Monthly Archives: August 2009

Glastonbury Tor as a sacred landscape

Glastonbury Tor Sacred Landscape

Glastonbury Tor Sacred Landscape

Glastonbury Tor is a sacred place, in the same region (the Somerset Levels) as the oldest engineered road in north Europe, the Sweet Track (tree-ring dating establishes the construction date at 3806 BCE). Physically, Glastonbury Tor resembles Silbury Hill. My  view (see evidence below) is that it has been a sacred site since Neolithic times. European Christianity grew in opposition to paganism, banning garden luxury and felling sacred trees, but was willing to take advantage of the sacred sites and to use them as sites for church building. We can therefore see some connection with the animism of Central Asia and the custom of building temples on hills and mountains.

The National Trust conservation statement for Glastonbury Tor summarizes what is known of Glastonbury Tor’s history as follows:

Later Neolithic 2900-2200BC, flint and stone artefacts found from this period. later Bronze Age 1400-600BC. Very little known about this period. Romano-British 43AD-410AD. Prehistoric and Roman finds- early and late Roman pottery.
Dark Age centred on 600 AD, timber building, evidence of metal workings, substantial metal working, Roman Samian pot shards.
Late Saxon-early Medieval 600-1066 AD, monastic settlement, possible wooden church.
Medieval 1066-1485 AD, two or more successive stone churches on summit. Priest’s house and other buildings on shoulder.
Tudor 1485-1603. Very little known about this period.
Stuart 1603-1714. Very little known about this period.
Hanover 1714-1901, rebuilding of the tower in 1848. The 1821 rates map and 1844 tithe map show Tor field (the lower enclosed fields?) were used for arable crops well into the 19th century. St Michaels Tower restored.
1933 National Trust acquires Tor field with St Michaels Tower.
1948 further restoration works on the St Michaels Tower.

From little things big things grow


When Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown first released their text Learning From Las Vegas in 1972 the idea of the importance of  unity or disunity of vision created within the visual environment by urban patterning and built form had been greatly neglected.

Perhaps, the shock of the everyday assisted in alerting the design professions to the importance of the prosaic nature (common v heroic) of the constructed urban environment even where hyper-reality is the norm.

The text is credited with re-humanising the built environment through its influence in promoting and disseminating the tenets of the emerging Postmodern movement.

Learning from Las Vegas continues to  influence in surprising and controversial ways the thinking of designers including landscape designers and multi-media designers through its insightful analysis of the visual environment.

Viewing the original photographs of Denise Scott Brown is a revelation in perception and an eye for beauty in the ordinary.


Scott Brown Photographs []

Landscape []

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.

Greening the garden sculpture

jeff-koons-bilbao-garden-sculptureHow about combining your garden and your sculpture investment and commissioning a piece of art (topiary) from Jeff Koons? The artist is responsible for this imaginative 43 foot high ‘vertical garden’ at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in the mid-1990s.

For fire, water, air and earth see also the environmental sculpture of Elena Columbo.

Seasonal colour


The aesthetics and perfume of flowers have always attracted…however I know little about the cultivation of plants. [] So I will indulge in some self-education in an attempt to at least improve my awareness and save myself from future embarrassment.

The results of my research:

1) Tulips are one of the earliest flowers to bud. Because they appear while there is still snow cover, spring flowering bulbs are used to varying temperatures and will grow in spurts.

2) The majority of tulips are not scented, but those that are scented have caused unexpected delight.

3) Variegation in tulips are cause by a fungal infection!

5) Successful planting is like dance choreography!

6) Tulip fields make striking environmental art! Perhaps even offer the perfect opportunity to propose….

7) The first tulip festival was said to have taken place in Turkey during full moon with guests dressed in colours to harmonise with the flowers.

8) Tulips grow in the alpine region of Kyrgyzstan. 

