Lessons to be learned from historic gardens

This summer I spent a few days in the south of England, and I took the opportunity to indulge in some of the fabulous historic gardens that were in the vicinity of my base in Somerset.  I have seen photos and read about some of these gardens but nothing beats meandering around for oneself, taking in the atmosphere and revelling in the enduring magic of good landscape and planting design. The other visitors probably thought I was a little odd, as I ooh-ed and aah-ed my way along paths and around corners, grinning like a cheshire cat, but it is just so good to see well thought out spaces, especially when graced by maturity.  So, of the many photos taken, I share a few of my favourites here, along with why I like them ….


Hestercombe Garden is a real joy. This photo, and the one below, are from the Edwardian formal garden designed by Edwin Lutyens with planting originally by Gertrude Jekyll. The garden was built between 1904 and 1908 and is considered to be the best example of the work undertaken by the pair. Formal gardens are not my first love, but the architectural detailing here was exquisite, especially in the stone work. This circular pool receives water as a fine stream of individual droplets, falling from the green man mask at the apex of the semi-circular arch, and the ensuing ripples flow out to edges of the pool, creating an endless flow of circular ripples from centre to periphery. I found the sight and sound of this simple device utterly mesmerising -it kept me rooted to the spot for a very long time indeed. So, two important lessons here – less is definitely more, and, it’s all in the detail.


The terrace that leads down from the house, and from which you see the sunken area of the Great Plat laid out in its entirety, is simply planted with a repeating sequence of grey and silver leaved plants with blue flowers. This combination complements the soft tones of the silvery-grey morte slate of the walls and pathway, creating a very calming visual effect. Once again, the small plant range and the repeat planting demonstrate that less is more in planting design, as in hard landscaping, and that plants can have a wonderfully softening effect on constructed features.


Erigeron karvinskianus, seen here on the terrace steps at Hestercombe, is the plant I fell in love with this summer. It would hate the heavy, wet, cold conditions of my Scottish garden but here, seeded in the hot, dry, cracks of a sunny wall, it was in seventh heaven. And so was I. The simplicity and delicacy of the flowers and foliage are such a contrast to the hard edged slabs of rock in the wall, yet the two seemed made for each other. And this effect can only be achieved by self-seeding. So, a good lesson for me – some of the best planting effects are purely opportunistic.


The next garden is an absolute gem. Lytes Cary Manor is a small manor house, with even smaller chapel, set in an intimate, and lovingly maintained, Arts & Crafts garden. Yew hedges and topiary form the backbone of the garden, which is laid out in a traditional series of outdoor rooms and long walks, with fabulous herbaceous borders and lots of playful detailing.  This was obviously a garden designed for family life and there are plenty of spaces that would please all ages.  The lesson here is to remember that gardens, like houses, are primarily for living in – the quirky features add to the fun, but nothing is taken too seriously.


A much younger garden was next on the list. East Lambrook Manor Garden was created by Margery Fish in the middle decades of the 20th century and it is now a Grade 1 listed Cottage Garden and nursery. The garden holds a number of national plant collections and it was the hardy geraniums that I was seeking on this trip. The informality of this garden was a real joy to me after the formality of some of the others, with planting styles very much akin to my own preferences and demonstrating a fabulous mix of trees, shrubs and perennials. In high summer the herbaceous borders close to the house are flopping all over the narrow pathways, with tall plants jostling the passer-by and a whole host of colours screaming for one’s attention. It was lovely to be reminded that planting rules are meant to be broken at times – Jekyll’s planting schemes are lovely to behold, but give me a fabulous jumble of form and colour any day!


One of the ideas I will definitely be using in my own and in my clients’ gardens is this one – underplanting an informal bench with Geranium maccrorhizum. This semi-evergreen, creeping perennial has the most fantastically scented leaves and loves shady spots so it is ideally suited for this location. I have already earmarked where in my garden I will install this feature, reminding me that, in gardens, plagiarism is a compliment and not a crime!


On my way north I diverted into Gloucestershire to pay a visit to Hidcote. The garden here is world famous but nothing prepared me for the sheer joy of exploration.  I had very little time available so I put away the map and just wandered from room, to room, to meandering woodland, down long walks and back to yet another room.  This is definitely not a restful garden and the spaces do not flow from one to another, but instead assail the senses as you pass through yet another narrow archway in the yew hedges. But that is part of its attraction.  Each space is almost obsessively planned, so it is like taking a walk through the mind of it’s creator, which makes it a very personal garden.


As in the Lutyens garden at Hestercombe, the detailing at Hidcote was fantastic. In the stream garden this pathway reminded me of elements of oriental garden philosophy, and this area of the garden was very different from some of the more formal rooms closer to the house.

So, what was the final lesson I learned on this trip? That indulgence can be a good thing – at Hidcote, Lawrence Johnston indulged his passion for gardens in an almost obsessive way and, in the process, created a wealth of ideas for the rest of us to steal and incorporate into our own spaces. On this trip too, I thoroughly indulged my love of gardens and, in the process, hopefully educated my husband about what I do for a living, and what I live to do … create wonderful spaces for people to enjoy, and live.

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