ENGLISH GARDENS – WHERE DO WE BEGIN?
by The English Lady
When I was asked to write an article about English Gardens, I thought where do I begin? The subject is so vast that I would need at least a hundred books to do it justice. In a few weeks I will be giving you lots of ideas about gardens including formal, informal, sun, shade, water, English, Oriental, New England country, and many more. But today I will tell you some lesser known facts, rumors, and maybe legends about English landscaping. So let’s take a small journey off the beaten track.
The journey begins with a book my maternal grandmother gave to me when I was five years of age. She was given the book by her father, my great grandfather Albert, who was Head Gardener to Lord Beatty, First Lord of the Admiralty at Trentham Park in Staffordshire, England. This book was first published in 1883 and my edition was published in 1898. The book is The English Flower Garden by William Robinson, who is known as the father of English flower gardens.
This book became my bible for the English flower gardens and today I still spend many happy hours turning its pages and learning from one of the great masters of English landscaping. The pages are yellowed with age and the book needs rebinding which I am reluctant to do; because when I was about seven years of age, Maxi my Clumber Spaniel got a hold of it and chewed a corner of the cover.
Perhaps I won’t get it rebound, for the chewed corner is a lovely memory of when Maxi helped me dig many a planting hole, he with his paws and me with my little red trowel in our own vegetable garden behind the potting shed. Although he did not help me too much with edging because he would follow behind me sending up clouds of soil in the patch I had so carefully dug. Those of you who are gardeners and even those who are not would find a lot of enjoyment from one of these old garden books, so perhaps on one afternoon when it is too rainy to be outdoors, go and search out an antique shop that specializes in old rare books. The language in them is quite wonderful.
The human connection to nature has been a part of Britain’s landscape heritage since 4000B.C. when the Celts, Angles, and Saxons were thought to be more farmers than hunters. And of course you know the English made good use of the native hops for the strong ale that has always been an integral part of the English way of life. Although I know many of you do not understand the British affinity to warm beer, I have always enjoyed it, cheers!
And the Romans came ‘even though the sky was foul with incessant rain, the soil is fertile and the dampness of both the land and the air makes crops germinate quickly.’ Of course another reason the Romans decided to extend their empire to include Britain was that she produced gold, silver, and other metals. However, I like to think that the principal reason must have been that England was already the green and pleasant land that William Blake wrote about nearly two thousand years later. Although realistically why should the Romans be any different from the conquerors of today, where it’s the bottom line that counts!
You may have read that walled gardens, topiary, statues, and water features came later from Italy, France, and Holland. But it began with the monastery gardens in Britain. You see, monasteries were the hospitals of medieval times and their walled gardens grew vegetables, culinary, and medicinal herbs for their use.
They also grew sweet smelling herbs like Rosemary and Lavender, which were strewn about the floors to cover the foul stench of disease and inadequate personal hygiene. This lack of personal hygiene caused some measure of dismay for the Romans who enjoyed frequent bathing so that when they came into contact with the natives and their accompanying smells they found it rather overpowering. I guess that’s one way to conquer the enemy.
However, back in the garden it was the Romans that first brought garden structure to the English landscape. The garden at the Flavian Palace, which is now Fishbourne, near Chicester, England, was begun in 75 A.D. This garden was a long rectangle joined to the house by a terrace and shaded by a pergola over which climbing plants grew. Hedges, left open at one end for the view, enclosed the gardens. The Roman hedges were of Laurel, the Italian Cypress, or Boxwood, many of them clipped in animal shapes. Boxwood is native to England and readily accessible as was the native Holly and Yew. The Roman garden was carefully controlled, the lines were straight, the angles were right angles, and the curves were sections of a circle.
So you see not much as changed, merely variations on a theme of the formal English garden. Even the perennial borders of Gertrude Jekyll had structure and her colleague and friend Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the structure of her borders. In summer the plants tumbled over one another and frolicked in their joy to be seen and enjoyed. They were massed so closely together in what I describe as “organized chaos” and in winter their all-important structure was revealed.
The backbone of these borders could be a high manor wall, a clipped Beech hedge, or the front garden of a thatched roofed country cottage. In the borders, then and now, you could find ornamental deciduous trees or shrubs interspersed with evergreens so that even in the dead of winter there was life in the garden. I remember a professor of mine at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, remarking that “the test of a good garden design was its bones without the interference of the flora.”
A few years before Gertrude Jekyll, the talents of Capability Brown graced the English countryside. His natural parkland landscaping with beautiful lakes, ponds, rills, and wadis would be hard to improve upon and today we see an ever increasing number of water features in the modern landscapes, be it ponds, fountains, waterfalls, or reflecting pools. I have a special place in my heart for water in the landscape, and one of my favorite places to visit in England is the Cascade at Blenheim Palace, which was designed by Capability Brown in 1763.
The respected landscape historian Thomas Whately summed up the attitude of that period, writing “water is the most interesting object in a landscape, and the happiest circumstance in a retired recess; captivates the eye at a distance, invites approach, and is delightful when near; it refreshes an open exposure; it animates a shade, cheers the dreariness of a waste, and enriches the most crowded view; it may spread in a calm expanse to soothe the tranquility of a peaceful scene, or hurrying along a devious course, add splendor to a gay, and extravagance to a romantic situation.”
I could not have said it better myself, so on that lovely note I will conclude and hope you have enjoyed this little journey off the beaten path. I’ll see next time you in your garden.