Tag Archives: Travels

A garden destination for all tastes and expectations? Trentham in Stoke-on-Trent

Trentham Gardens shows that it can get pretty close to being all things to all people. Even on a cool, grey Monday afternoon, the place was humming. Mark and I have a running gag about the “sense of arrival” at gardens. One day I will explain the origin of our cynicism about this but we worked out long ago that the greatest “sense of arrival” is a full carpark. And on this Monday afternoon, I photographed our rental car so we could find it again later. As an aside, you can have any colour of car you like in Britain, as long as it is black or grey. And one grey rental car looks pretty much like 80% of the other cars.

Trentham had a long and illustrious history before falling on hard times. Very hard times. The splendid Capability Brown lake apparently became the smelly, festering sewer for the Trent River and all who lived and worked nearby – especially the potteries for which Stoke-on-Trent is famous – resulting in the family vacating the grand home. When nobody wanted to take the estate off his hands, the 4th Duke of Sutherland committed an act of great vandalism in 1912 and had most of the house demolished. Why? Many must have asked that question down the years.

Why? The remains of the original house

St Modwen Properties certainly must have asked that question when they took over the property in 1996 and declared a brave mission statement:

“Regenerate and restore the historic Estate and gardens turning it into a premier tourist and leisure destination of national significance.” 

The shopping village – Swiss chalet naff?

Those plans included extensive gardens, monkeys, a luxury hotel on the site of the original house (yet to materialise) and a whole lot more. Are they on track? They sure are. Moving from the well-filled carpark, you first encounter the retail village. True, it is what I might describe as ‘Swiss chalet naff’ in style but it appears to pull the punters and I bet the main street retailers hate it. We are not good shoppers so we passed through quickly.

The Italian terraces where the main plantings are by Tom Stuart-Smith

We were there to see the Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf gardens and then we found there were extensive new plantings by Nigel Dunnett. Three modern stars of the gardening scene is pretty good. And add in the David Austin rose border to make it four stars. But if ever there was a destination that fitted the “but wait there is more” descriptor, it is Trentham. There are summer concerts (see my footnote *). We did not go to the Monkey Forest (with real monkeys). Nor did we find the maze or the show gardens or go on the model railway. We should have taken the boat ride because the walk around the lake was closed for some reason so we could not get access to all the new Dunnett plantings. But honestly, there is enough there in the gardens around the site of the old house to keep most of us happy.

Looking across the Stuart-Smith plantings to a surviving original gateway

Tom Stuart-Smith planting

Put briefly, Tom Stuart-Smith has been given free rein on the original Italianate terraces. The planting is typical of his signature style that we have seen – big, bold and handsome combinations. The phlomis, Stipa gigantea, eryngiums, geraniums, tall campanulas and thalictrum all  come to mind at this time of the year. We saw his beautiful terraces at Mount St John in Yorkshire a few years ago and the Trentham plantings are in a similar mode but on a much bigger scale. The earlier photos I had seen of the Trentham terraces had looked a bit bitsy but these have matured to generous plantings that envelop the visitor.

More signature Oudolf than “Floral Labyrinth” and we were a little too early in the season to see its full glory

The Piet Oudolf gardens are styled as the “Floral Labyrinth” – do I detect the earnest hand of the marketing wing of Trentham in that name? Stylistically, they were similar to his work we saw at Pensthorpe in Norfolk on our last visit. Mark describes it as Gertrude Jekyll on steroids – carefully composed clumps of large perennials which will hold themselves up and not require ongoing dead heading, knitted together in a harmonious flow. When I say large, I mean a fair swag of them are shoulder or head height but no taller and a clump may be more than two metres across. We were just a little early for the full glory of peak flower but the veronicastrum and geraniums were lovely and there was plenty of other interest.

Piet Oudolf’s “Rivers of Grass” at Trentham

The Rivers of Grass were charming in a much lower key way. I deduced these were also the work of Piet Oudolf because there is a similarity to the meadow at Bury Court so I was pleased to be proven correct on that. Then I realised that Scampston in Yorkshire also has its Oudolf drifts of grass, though I was unconvinced by that one in a more rigid layout. All seem to use molinia which has a shimmering quality, seen at its best at Trentham on the day we were there, with the subtle inclusion of other flowering plants to add richness.

