I received a letter from an English friend in January to which, I am ashamed to admit, I have yet to reply. It contained the sentence: “Of those gardens you have listed over time, I don’t remember seeing Mollie Salisbury mentioned: she is by far and away the best garden designer and gardener of my lifetime – maybe any lifetime.” To reinforce the point, he sent me the Garden Museum Journal honouring the late Mollie Salisbury – perhaps better known as the 6th Marchioness of Salisbury, doyenne of Hatfield House.
I will admit we haven’t seen much of Mollie Salisbury’s work. We have been to Hatfield House and I know she had some influence on Xa Tollemarche at Helmingham Hall. When we visited that latter garden, I didn’t photograph the knot garden that I know was inspired and supervised by Mollie Salisbury. Knot gardens are culturally alien to us and neither Mark nor I find them of any interest, if I am brutally honest. But both of us remember that the Helmingham knot garden had personal relevance to the owners because it was laid out as the family crest and located so as to be visible from the upper stories of the residence. That made sense, even while the experience of a knot garden at ground level is a little underwhelming to those of us who prefer a more immersive experience.
We haven’t been to Cranborne Manor in Dorset which was her first notable garden though I am sure I must have seen the classic movie ‘Tom Jones’ (1963) starring Albert Finney and Susannah York, some of which was filmed there. I just can’t remember it.
I wonder whether it would be fair to describe the 6th Marchioness of Salisbury as the queen of the English, pictorial, country manor garden, while recognising that not all her gardens were necessarily of that genre. Mark says I should also note that aspects which came through the garden museum journal included her ability to motivate and inspire others and her pioneering work in organics.
We see a few aspirational English country manor style of gardens in New Zealand but there is a big issue in that we lack the manor houses which act as the centrepiece in such gardens. Amongst other things, elevated views are an integral part of planning. Somehow a G J Gardner home with mock pillars at the front door doesn’t quite cut the mustard, even if it has an upper story and maybe a Juliet balcony.
Our friend, Glyn Church – originally a Somerset man who trained in horticulture in the UK but has long settled into his own big garden in NZ – once commented that with many of the fine UK gardens, if you take out the house and the historical features like enormous walls, the gardens themselves are not always great. I would say the same about the historic Italian gardens we have seen.
Maybe it comes down to that differentiation between gardens that are pictorial and those that are immersive – a concept that I found in the writings of Tim Richardson. Pictorial gardens are those where you can stand back and take in a pleasing view with a sweep of your eyes, where design and structure and space and colour are in harmony. Often focal points will be used to draw you through. Pictorial gardens photograph very well and the best pictorial gardens have substantial structural features of quality.
Immersive gardens are more of a wrap-around experience. Richardson describes them as being “mainly about the close-up vision – that is, looking at plants at about a 45-degree angle from the adjoining path or lawn” (‘You Should Have Been Here Last Week’ page 83). That is a bit too specific for me but they are certainly more plant-focused. To me, it is about a more enveloping experience than a viewing experience. It is what I have set out to do in our new grass garden which has never been designed to be viewed from set points or to draw you through by focal point wayfinders. It is about the garden wrapping around you so that for a few minutes, you are immersed in the movement and textures.
It is that more immersive experience that has determined what we seek out on our trips to English gardens. Our latest one, planned for July, has fallen victim to Covid19 and who knows what the future holds? At the time we were planning this trip, I thought it might be the last one we would make. It was becoming increasingly hard to justify long haul air travel in the face of climate change. But now, there is a possibility we won’t ever get to make that trip, this year, next year, sometime – maybe never. I think it more likely that when we emerge from this pandemic, the new normal will not be the same as the life we knew – was it really just a few weeks ago? The speed of change is terrifying.
Our itinerary for this trip included some locations we had been to before because I have a particular interest in seeing how some of these newer, wilder, more naturalistic gardens last over the years. Do the weeds and thugs take control and smother the charm and detail that was evident when they were new and fresh? What are the techniques being used to maintain the integrity of these naturalistic gardens?
Is it worth travelling 20 000km to look at English gardens? For us, yes but we have evolved our own focus over several visits. While at home, we can enjoy almost every garden we visit to some degree – albeit some more than others – we don’t travel that huge distance to see unremarkable gardens or ones where the lasting impression is less than delight or even awe. Our expectations are high and we have seen some pretty average gardens in England. We have also visited a number of the famous and historic gardens both there and in Italy. They are certainly interesting, often very impressive, but not necessarily inspiring to us at a gardening level. We much prefer the energy, vibrancy and challenge of the more contemporary work
Why England? Is it so much better and more innovative and skilled than, say, the Netherlands, other parts of Europe and parts of USA? Probably not but we are more comfortable getting ourselves around England and that makes the trips much easier. We can’t see everything so we have to pick and choose.
Over recent years, we have leaned more to tracking the work of a few selected designers rather than sticking a pin on the map and seeing what gardens are open in a particular area, or going on the recommendations of others. I am sure that there are many highly skilled designers that we know nothing about whose work is equally impressive but again, we can’t see them all on our brief visits.
I had a cracker of an itinerary worked out for our July trip. More of that in part two.