Reconstituted stone garden ornament

Reconstituted stone garden ornaments develop a patina which depends on where they are placed

Reconstituted stone garden ornaments develop a patina which depends on where they are placed

Most of the ‘concrete ornaments’ in garden stores are vile, some more reminiscent of a stained WC pan than of a stone garden ornament. But there are some notable exceptions and the best quality products we know of are made by Chilstone. The company explains that each ornament ‘is handmade in reconstituted stone by a special process, developed over our long history to ensure a finished texture virtually indistinghishable from natural stone’. They specialize in making accurate copies of antique originals. Mosses and lichens grow well on the products and the species which flourish depend entirely on the local environmental conditions (shade, sun, moisture etc) so that they become INDISTINGHISHABLE from natural stone ornaments. The ingredients are crushed stone and a binder – with no use of the sand or aggregate normally used in making concrete. The ornaments are not very cheap but they are very good, so that many Chilstone items have been sold at Sotheby’s for many times their original retail price. You can think of them as an investment!

Reconstituted stone: freshly cast (left) and in the early stages of developing a patina (right)

Reconstituted stone: freshly cast (left) and in the early stages of developing a patina (right)

Heavy and light H2O

snowflake3According to Richard Alley in The Two Mile Time Machine ‘heavy’ water is rare (for every 6,000 parts of water, there is only one part that is heavy water.)

Rain and snowflakes are formed from water vapour from the heavier isotopes of H2O. Water has an atomic weight of between 18 to 22.

Not being all that knowledgeable about snow, a little reading turned up some interesting facts I thought I would share;

“What are common snowflake shapes?

Generally, six-sided hexagonal crystals are shaped in high clouds; needles or flat six-sided crystals are shaped in middle height clouds; and a wide variety of six-sided shapes are formed in low clouds. Colder temperatures produce snowflakes with sharper tips on the sides of the crystals and may lead to branching of the snowflake arms (dendrites). Snowflakes that grow under warmer conditions grow more slowly, resulting in smoother, less intricate shapes.

  • 32-25° F – Thin hexagonal plates
  • 25-21° F – Needles
  • 21-14° F – Hollow columns
  • 14-10° F – Sector plates (hexagons with indentations)
  • 10-3° F – Dendrites (lacy hexagonal shapes)”


I don’t believe I am any more able to identify the temperature at which the pictured snowflake was formed. Perhaps someone could help me out? If identifying snowflake temperature is good fun, here are some more from [Alaska…]

So to get to the crux of things – is snow flake biodiversity endangered by global warming?

Pioneering spirit

landscape-and-dance1It is said that the landscape architect Lawerence Halprin “worked closely with his wife, whose experiments with movement – in conjunction with a circle of avant-garde composers – informed his user-friendly designs.”

Halprin was keen to design participatory spaces rather than spaces that were merely aesthetic.

It is surprising, given his background was in plant sciences and horticulture before studying landscape architecture at Harvard, that he is best known for his work on public spaces. Although it is possible to surmise that his formative architectural interests and Bauhaus teachers influenced his sense of formal spatial design. and and

New ways of seeing

colourpensils1Environmental art is incredible for its ability to enable us to perceive the everyday in new ways. Art is also often a useful design tool because it assists us to describe an aspect of seeing which is otherwise difficult to illustrate.

Garden design, while sometimes surprising, usually aims at a form of contemplative delight in which our senses come to a point of rest. In Japanese garden design the concept of Ma (space) is important.

Boye de Mente in Elements of Japanese Design: Key Terms for Understanding and Using Japan’s Wabi-Sabi-Shubui  Concepts (p43) describes the concept of Ma;

Ma uses space as well as time and refers to the space time between events. It is space that is sensually as well as intellectually perceived. In the Japanese concept of things, ma gets your attention and directs your mind or thoughts along specific paths that lead to some kind of conclusion or pleasant feeling. “

Environmental art plays with the unexpected juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar to challenge our usual point of view. While illustrating, I believe, the Japanese concept of Ma this Finnish composition entitled coloured pencils has us consider our perceptions of our place and role in the world;

“finnish environmental landscape art challenges us to ponder

who we are, where we belong & what our place is

in the great universal cycle”


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:


Complaints about copy editors

Working on a second edition of Garden History Philosophy and Design 2000 BC to 2000 AD, I used MS Word’s compare and merge tool to relate the text I sent to the publisher with the text as-published. Some of the changes are sensible but I am cross with myself for not taking a strong line with the copy editor on many points. She seems not to have been too bothered about my spelling mistakes and, with a notable fondness for hackneyed platitudes, to have concentrated instead on the removal of colourful prose, strong opinions and anything remotely salacious. Grrr! Two of the great things about electronic publishing are (1) you are free of copy editors (2) you can have as many illustrations as you want, and they can all be in colour.

