Historic English Gardens


I love history.  I love gardens.  Combining these two things is nothing short of a Meg Ryan moment for me (for those of you who don’t get the reference, watch the movie When Harry Met Sally).  Happily, I had more opportunities than I could possibly take advantage of during our English summer of 2014– and I learned a few things about historic garden restoration in the process.

Back in Virginia, I was forever poking around historic properties wondering where and what things were planted for use in the kitchen, for pleasure and for medicinal purposes.  Because our country is so young, it is still possible to find identifying seeds and plant matter on historic properties.  In fact, since seeds can live for a very long time, it is possible to start new plants from live seeds that have been buried for many years.  At Monticello for example, seeds from tomatoes planted by Thomas Jefferson have been salvaged and germinated to create living plants.

In England, restoring historic gardens is a bit more complicated.  England has a few (just a few) gardens that have been around for awhile, which means that what was originally planted can only be determined from written records (estate records, drawings, travelers’ accounts, etc.).   And, since gardens evolved over hundreds of years under different gardeners, the first order of business in”restoring” a garden is to decide which garden — i.e., which time period — to restore.  Where there is no record of a specific garden, the only option is “re-creation”. Medieval gardens in England for example are usually re-creations based on knowledge of gardening in that time period.

The little knot garden at Dalemain Estate (near Ullswater Lake in the English Lakes District) is a lovely example of what the original medieval garden on the property would have looked like.  The current knot garden was recreated under the direction of Jane Hasell-McCosh (a descendent of the Hasell family, who have owned the estate since 1679).  It is a classic knot garden design, geometric and formal, with a fountain in the middle, planted with flowers (mostly tulips) and herb beds that are bordered with box hedges.  Many whites were blooming when I visited and I wondered (but forgot to ask) if this was a nod to the white rose of Lancaster (War of the Roses; a period just prior to the Tudors).

Dalemain has been owned by only three families since the earliest recorded history of the house in the 12th Century (the original owner was the brother of one of the murderers of Thomas A Becket).  Fortunately, the records of many Dalemain gardeners over the centuries have been preserved.  But even where records are available, no attempt has been made to fully restore the gardens to a specific snapshot in time.  The gardens have changed extensively over the years and are still evolving according to the tastes of the current residents and sometimes, by necessity.  Last year for example the large silver fir at the entrance to the knot garden lost some branches.  This opened up the planting beds beneath it to exposed sunlight, which required replacing the shade-loving plants that were previously planted there.

Dalemain’s strategy of re-creating certain portions of the garden according to a single snapshot in time and allowing the rest to evolve over the generations is common at England’s historic estates.  At nearby Hutton in the Forest, the gardens were originally planted in the middle ages.  The owners have not changed in many generations, so there are likely some written records, however, the original walled garden has been replanted in a predominantly Victorian style.  Other gardens at Hutton are strictly modern, with a few hold-over elements, like the 17th century Dovecote.

But, restorations can be found, although most of these are from later periods.  At Hampton Court Palace for example (home of the medieval king Henry VIII), the privy gardens have been restored.  The restoration project at Hampton Court is based on a later time period (the reign of William and Mary) from which there were extensive records.  Fortunately, William and Mary kept much of the formal design of Henry VIII’s privy garden, so it isn’t hard to imagine roly-poly old Henry walking around with his current mistress/soon-to-be-ill-fated wife, Anne Boleyn (while poor Catherine of Aragon watched from the window?).

A full restoration is underway at Lowther Castle as well (near Penrith, in the north of England).   The surviving records of the 5th Earl of Lonsdale, who recorded each of the family’s centuries old-gardens in great detail, are being used by the garden archaeologists working on the project.   While I would have loved to have seen the finished project, it was fascinating to watch the work underway.  The original intent of some the gardens, like the Japanese garden which still has several bronze statues standing, are easy to identify; others, like the overgrown lilly garden, not so much.  The task of restoring these gardens will take years.  But oh, what a project to work on, eh?

These varying approaches to historic gardens — restoration,”re-creation”, or somewhere in between — continue to be a serious matter in England.  In fact, it was an issue that the two, perhaps most famous, garden historians in England disagreed on.  John Harvey believed in a painstaking, piecemeal approach to preserving what was original, although giving some consideration to the stamp of successive generations.  Geoffrey Jellicoe stressed making more room for “new vision” or “creative conservation”.  The Garden Museum in London is a great place to learn about Jellicoe, Harvey and the history of the English garden.  It also happens to be the final resting place of two famous gardeners (John Tradescant and his son) who were gardeners to Charles I and II and intrepid plant hunters.

For more on historic garden conservation in England, The Historic Gardens Foundation puts out a killer magazine.  Wisley Garden (one of my favorites in England) is also an excellent study in how the English garden has evolved in the last century.

For my next garden poke in England, I think I will follow the trail of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  In the spring of 1786 during stalled trade negotiations with the Barbary States, Adams and Jefferson took off from London into the English countryside to explore a shared passion: gardening.  Both were curious about an emerging style of a more natural, park-like feel of gardening in England championed by  Lancelot “Capability” Brown.  Together, they visited a number of gardens that still exist, including Blenheim Palace (which I flew over but did not visit), Claremont Estate, Painshill Park, Stowe Landscape Garden, and Edgehill.  For more on Jefferson and Adams’ gardening friendship, see one of my favorite books, Founding Gardeners.

So many gardens, so little time…


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