Monday, 10 October 2011

Power Gardening

Power Gardening
My September was a month dominated by 18th century gardens. A lot of time was spent admiring very different landscapes over a variety of ha-has. I arrived at the AGT conference at Worcester College in Oxford, fresh from a few days in the Landmark Trust’s late 18th century folly, Clytha Castle in Monmouthshire. Built by William Jones in 1790 in memory of his wife, it is just as perfect for an escape from the world today as it was for his contemporaries.   
Orchard at Worcester College, Oxford
The subject of the AGT conference (organised this year by Oxfordshire Gardens Trust) was ‘Power Gardening’. First on the list of visits was Blenheim – a landscape which shouts power with a big ‘P’.  Rousham, Shotover and Heythorpe completed the quartet, perfectly illustrating the transition towards Arcadian informality. I’ve no idea how many times I’ve visited Rousham.  Not only is it a particular personal favourite, but it was essential viewing for those of us who read Garden History at Bristol.  Nevertheless, as is the case with all great gardens (or perhaps any garden), there is always more to learn and alternative interpretations to consider. It was a well-organised weekend that managed to be both thought-provoking and fun.
On the subject of ‘thoughts,’ it was suggested during the Oxford-based AGM that the Gardens Trusts cost very little to join – that our membership fees are low in comparison to those of other similar organisations.  The question raised was ‘are we selling ourselves too cheaply?’   I heard a similar point being made at a recent horticulture conference. Do we gardeners underestimate the value of our efforts and the importance of what we do? Is there a danger that if we don’t appear to value our organisation highly then people will assume that we aren’t worth joining? Or, in the current economic climate are these questions impossible to answer?
A 19th century landscape, Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, was the subject of a September Study Day organised by the AGT, Surrey GT and the Garden History Society. Brookwood is the largest cemetery in England.  It was laid out and planted according to JC Loudon’s principles, at a time when the volume of London’s dead was causing concern. A special station was built near Waterloo to carry funeral parties to Brookwood on a daily basis. A fascinating morning of presentations by excellent speakers was followed by one of the wettest landscape viewings I’ve ever experienced – and there have been a few.  Despite the rain, wind, thunder and lightning it was impossible not to be wowed by the sheer scale of the place. The Military Cemetery was particularly impressive. If you are in the area, it is worth exploring.
A visit to South Hill Park in Bracknell took me smartly back to the 18th century again. The day was organised by Berkshire Gardens Trust and the Landscape Institute South East.  South Hill Park is a vibrant arts centre which I use regularly so I was particularly keen to hear about its history and the Heritage Lottery funded restoration that is nearing completion there.
It is one of just two houses in Berkshire that were built by an Indian Nabob.  Today, at least one third of its park has been developed. Its ice-house and its impressive cedars are surrounded by a housing estate and a road cuts the park into two halves. Until recently, the management of the surviving sections of the estate was divided between seven different regimes.  It is little wonder that the house had lost any real sense of its 18th century grandeur. 
Partly as a result of the modern housing estates that surround it, South Hill Park is even more a public space than the grounds of the recently restored Chiswick House.  Graffiti and vandalism will always be a possibility. Rather than attempting to shut the public out, the management are taking a very up-beat and inclusive approach. So far, the results have been encouraging.     
After a hectic few weeks of meeting deadlines, the month is ending as it started. I’ll be spending a couple of days in another 18th century Landmark Trust property – the Gothic Temple at Stowe. Apparently there’s an owl hidden somewhere in the domed ceiling of the James Gibbs designed tower. If I find it, I’ll let you know.

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