A threshold crossed this month. A number to blame for the stamina reduction, typed letter reversing, and creaky joints. An excuse.
Or an opportunity?
The slippery slope beckons beyond the summit. Or will it be more of a precipice? A vertical plunge?
So what better idea for a few days away, than Fiona’s suggestion to build a trip around a visit to see Thenford, the estate and garden that Lord Michael Heseltine (MH) and his wife Anne have created over the past 40 years, commenced in good time whilst bodies were still fit, and the money was flowing in, just outside Banbury.
Sitting in the very middle of the country we planned an afternoon visit to Hidcote en route. I hadn’t been for a couple of decades and we were both again hugely impressed by Hidcote’s vistas and plantings. It is a garden to walk through slowly, observe, sit down, rest, admire and think.
Few photos from here, because in a rush to leave I hadn’t checked my camera to confirm that it had a Flash card inserted! (So many thanks to Fiona and her mobile phone for these four images). We contented ourselves with simply enjoying the scenes and buying a copy of an excellent review of the history and maintenance of the garden on DVD – “The Quiet American Gardener”.
I would recommend this film record to anyone who visits Hidcote, since you’ll appreciate much more both the breadth of vision of Hidcote’s American creator, and also how the current gardening team manage this iconic historic English garden. Its distinctive “rooms” concept with the intrigue of what you will see next as you pass from one area to another, and consciously allowing very few views outside the garden into the distant landscape, have influenced so many who’ve designed gardens since its completion.
You can click here for a short trailer of the documentary, where you’ll notice that the excellent script is written by locally based historian, and friend, Penny David. The whole production is of a very high standard and inspires revisits to see the garden during other seasons.
Major Lawrence Johnston, the quiet American, was born into a wealthy American family of stockbrokers, which gave him the necessary funds to create this now revered English garden, once his mother had bought the Cotswold estate in the early twentieth century. Lacking heirs or income to maintain the gardens beyond his tenure, it was indeed fortunate that it was passed to the National Trust in 1948, to ensure its persistence as a jewel in the NT’s estate. Click here for more on Lawrence Johnston.
Fortunately early the following morning we negotiated the roundabouts of Banbury to find a PC World and a Flash card for the Friday after the night before.
Not the cloud burst that dumped on Edge Hill ((famous for being the site of the first pitched battle of the English Civil War in 1642 – the power struggle between Charles and Cromwell – click here for more) just as we arrived at “The Castle” for dinner. Rather the fall out as the 10 pm post general election exit poll was announced, and politics in the UK once more lurched and teetered into unfamiliar territory, and a different sort of power struggle.
Our ability to follow events on the novelty of a TV in our Air B&B base in Tysoe (above) was disrupted by reception issues, just one of a number of problems which will make us wary of using this type of accommodation again. A shame because the property was historic and lovely. However we did manage to see Osborne and Balls side by side, pontificating, and indeed the now infamous Theresa May wheat field naughtiness Q&A exchange.
It was strange to see how this ambush and skirmish began with such an apparently innocent, though bulleted question, which clearly provoked terror in our current Prime Minister. We realised just how much missing such visual cues, as we normally do at home, alters our perception of those wielding power over us from positions of authority. Later in the month Jeremy Corbyn apparently wooed the masses at Glastonbury. Click here for how place and presence was used by this more media savvy leader, or at least political party, in today’s UK. (The idea of addressing a seething mass of humanity crammed into a Somerset field holds no appeal for this fellow Adam’s Grammar lad)…
How would Charles and Cromwell have fared under today’s media glare, I wonder? No hiding of warts or anything else, it seems, which is probably why we persist with just the leaders who are currently still standing.
Thenford only opens publicly on a few occasions by pre-booked tickets, timed to begin at 2 pm, so we reckoned we could fit in another local garden in the morning. (Click here for Thenford contact details).
I trawled around the road map of the area and happened on Rousham. I couldn’t find a huge amount of information on line, but the recent trip advisor comments were enlightening and uniformly positive. So we aimed to get there early with a picnic lunch, since part of its strategy to avoid huge numbers is not to have a tea room, not to allow dogs, and not to allow children under 15… Click here for garden visiting details.
Inserting this link reminded me.
Don’t be put off by their simple website. There are very few actual photos of the garden on it, but by the time we’d reflected on our visit we reckon that overall it was the most beautiful garden visiting experience we’ve ever enjoyed, even trumping this spring’s Cornwall gardens.
Buying your entrance ticket from an old parking ticket machine, you walk in front of the historic mansion, clutching a small estate map and guide, before entering the garden at the side of the house, through a simple elegant gate with a ditch and ha-ha separating you from a herd of ancient breed cattle. Fabulously patinated, mahogany flanked beasts, these are ancient prize winning British Longhorns. Long in the back, with downward facing curved horns, the herd was on the move as we passed.