Dunnett at Trentham

More Dunnett and his Sheffield team at Trentham

The newest plantings are those of Nigel Dunnett and his Sheffield team. The photos tell the story. These are so fresh and deceptively simple. Just a joy. It is the first time I have seen a Sheffield planting that is so tightly colour-toned as the blue border. Consumer demand? Further round the lake, I understand it is more woodland which would have been interesting had the path not been closed because we have only seen Sheffield plantings in full sun so far. What a delight they are. I see their branding is as “Pictorial Meadows” which seems an appropriate descriptor.

The ‘Upper Flower Garden” – oops

What is really interesting on this massive project is that a private business has looked to some of the top designers and practitioners working in the field of contemporary landscape, design and gardening to turn a very old site into a modern attraction. We are lucky indeed that St Modwen, as owners of Trentham, had the vision to go well beyond the obvious Victorian bedding plant tradition. It is a brave decision. If you are looking at a mass market, the reality is that the average Joe or Josie Public is going to be quite happy with bedding plants of the floral clock genre – lots of tidy colour planted in patterns. These are not entirely lacking at Trentham, as witness the “Upper Flower Garden”. I raised my eyebrows at these but I bet poor old Tom Stuart-Smith has to avert his eyes in horror when he stands on this top terrace to get a long view of his plantings out to the lake. But in the hands of a less visionary investment company, this could have been the story of the entire place.

My photos are entirely ‘of the day’ – a snapshot in time. When top-flight plantspeople are given free rein, they are not planting for a small window of time. These are plantings that are designed to take the gardens through the seasons, or at least three seasons from spring bulbs through to autumn colour with a more static picture of winter rest. This is a high level skill but never more so than in public plantings predominantly of perennials, where one planting must gently age and fade gracefully as the next wave of plants takes over. Which is to say that should you visit a month or two months later, the gardens may look very different but should still look as if they are at or close to their peak.

There is a really complex entry charge system, depending on which areas you want to visit (the gardens count as one area). Goodness me, you can even use Tesco Clubcard vouchers (Tesco being a supermarket chain). It is worth looking on line – I found a two for one weekday voucher there though I then felt a bit mean when I used it.

Postscript *I do not want to overstate the evening concerts. In fact I looked at the programme boards and wondered if it was just the one contracted band in different guises. The amphitheatre stage was but modest. Maybe they are catering to a specific local demographic, this year at least? On our last visit we saw Hatfield House in London preparing for a major concert. U2? Or was it UB40? I have waited three years to use my photo of the portaloos at Hatfield. Trentham is not trying that scale of concert at this stage but give them time. I am sure they will be looking at it for feasibility and profitability.

Portaloos at Hatfield House in 2014

Because I had many more photos than I could use on this post, I have added an album on Facebook.

Around the Barbican (part one of observations on the Sheffield School of planting)

The Barbican plantings by Nigel Dunnett

After a week in Italy and a week in Normandy, we hit the ground running when we landed in Britain. This is familiar territory. We can find our way around without too much stress and we know how most things work. Even the traffic comes from the side we expect so the risk of being run over crossing the road is greatly reduced. And we were very focussed on what we wanted to see. The contemporary directions. The modern trends.

When I use words like contemporary and modern in connection with gardening in New Zealand, I fear people may instantly think of hard edged gardening with mirrors and stainless steel, all those colourful cushions on hard concrete benches and mass plantings of a single variety that used to be seen in UK show gardens. No. No. And no again. Consign that back to the turn of the century, which is nearing two decades ago now. It is time to wake up to the new directions in gardening and in spaces both public and private.

The new face of sustainable and ecology focused gardening

The new focus is about ecology, sustainability, good environmental practice and creating eco-systems that support the diversity of nature – a worthy if didactic approach to gardening for this new age.  The unspoken aspects are where design and aesthetics fit into this somewhat radical approach. That is what we wanted to see.

