Monthly Archives: May 2009

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”

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.

Stonehenge as landscape and garden

img_0123-stonehenge2Colin Renfrew wrote that ‘Most of us have been brought up to believe,  for instance, that the Pyramids of Egypt are the oldest stone-built monuments in the world, and that the first temples built by man were situated in the Near East… It comes, then, as a shock to learn that all of this is wrong. The megalithic chamber tombs of western Europe are now dated earlier than the Pyramids – indeed, they rank as the earliest stone monuments in the world – so an origin for them in the east Mediterranean seems altogether implausible’ (Before Civilization, 1976 edn p.16).

This reads like a ‘mine-is-bigger/older-than-yours’ sort of argument. A greater truth is that Stonehenge AND the Pyramids were products of a Neolithic civilization which had its origins in West Asia. And both have a significant relationship to the landscape – which has received insufficent attention.

The only certain facts about the placing of Stonehenge are that it was in the midst of an agricultural community and it was aligned with the solstice. It was a sacred place,  not on a hilltop and not a fort. To understand such a place, one has to engage with the planning and design of Neolithic sanctuaries, in, for example, the countries which are now Iraq, Malta, Egypt, Greece and France. The best examples are in Egypt and the most useful way forward may be to review what is known about ‘sacred gardens’ (sanctuaries) in Sumer, Babylon, Luxor and Wessex. To me, this suggests that the above images  Stonehenge with a woodland backdrop are more likely to represent the original situation the views against open downland. I do not think it was not built as an eyecatcher ‘monument’. It was a sanctuary for rituals and ceremonies – and such activities were shielded from public gaze in West Asia.  The encircling mound must also have blocked inward views, as the larger mound at Avebury still does.

English Heritage is planning a much-needed ‘restoration’ of the Stonehenge landscape and it would be good if a way could be found to allow both ‘woodland’ and ‘downland’ views of the site. Assuming this is not possible, another alternative would be to make a full ‘re-creation’ of Stonehenge in a woodland setting. It would not be such an expensive project and it would (1) reduce visitor pressure on the anicent ‘monument’ (2) allow visitors to walk amongst the re-created stones – which might just as well me made in re-constituted stone.

See also: post on the landscape setting of Avebury Stone Circle.

Judging garden design at the Chelsea Flower Show 2009

Chelsea garden design judges 2009

Chelsea garden design judges 2009: can you guess who are the designers?

Here are the judges, understandably grim-faced while looking at the recipient of our Worst in Show Award for the 2009 Chelsea Show Gardens. Another problem is they are given the pottiest  assessment criteria. The criteria are (1) has the designer met his/her own brief? (2) is the garden as neat and tidy as it could possibly be? (3) does the garden have style? These criteria are better suited to a dog show  than a garden design competition.

The primary criterion should be: is the design of high quality? And to answer this question one must have a design theory. I urge the Chelsea organizers to read Vitruvius and to appoint only judges with an undestanding of the subject. For the competition to make a useful contribution to the art of garden design, the judges should ask:

  • Utilitas: does the garden have functions?
  • Firmitas: is the garden well made, in terms of construction and planting?
  • Venustas: is the garden beautiful/delightful/possessed of high aesthetic or artistic quality?

Then they can think about how well the garden meets the promised brief and, if they really must, about whether it is neat and tidy. The  ‘style’ criterion should be discarded, not so much because it is irrelevant as because it is confusing and misleading: we want designs to have style but we do not want designers to aim for specific ‘styles’. With regard to the Vitruvian criteria, it is not necessary for every design to satisfy each of criteria, but if one or two are set aside then the second/third should be all the more fully satisfied.

See our review of the 2009 Chelsea Show Gardens – and of the judges decisions!