a very disappointing 1973 theory (by John Hutchins)  sees the giant as a political cartoon cut on the instructions of Denzil Holles in the 1640s to represent Oliver Cromwell. Denzil Holles hated Cromwell but I admire him and, if the history is correct, would see the Cerne Abbas cartoon as that of a man who felt that only the excercise of force could restore the virility of English democracy.

A Populus opinion poll ( for The Times in July 2009) found ‘overwhelming public support’ ( from 74% of those questioned)  for a change in the law to allow medically assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Since the UK parliament continues to oppose the measure, I think we need a new Cromwell to explain to MPs that their job is to carry forward the will of the people. He or she could use make two quotations from Oliver Cromwell:

“I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.”

“You have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of god, go!.”

If the reminders do not achieve the necessary result, MP’s should be clubbed – for the crime of not respecting the known wishes of the electorate.

PS as a god-fearing man, Cromwell is likely to have opposed assisted suicide. Since many of its members are elderly, one might assume the National Trust, which cares for the Cerne Abbas Giant, to be in favour of the measure.


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. 

 

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

Nymans National Trust garden management

img_0340The National Trust gets money from from legacies, subscriptions and entrance fees. It owns large areas of land to which the public have free access and it has many ambitious development projects which require funds. Some properties consume funds and others generate funds. I think Nymans must appear in the accounts as ‘a nice little earner’. It is not a very wonderful garden but it is remarkably popular, partly because of its motorway-side location. The woods are beautiful and the sign outside the entrance is mean: ‘Car Park Closes Today at 5pm’. One can hardly enjoy a late afternoon stroll in the woods while worrying about one’s car being impounded for the night. Another surprising aspect of the Nymans regime is the large garden centre. It is very well designed and run but it is almost on the scale of a retail park. Since the planting in the garden is not very well managed, my thoughts about Nymans are that, if it is generating as a big profit, more of this money should be spent on managing the garden and extending the opening hours into the evening. Those who give should also receive.

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.

Sissinghurst Garden Design and Management


Photogaph Philippe Leroyer

Photogaph Philippe Leroyer

BBC4 is showing a series of programmes about Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Here is a link to the first episode on the iPlayer – the link will not be active for long and there is a link to a BBC Sissinghurst webpage.  Adam Nicholson and Sarah Raven live in the family house, because Adam is Vita’s grandson, but Adam’s father (Nigel Nicholson) gave the property to the National Trust. The programme presents Adam and Sarah as enlightened visionaries able to understand the past and present. But the National Trust staff are presented as obstinate blockheads able to say little more than ‘This is the way we do it because this is the way we have always done it and this it the way we will continue to do it’.  Since the series runs to 8 episodes one can’t help wondering it the editing has been done for dramatic effect. Unless the National Trust  Blockheads are going to be seduced by sweet reason, the series is going to end up portraying the Trust as a disorganised rabble which leaves decisions to junior staff.

Sissinghurst gives me the impression of being too commercial and of having too many visitors. It this is what the National Trust wants, they should avoid the cowpats Adam wants to bring back as an aspect of traditional farming. The BBC slipped in the titbit that Vita had over 50 lesbian lovers and the Independent (28.2.09) refers to ‘the site’s fascination for today’s educated lesbians’. Adam predicts that ‘By Easter, there will be rivers of lesbians coming through the gates’.  It would be useful to know whether the return of traditional farming practices (‘cowpats’) would attract or repel the lesbians, and where Adam stands on the lesbian issue.  I look forward to Sissinghurst holding its first Gay Pride day. As they say, ‘history repeats itself as farce’.

Bog garden design at Wakehurst Place ('Kew in the country')

The bog garden at Wakehurst PlaceWakehurst Place in West Sussex, England, is managed by the Kew Royal Botanic Garden. The valley is a beautiful rhododendron garden and the lake at end of the valley is very beautiful. But the horticultural section of the garden is amateurish. The horticultural standard is fine but the design standard is, well, too horticultural. The bog garden is a case in point. It was made by the Horticultural Team between 2001 and 2003. The planting is OK but the construction design is a disgrace to the name Kew. As the photograph shows, there is a lumpen retaining wall with ‘crawling snail’ cement pointing. As my granny would have said ‘Its horrid’. And look at the bottom edge of the photograph. There is a cheap gray plastic pipe which is used as a ‘water feature’. Even toilets don’t have water features like this. They employ plumbers. Wakehurst place should employ an expert garden designer to make occasional visits and give a professional opinion, much as Dame Sylvia Crowe used to do for the UK Forestry Commission.

National Trust Gardens

A National Trust bench at Studley RoyalWhen Dame Jennifer Jenkins was appointed to chair the UK National Trust she commented that the main criticism of the gardens they manage is that ‘They are all the same’. It is not quite true but they do have an alarming similarity. This was brought home by visits to some visits to Yorkshire gardens this year. Studley Royal, run by the National Trust, has not had the ‘curse of Sissinghurst’ laid upon it. Of course I love Sissinghurst and of course it attracts busloads of visitors, but I do not want to see England’s historic gardens getting ever more like Sissinghurst. Studley Royal retains its independent dignity but it IS getting more National Trusty. Perhaps the paths are being too well kept; perhaps too many seats are appearing; perhaps that terrible Visitor Centre has an existence outside my drawer of garden nightmares. I can see that the architect had a lot of fun but the National Trust does not exist for this purpose. Its not such an ugly building: it just does not belong at Studley Royal.

From Studley Royal I went to Bramham Park – and was delighted to see how un-National Trusty it remains. In parts the standard of maintenance is higher then the National Trust would attempt. In other parts is is lower. In other parts, like the tennis court on the front lawn, it is entirely as the resident family wish it to be. It is a real garden.

Chatsworth Garden was also a pleasure to visit. Apart from its unique historic character, it has an individuality which, I can only assume, results from the kindly care lavished upon the estate by the Devonshire family. The food was also a great deal better and cheaper than in a National Trust multiple.

These considerations remind me that a friend of my grandfather’s was one of the National Trust’s first 100 members. In the 1950s, they both resigned with the explanation, in my grandfather’s words, that ‘They will be just like the monasteries, and all monopolies, when they get too large and too wealthy, they become lazy and corrupt’. He thought the National Trust was doing too much to become larger with ever more jobs for ever more boys and ever more girls. Instead, he argued for a plethora of smaller trusts each with its own role and its own policies. I think he was right.

Let us hope the National Trust’s new chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins, can do something more effective about the problem than Dame Jennifer Jenkins. He has long argued for effective devolution from Westminster to the regions. The problem he faces is that the great estates can’t very well be returned to their ancient families. One thing he could and should do is rid the National Trust of fawningly busybody interference of the kind pioneered by Graham Stuart Thomas during his reign as gardens advisor to the National Trust.