At one end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘Sheffield School’, under the leadership of professors Nigel Dunnett  and James Hitchmough.  The work coming out of the Landscape Department of Sheffield University is exciting. In a nutshell, this is about lower input, low maintenance plantings that will co-exist with some level of harmony, develop ecosystems and bring visual delight. The skills lie in the range of plants selected (plant communities) and getting these established in the first place. That is a simple summary but if you want to know more, google them.

We first saw the Sheffield School signature plantings in the Missouri Meadow at the RHS Garden Wisley in 2009. I will return to that because in 2017, it is a little problematic and raises some interesting questions.

While there were a lot of kniphofia and phlomis in bloom when we visited, this is layered planting to take the garden through the seasons.

The first place we went to on this visit was the Barbican, having read about Nigel Dunnett’s new gardens there.  I have not been to the High Line in New York yet but I am guessing this is something like the smaller London version of that. A planting in a public space one story above the street. It is more about informal herbaceous planting as derived from New Perennials or the new naturalism than prairies or meadows. The new casual take on the classic, colour-toned and graduated herbaceous plantings that used to typify the best of English gardening. Meandering paths and seats through the garden encourage people to get in amongst it, rather than viewing from the side. We thought it was great. Full of movement and colour and more inviting in this day and age. There was no “amenity planting” look to it, although obviously it is in that category.

Mark went looking for evidence of irrigation to save you having to tramp on the garden yourself, should you visit

We were told that there were weight restrictions that reduced the number of substantial trees that could be used on this elevated site. It was also whispered to us a little later that the maintenance is not quite as light as claimed and that a team of volunteers put in work to keep it looking as good as it does. It is surrounded by high density housing and if some of the residents choose to take ownership of this communal space and keep it looking good, that is surely a benefit. Unlike most of the other Sheffield School planting we have seen, the Barbican must have used plants to start with, not seed. It gives a very different effect. Mark went looking to see if it was irrigated and found only the most perfunctory hose so our guess is that it was watered to get it established but the long-term hope is to follow the principle of planting to the conditions and avoiding a reliance on irrigation. How realistic this is with a limited depth of soil remains to be seen.

I have too many photos to post here, so have put an album up on Facebook if you want more details of this Barbican garden and its environs.

Next post is on the Olympic Park plantings. More prairie than New Perennials.

Postcards of Normandy

Potted colour in Rouen

One wonders – well, I wonder – if the person who did the sign off in at Rouen’s town council realised the scale of the planters to be installed at that railway station. “Let’s pretty up the area with some potted colour,” I imagine somebody saying. The result was the BIGGEST examples of potted colour that we have seen. Clearly hand watered – Mark checks these things out.

Same city. Not quite like the railway station planters.

Further down towards the River Seine was an example of amenity planting without irrigation. Not even the modern style prairie plantings can get established and flourish without added water. The idea may have been good but most plants bolt to flower and seed when put under extreme stress in an attempt to ensure their continued survival. Much of Europe was experiencing a heat wave when we were there. Both in Italy and in France, locals told us that it most unusual for the temperature to be sitting well into the thirties (Celsius) in June.

Potted colour in Pont-l’Évêque

While on the subject of urban plantings, the planter boxes on the bridge at Pont-l’Évêque made up for their lack of sophistication with exuberance. It was just that we were in Pont-l’Évêque that I thought I would photograph le pont but then I worked out it was in fact les ponts – there were many bridges and I have no idea which one gave its name to the area.

A pharmacy on every corner

Our second daughter joined us in France and it was she who marvelled at the fact there appeared to be a pharmacy, or chemist as we call them, on pretty much every corner in Rouen. Why so many, she asked. I have no idea but it reminded me of a useful skill French pharmacists have. They are trained to identify edible fungi – as in wild collected mushrooms, toadstools and the like. So if you are not sure of the safety of what you have gathered, you can pop in to your friendly local pharmacy. I do not think this is a service offered at our local Waitara chemist’s shop but there are times it would be handy.

We stayed in another Air BnB place in Camembert – in this case a Norman barn that had been converted to a large apartment. Some of the conversion was a little curious but we did not electrocute ourselves and the opportunity to sleep in an adult-sized cradle created from a half cider barrel may never come my way again.

