The Garden Guide

Book: Gardening tours by J.C. Loudon 1831-1842
Chapter: Middlesex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Wilshire, Dorsetshire, Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent in the Summer of 1832

Fonthill Abbey planting design

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The appearance of the abbey character being complete, in the general expression, the next point to be studied is the extent and the manner in which Mr. Beckford introduced modern improvements in the grounds: this was exceedingly simple. He confined himself entirely to the introduction of exotic trees and shrubs in secluded places only; and these he disposed in what may be called by-scenes in the woods, in such a manner as that a person who knew nothing of trees could never suspect that they were not natives. There was an American ground in the place, consisting of many of the trees and shrubs of than country, disposed in groups and thickets, as if they had sprung up naturally, with glades of turf kept smoothly mown to admit of walking through among them, and examining their separate beauties. There was a rose-ground, a thornery, and a pinetum treated in the same manner; but, along the numerous walks and drives, the common trees and shrubs of the country were those principally introduced. The next point of study is the manner of conducting the walks and drives. There was, first, from the end of the grand avenue, a broad carriage drive of several miles in length, which made a circuit of the whole place, and displayed the finest views of the abbey and the surrounding country. The greater part of this country is sufficiently naked to keep up the idea of a past age; and the tower at Stourhead, and the woods of Wardour Castle, are sufficiently distinct not to counteract this impression. Within this outer drive there is a park wall that encloses nearly 600 acres, the greater part of which is covered with wood, but with innumerable grassy glades, and some small lakes. Through this scenery, subordinate drives have been formed, to the extent, as it is said in the Guide-Book, of 27 miles. Two small garden episodes may be mentioned: one an herb garden, containing such plants as we may suppose the monks might have cultivated to use in medicine; and the other a garden (which, when we saw it in 1807, had a small hot-house in it, not much bigger than a cucumber frame) for a favourite dwarf. The kitchen-garden was in the outer park, about a mile and a half from the abbey, and was only seen from one part of the grand drive. There remains only one point which we think particularly worthy of study; viz., the very natural manner in which masses of trees of one kind are introduced into the woods. Even in summer, when the difference in the foliage of trees consists merely in shades of green, the good effect of this disposition is obvious. The deep dark foliage of the Scotch pine, and the green of the oak, form the conspicuous masses around the abbey, contrasted by the light tints and graceful forms of a few larches and birches, and with hazel, holly, thorn, and furze as undergrowth. On some of the very steep sides of hills, the Scotch pine and larch are almost the only trees, with birches and alders in the bottoms. The silver fir prevails in some places, and attains a noble size, and the beech is also prevalent in others in very large masses. All this is done on so large a scale, and in such a free and natural manner, as never once to excite the idea of art or formality. We have spoken thus far of Fonthill as it was, or as it may be supposed to have been, during its occupation by Mr. Beckford; and we have done so partly from our recollections of what it was when we first saw it, in 1807, through the kindness of Mr. Milne, the gardener at that time, and partly from its present state; but the reader will recollect that the greater part of the abbey is now in ruins, and all the interesting parts of the grounds (unless we except the grand avenue and drive, and the American grounds) are in such a state of neglect, as hardly to be recognised for what they were in 1807. To preserve the abbey from falling was impossible, from the nature of its construction; but it is deeply to be regretted that the grounds have fallen into hands which, from some cause or other, could suffer the ruin to extend to them. The expense would have been very trifling of thinning out the native trees and shrubs in those places where they crowded upon the exotics in such a manner as to injure many of them, and to destroy a still greater number. In addition to this expense, there would have been little more than that of mowing the walks and drives; for the thinning and pruning of the plantations generally, we may reasonably suppose would pay itself. It is a fact worthy of notice, that scarcely any place of the same extent was ever formed that could be kept up at so little expense as Fonthill. The saving by having no gravel walks is very great; and, we are persuaded, the expense of mowing grass and sweeping up leaves might be greatly lessened, by the use of such machines for this purpose as might be dragged by horses. At all events, by letting all the mowing and sweeping up of the leaves, by the year, to one man or party of men, the cost would be nothing to what it generally is on gentlemen's grounds where these operations are performed by labourers of all work by the day. From what we have seen of the rides or drives at Fonthill, Stourhead, Bryanstone House, and Wardour Castle, we are persuaded that there are many situations on dry soils, in which gravel walks, not only in pleasure-grounds, but even in kitchen-gardens, might be dispensed with altogether, as in former times. We should then be saved from the harsh lines and sunk ditch-like excavations, bottomed with loose sand or coarse gravel, which now disfigure so many pleasure-grounds; not from their own nature, but because they are so very seldom properly formed, and kept in complete repair.