What lay ahead? We had no idea, save that we knew that Dan Pearson rated the garden highly, and that Julie of “GardeningJules” had written a favourable post about it a couple of years ago. Much of the design was laid out by William Kent, (1685-1748), a polymath designer and genius of the Georgian era, who tackled a vast range of creative endeavours. Click here for text from a recent V&A exhibition on his life and works, and here for more details. Perhaps a quote from Horace Walpole, a writer from a similar era (1717-1797) summarises how unique Kent was in this regard…
“He was a painter, an architect, and the father of modern gardening. In the first character he was below mediocrity; in the second, he was a restorer of the science; in the last, an original, and the inventor of an art that realizes painting and improves nature. Mahomet imagined an elysium, Kent created many.”
By the time we’d reached the rill, which lazily and sinuously snakes through intense summer shade, down a slight incline to a cold bathing pool, still and deserted save a solitary Emerald damselfly which rested on the draping foliage overhead, we were entranced…
No flowers here, just greens.
A route back beside the lazily flowing River Cherwell, jewelled with resting Banded Demosielles, we reached a perfect end point seat, to open and eat our picnic. We were alone, tucked away in this peaceful world, in the middle of a very bustling part of the UK. A perfect place for reflections…
Walking through, an enormously long, immaculate wide herbaceous border opened up, with an orchard and more borders on the right. Everywhere was immaculately maintained for a garden on such a scale, and brilliantly planned for floral continuity. Wall trained and shrub roses were at their peak …The final thrill was turning through yet another narrow shaded opening, cut through a mature yew hedge, to see the old stone pigeonnier, still occupied, and surrounded by a stunning parterre. The inter-hedge spaces filled with beginning to flower roses, but in early June also resplendent with multi-coloured foxgloves. We’ve rarely seen a single garden view better imagined and executed. From any angle.
As we left we spotted a couple of gardeners on their way back to the buildings for lunch, and we complemented them on their work. Apparently just 3 part time and 2 full time gardeners manage this, along with the owners. Extraordinary!
If you can get to see this garden, do go. An elegant and inspirational place to linger and savour. Imaginative yet restrained…Indeed a garden elysium. Perhaps not “the place at the ends of the earth where favoured Greek heroes were conveyed after death by the Gods“. But certainly a place where one could enjoy a state of perfect happiness. And we did.
It’s open 365 days of the year, and one of the gardeners said he almost preferred it on a still, quiet winter’s day. We are already planning a return. How wonderful though that the owners do allow others to share their fabulous private garden. We did appreciate it.
Like any garden on this scale, a huge amount of money must have been required to create it in the first place. I could find little on the source of the Dormer – Cottrell’s wealth, save that Robert, son of the original Robert Dormer who purchased Rousham manor in the 1630’s apparently “restored the family fortunes” by marrying twice – both wives being heiresses, and the second one being the daughter of Charles Cottrell, a courtier of Charles the Second. Click here for more. Difficult to find much about the current owners on line either. Low key, and off the mainstream internet access radar. And since quite a lot of funds would be required to maintain Rousham over the centuries, this lack of information is intriguing.
Power, money or influence didn’t impinge on our consciousness. Like Hidcote, but two centuries earlier in design and creation, a quintessential English garden.
So how to compare such a visit, and a garden maintained and nurtured over 300 years, by the same family, with Thenford? A short drive away, but a world apart in overall impact, as we would soon discover.
The immediate obvious difference was the visitor numbers. Advance ticket sales only maybe, and twice the entry charge, but a steady stream of cars driving into the grassy meadow (lacking any floral diversity, interestingly), due North of the house, and many stewards guiding visitors to the garden entrance. But what of first impressions?
A lovely house, but do the bronze dogs, apparently found in the Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen Parisian flea market, add or detract from the view? Or indeed the cars, but I guess garages weren’t planned for such establishments…
Where to go first? This is a vast site of 70 acres, with multiple areas, so we aimed to finish near the tea barn, and headed for some of the more formal parts of the garden first. But not before the very special treat of having a close encounter with a hare…
… which seemed unfazed by the many people milling around in front of the elegant house, where a feature throughout the garden – large bronze sculptures of a pair of cormorants – dominated the scene overlooking the re landscaped lakeThis set a theme for much of the garden.
There is much to admire at Thenford, and in the opening to their jointly authored book, “Thenford – The Creation Of An English Garden”, Anne acknowledges that Michael is a very wealthy man, thanks to building up his Haymarket publishing firm, after first cutting his teeth on property development, as a student. Click here for the Michael Heseltine wikipedia page. You will notice it is a very lengthy record of a very busy existence. Or here for a more human slant on the couple, and discover how the lad from Swansea has done very well for himself after a risky, or risque, early venture in founding the Tit Club (for bird enthusiasts) at Prep school, progressing via Shrewsbury School, and then Oxford, to a life clearly driven by ambition and achievement.