Crouttes, near Vimoutier

The whole area around Camembert and Vimoutiers was extremely charming and picturesque. However, we were puzzled at the lack of the French equivalent of country pubs and eateries and also at the apparent emptiness of many of the villages. I think it comes down to issues of personal space and population density. In areas with very dense housing such as Tivoli and Sermonetta in Italy where we had been a few days previously, everybody comes out of their apartments to socialise on the streets and the plazas, especially as late afternoon meets early evening. In the UK which also has high density housing, people are often out and about. This area of rural Normandy was more like Tikorangi – big personal spaces and homes with land attached. Given the luxury of both indoor and outdoor private space, people stay at home more. At least that is my theory.

The green circle…

We went to a garden. I do not need to name it but it was advertised on the tourist trail. The welcoming sign was perhaps a giveaway that we should not set our expectations too high. What was quite interesting about this garden was that it had all the trappings of a comprehensive modern garden – the romantic rose garden, the new perennials garden, a “Japanese” garden, a productive kitchen garden, a traditional, medieval physic garden that harked back to the magnificent old buildings that gave the place its structure, even the enclosed green circle or rondel garden such as can be seen at Sissinghurst and many imitators. It was all there. Sort of. What was missing were gardening skills and flair. Particularly gardening skills. And any eye for detail. There is a lesson there somewhere.

Posted withour comment – the Japanese garden from the aforementioned garden.

The fruit of the mandrake! Mandragora officinarum, to be botanical. This is not something one sees often. It is apparently the root that is harvested for whatever purpose one harvests mandrake, but the fruit are certainly eye-catching too. I think it was in the physic garden.

La Plume! Romantic summer France

Next post will be the summer glory that is La Plume, a modern French garden in a country better known for its historic gardens than modern innovation.

Mostly Villas d’Este and Adriana – Postcards of Italy 2.

This Italy actually exists

Cliched though this scene may appear, it is not contrived. I just came across the view as we walked from Villa Adriana to the nearest coffee shop five minutes up the road. We wanted our morning caffeine hit before we tramped the ruins. Not only were there red poppies growing wild in the barley crop, the blue chicory and white convolvulus (field bindweed) were flowering alongside the stone wall that edged the road. I probably laughed out loud in delight.

Villa d’Este in Tivoli is known worldwide as one of the great Italian gardens. Built by The Man Who Would be Pope to compensate his thwarted ambition, it dates back to 1560. It was grand then. It is still grand today and water features throughout. His land excavations to achieve this garden would have put Capability Brown into the shade.

Formal but not strictly symmetrical at Villa d’Este

We have looked at some of the great Italian gardens on previous visits and had come to the conclusion that it is the settings, the hard landscaping – particularly the stonework – the history, the handling of space and proportions and the symmetry that makes these gardens endure as monuments to wealth, power and sometimes grace down the centuries. It is not so much to do with the plants or the maintenance. In a moment of profundity, as we walked through Villa d’Este, I noted that the symmetry is achieved through repetition, not through slavish measurement. It is that repetition and symmetry on a large scale that makes them so pleasing to the eye.

Attention to detail is not a strong point in Italian garden maintenance. Plants are not required to be immaculate. Irrigation hoses are often visible. It is okay to have plastic pots visible inside the terracotta pots. Water quality can leave a lot to be desired. Lawns are impossible in their climate. Some coarse grass kept green by watering is the best that one can hope for. The big picture is what matters. But, should you have grand visions of creating an “Italian-style” garden at home in New Zealand, maybe be aware that there is not one skerrick of tanalised timber – be they posts or plywood edgings or pergola beams – in any of these originals. Personally, I do not think that you can be Italianate or even Italianesque and use undisguised tanalised timber as a substitute for stone and terracotta. Ditto modern ‘dragonstone’ urns. And imposing suburban New Zealand values of pristine maintenance and velvet lawns takes such gardens even further away from the originals.