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.

Vegetated architecture


Somis Hay Barn by Studio Pali Fekete Architects in California is a great example of low tech vegetated architecture of unsurpassed elegance and poetic beauty;

The peeling away of the hale bales creates temporal change and constant evolution: “At the end of the fall when it is stacked, the hay is freshly cut and green in color. Over the following months and after the hay has dried and adopted a yellowish color, it is removed and used to feed the cattle.”

According to Architecture Week the architects drew on the philosophy of wabi-sabi – “the Japanese concept of beauty in imperfection.”

The barn’s steel structure is unchanging and modern while the cladding is traditional and constantly changing according to the seasons and use.

Source: also and

Windpower and sustainable landscape planning

Are the wind turbines a welcome addition to the landscape scenery?

Are the wind turbines a welcome addition to the landscape scenery? Do they make a useful contribution to sustainable energy policy? No and No. They are more like space invaders - and this example is mere tokenism.

I know of one excellent publication on the physics of sustainable energy David MacKay’s Sustainable energy without hot air (though his website suggests he lacks expertise in graphic design!). He calculates that ‘If we covered the windiest 10% of the country with windmills (delivering 2 W/m2), we would be able to generate 20 kWh/day per person, which is half of the power used by driving an average fossil-fuel car 50 km per day.’ Current energy consumption is about 125 kWh/day and MacKay calculates that, because of wind-speed variation, if the entire UK was covered with wind turbines it would be possible to generate 200KWh/day.  I do not think we should do this. The sensible steps towards more-sustainable energy use are (1) plan cities for cycle commuting (2) insulate buildings properly (3) tax bottled mineral water as heavily as alcoholic drinks.

But how can air conditioning costs be reduced in hot countries? Ideas welcome! Here are some suggestions (1) We used to have a refrigerator which was operated by dripping water onto a porous outer casing. The latent heat of evaporation cooled the inside.  Could this work for buildings? (2) In West Asia windcatchers (Persian: بادگیر Bâdgir, Arabic: بارجيل Baarjiil) have long been used for sustainable air conditioning. This is now the part of world with the best supplies of oil, but the technology could be exported  (3) apply even higher insulation standards than in cold countries, to keep the heat out (4) use heat pumps to refrigerate buildings – and generate electricity from the waste heat (5) use vegetation to shield the building from direct solar radiation

Eroticism in garden art and design


This chaste and charming engraving does not do justice to what is widely regarded as the most beautiful and the most erotic poem in world literature: the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) from the Old Testament of the Bible. Its beauty comes from the genius of the poet, who might have been King Solomon. Its eroticism comes from treating the garden as a locale for sex and a metaphor for the female genitalia. Exploration of these themes has delighted generations of scholars and produced a vast literature. Here, in the King James version, is the section of most interest to gardeners:

12     A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse;          
a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
13     Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits;           
camphire, with spikenard,
14     spikenard and saffron;           
calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense;
myrrh and aloes,
with all the chief spices:
15     a fountain of gardens,           
a well of living waters,
and streams from Lebanon.
16     Awake, O north wind;           
and come, thou south;
blow upon my garden,
that the spices thereof may flow out.
Let my beloved come into his garden,
and eat his pleasant fruits.

The influence of these famous lines on garden design has been profound. In Europe this came about through the Roman de la Rose and its influence on the design of enclosed gardens. The Song of Songs is also likely to have influenced the Qu’ranic account of the delights awaiting the faithful in paradise, which are far from chaste.

Seeing double in Dubai



New York continues to inspire with reports that an investment company in Abu Dhabi is looking for a 75% stake in one of the cities most iconic buildings the Chrysler Building. While in Dubai the impression is of seeing double…..

When Japan finally opened up to foreigners in 1854 after being “impenetrable to the western world” the fascination with Japanese gardens immediately made itself felt within English high culture and by the beginning of the twentieth century Japanese garden styles were still setting trends for popular gardens as well as inspiring a reconsideration of the early Japanoiserie gardens as cultural heritage in Britian.

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.