And he has chosen to spend a lot of his money on this very long term project. Much of this works well, but to our eyes, some was overdone – particularly perhaps in the design concepts of the reworking of the walled garden where domed structures, sentry boxes, or “pavilions” punctuate criss-crossing paths and vistas. I struggled to find an explanation in their book for the apparently Indian or Asian influence, save that Anne had found the 2 marble elephant sculptures on a trip to that part of the world, and that they wanted pavilions to display the other more classical sculptures which they’d already acquired.There are also colourful jewelled birds in this walled garden (a selection of parakeets), though they aren’t free to wander, but caged… A long border outside the walled garden has lovely perennial planting, but little in the way of landscape views. Possibly an idea borrowed from Hidcote, or a necessary security concept for a high ranking politician? From seats with an almost Napoleonic grandeur, one could however see glimpses of scenery through “moon gates” – round hedge window openings…
Privacy, or protection? Borrowing views or blocking them off?
The rill looked fabulous on a sunny day – the book describes just how much hard landscaping, concrete pouring, valve and pipework went into creating this visual tour de force, topped by an ornate mosaic motif set into the ground, which I could only capture a fragment of, due to the numbers of people standing on it, when we reached it.
There are several garden areas or projects linked to special family events – for example a trough garden commemorating their golden wedding anniversary, with nearly 50 ancient stone troughs. And ornate, painted wrought iron gate …… and a series of hedged enclosures housing more sculptures, and more painted wrought iron, this time in pink…
Lenin doesn’t seem too bothered by these two ladies focusing on their phones, rather than him. But he’s probably seen a lot in his time. Originating from the old KGB headquarters in Latvia this 7 ton bronze was apparently bought for scrap by a dealer, and the Heseltines picked it up at a Sotheby’s auction and arranged to have it shipped and installed in this specially created, hedge enclosed, private “room “.We preferred the more naturalistic areas of the garden – the stream side plantings and walks through the arboretum, where there are thousands of fine developing cultivars of familiar and rare trees, many grown from seeds gleaned during MH’s international travels. In the Tatler interview link above, MH comments that no one remembers politicians, but they might remember his aboretum… This is also a garden which would clearly look very different, and be equally enjoyable, at other seasons.
We dropped down the gentle incline, round the lake and headed for a much needed sit down and tea, where to our surprise, and hugely impressively, the catering staff all seemed to be members of the Heseltine family. And there by the doorway of the barn with a pile of books to autograph was Lord Heseltine himself, gamely chatting to the punters, and indeed another signed “for grumpy hobbit” book now sits on our bookshelf.
One wouldn’t have guessed from this happy scene, the turmoil of the night before, in one of the most badly judged political events of recent times.
As we left, we appreciated a people free view from the front of the house, the crowds by now dispersing. We admired the vision, ambition and hard work that has been lavished on this garden. However perhaps it needs more time to judge its long term place in the list of great English gardens. Will it eventually rank alongside Hidcote? Or Rousham? As well maintained and regarded as these historically tested gardens now are.
Certainly its vast scale, which currently requires a team of 10 to 12 gardeners to manage, will require a huge long term income stream, and vast effort, to keep it at its current peak of perfection.
Will the Heseltine clan take up the baton from the founding generation, and tackle the task with similar enthusiasm and commitment to the creators? Or even keep running the show for three hundred years, like the understated Cottrell-Dormers have managed to do so successfully at Rousham?
Or will it gradually fade, over decades, and end up like the final house and garden I’ll mention from this trip, that of Upton House.Just North of Banbury, towards the base of the Edge Hill escarpment and now also owned by the National Trust. Click here for more about the history of the property.
Built of yellow sandstone, it was acquired in the 1927 by the second Viscount Bearsted, and considerably enlarged, as well as having the gardens reworked. The Viscount’s father made his money by founding the Shell Transport and Trading (Oil) company and inside the house are significant art, porcelain and advertising poster collections from the early days of Shell. Yet in spite of this background wealth, in 1948 the property, collections and garden were all gifted to the National Trust.
The gardens are now a little run down… Glimpses of former grandeur, and the terraced hard landscaping leading down to a pool have huge potential… But I’m guessing in its heyday it would have looked far grander… _____________________
So a birthday bash to remember, and back home my own way of celebrating, thanks to Fiona’s inspiration and quite a bit of her time spent online, was to splash out on getting the first 6 years of this blog turned into hard copy books. There are a number of firms doing this. We used Blog2Print, click here if interested.
Our main criterion was that I couldn’t face doing any more editorial work. So whilst the formatting isn’t absolutely perfect, and there’s no scope for including comments made, the quality of production and photographic reproduction is very good. Even more amazing was that from doing the necessary computer work, to having the books produced in the USA and shipped over here, took less than 2 weeks, so some even arrived before my birthday bash.
A couple of thousand pages. Thousands of photos. And all this for just 6 years of garden making, thinking and observations in our small patch of upland Welsh garden.
At least now the dire prospect of losing all my scribblings and photos in a digital wipe out, is less of a concern to me, and there’s actually a bit of fun to be had in picking one of the books up, letting it fall open at a page, and thinking…
“Did I really see, or think, that?”
Thanks for reading.