The straw broom brought a smile to our faces. Regular readers may remember me posting about the making of these in China.  Sometimes there is a charm to old ways. Besides, as Mark points out, these brooms work very well. Our first ever visit to Italy was back in the early 2000s when we went on an IDS tour of northern Italian gardens. It was there we first saw the widespread use of leaf blowers and came home and bought one. These days, Mark is using ours less and less. He is a bit of a purist, our Mark, and has become concerned at how dependent we have become on the internal combustion engine to maintain the garden.  If somebody would just make him a few straw brooms, he would be a happy man.

I am sure it takes a great deal of work to look like a modern-day princess, even more so when the temperature is over 30 Celsius and the location requires walking down and then up hundreds of steps. Mark noted that she was also behaving like a princess – the one with the pea under the mattress. I couldn’t possibly comment. Even when I was considerably younger, I do not think I ever managed the princess look.

Real life nymphs at Villa d’Este

I preferred the real-life nymphs. It transpired they were American art students doing an art history semester in Italy. Mark discreetly walked past them as they sketched and reported that they were extremely competent at drawing.

Villa Adriana – just one small view of a huge complex

Villa Adriana surprised us by its scale. It is the Emperor Hadrian’s retreat dating back to 200AD. The word villa encompasses a range of building styles and scale in Italy. The one at Villa d’Este is more akin to a palace. Villa Adriana is an entire small city of largely unrestored ruins encompassing about 250 acres. What is more, you can walk amongst them. I found a Roman toilet and an ancient olive grove that was simply astonishing. More on the olive grove another time. This was the Roman empire but it had an air of abandoned desolation even today, as though the tourist plans and archaeological aspirations of even a few years ago had fallen on hard times.

There was a fair amount of statuary of the armless, legless and formerly white variety but I think most of it was more recent reproduction already in decay. Much of the surviving, original statuary and marble had been raided 500 years ago by Cardinal Ippolito ll d’Este and relocated to his nearby pad but we did not know this when we went around Villa d’Este.

The wildflowers in the ruins of Adriana had a simple charm. In those drought-like conditions, the spring rains must bring a short-lived surge of germination and growth. The plants shoot straight into flower but conditions prevent them becoming invasive problems.

Finally, fields of sunflowers on the road to Ninfa. All facing the wrong way for the picture book image with the house and hills behind. Viewed from the other side, we lost the landscape context.

The light is so different in Italy

Despatches from Camembert

This! This really is the village of Camembert. It exists and it is the origin of the cheese. It is picturesque but small these days containing a church, a carpark with two charge stations for electric cars, a museum to honour Camembert cheese that has limited opening hours and a tourist shop. And some houses, but not many.

The tourist shop sells cheeses and I am not sure that they were much dearer than the same local brands at the Carrefour supermarket in nearby Vimoutiers. European cheeses are so very good. And it is interesting that most of the local market appears to be supplied by small, local producers. We would call these artisan or boutique producers at home and pay a huge premium for their products. Our mass market, such as it is in little New Zealand, is supplied by an indistinct, pretty average range of cheese, most of which comes through Fonterra, our near monopoly dairy company.

At the crossroads, leading up to Camembert, there is an obelisk commemorating Madame Harel, or Mrs Camembert as some may call her now. That is a pretty major legacy to leave.

Mme Harel’s obelisk faces but in no way equals the startling rendition of Christ. We have seen many other statues of both Christ and the Virgin Mary in this area, reminding us that this is a Roman Catholic country. But few statues equal the grandeur and prominence of that in little Camembert.

I like travelling with Mark because he is observant so of course he spotted the bees congregating around the nether regions. What is more, be cast his eyes around the base until he found a dead bee, in order that he could determine that these are small, dark French bees of a sort we do not appear to have in New Zealand.

The roses were finished last week in Italy, still blooming beautifully in Normandie this week and we may even catch them at their peak in England where we cross to today. We saw a most interesting contemporary French garden near Rouen and a not so great garden near here, but more on gardens later. Our arrival in Camembert on Wednesday was, apparently, the hottest June day since 1945. 38 degrees Celsius. That is very, very hot. We are not expecting a repetition in England.