Monday, 30 June 2014

The Laskett - like it or not, it's definitely one to visit now Sir Roy Strong has opened his doors to the public

The Laskett was created by Sir Roy Strong and his wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman
Garden visiting is a growing trend the world over and here in England we have more than our fair share of gardens to visit. But there are some properties that should go on every person’s “Wish List” and for me The Laskett in Herefordshire is one of these. It is not only the largest private formal garden to be created in England since the end of the World War II – no mean feat when you consider that this four-acre plot was nothing more than a windswept field in 1973, but it is also the remarkable story of a long and enduring marriage between two of the most colourful figures on the UK arts scene during the latter half of the 20th century.
Sir Roy Strong has completely recreated the garden at The Laskett
Sir Roy Strong, eminent historian and former director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, the celebrated theatre-set designer, created The Laskett. But it is so much more than a garden; it is also a portrait of their marriage and celebrates many of the landmarks of their distinguished and varied careers within the Arts. The couple moved here from London and created this garden together. And since Julia died in 2003, Sir Roy has had the courage to open the garden to the public on a regular basis and make some radical changes. 
The Silver Jubilee Garden, with triumphal arch at the far end
The Laskett has been both praised and criticised and was, for a time, at the heart of an offensive by another local garden writer and maker, Anne Wareham, who opens her own Veddw to the public. But it would be a sad world if people did not say what they think. Garden visiting is entirely subjective and what pleases one eye is unlikely to appeal to another. There are many similarities between The Laskett and Veddw - both were created from nothing, on small budgets; both rely heavily on hedging to give them structure; both are unique and highly theatrical; and the cast of characters involved in each one are both strong and interesting.
A statue of Britannia adds a focal point to one of the many vistas at The Laskett
I like both gardens and have no hesitation in recommending The Laskett to those who are interested in unusual gardens. For me, it is reminiscent of two other truly remarkable gardens – Little Sparta in Scotland and Plas Brondanw in Wales – both in terms of its originality and allegorical importance. This garden is a portrait of the 32-year partnership between Sir Roy and his wife Julia and celebrates many of the landmarks of their distinguished careers in the Arts. It is both eccentric and interesting and you will find something different at every corner you turn. 
This is not a garden for the feint-hearted. It is largely green, very theatrical and to truly comprehend you need to plug into the exciting new audio system that’s been installed here. Then the story behind it will unfold and you will see The Laskett with new eyes. Sir Roy Strong has had the courage to open his eyes afresh and in the last five years, has embarked on an ambitious renovation and revival of the garden that has involved a lot of chopping back, digging out and starting again in areas that had become dark and difficult to manage. 
He is the first to admit there is still a long way to go, but he is also honest about his limitations and says he has never been a plantsman - it was Julia who knew what to plant and how to go about it. The changes began in 2005, when Sir Roy realised he needed to move on and adapt to his new life alone. He gives a candid account of this in his new book, 'Remaking a Garden: The Laskett Transformed' -lavishly illustrated with Clive Boursnell’s images of both the garden as work progressed and the cast of characters involved.
Today, he works closely with his two gardeners, and has written a remarkable account of recreating The Laskett in his new book: "Remaking a Garden: The Laskett Transformed". As part of his determination to recreate both himself and his garden, Sir Roy has taken the brave step of opening his garden to the public on a regular basis. Groups of 20 or more are now welcome to visit during the week. To arrange this, go to The Laskett website and fill in the details.
I savoured my recent visit and was delighted to have the chance to meet with a smiling Sir Roy, who has recreated his own life as well as his garden. He is enjoying sharing The Laskett with visitors and says: “I can truthfully write that even if the garden were razed to the ground tomorrow, nothing can detract from the happiness it has given me and those who work with me. It is an added delight that we have been able to provide pleasure to so many”.

To order Remaking a Garden: The Laskett Transformed at the discounted price of £24.00 including p&p* (RRP: £30.00), telephone 01903 828503 or email and quote the offer code APG146. 
*UK ONLY - Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Chaumont's International Garden Festival 2014 - When fairy-tale chateau meets with feisty garden design

Chateau de Chaumont, the fairy-tale castle at the heart of the Loire Valley in France
What better setting for a garden festival than a fairy-tale castle in the Loire Valley, between the popular towns of Blois and Tours, that was once home to Queen Catherine de Medici? Chateau de Chaumont, perched in an enviable position overlooking the River Loire below, is one of the most picturesque chateaux in the region, attracting some 400,000 visitors a year and is also home to the increasingly popular annual International Gardens Festival, now in its 23rd year. It is located at the heart of the Val de Loire, which has been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2000.
Ma Cassette designed by three lady architects is based on Moliere's play, 'The Miser' and avarice
Chaumont is to France what RHS Chelsea is to the British garden lover and is fast growing in stature and reputation. But what makes this garden show unique is that each year has a theme – with 2014 being the year for  ‘Gardens of the Deadly Sins’. Add to this the fact that Chaumont is no pop-up show, where the exhibits are only in the public eye for less than a week and you have a considerable challenge for those taking part, because the 26 show gardens here are on display from the beginning of May to the end of October.
La Domaine de Narcisse features a huge mirror hidden in a shrubbery representing pride
The International Garden Festival at Chaumont is all about conceptual gardens and this year’s theme gives exhibitors the opportunity to exercise the possibilities raised by the seven sins of avarice, lust, gluttony, envy, pride, lust, sloth and wrath, using plants and hard landscaping to make their point. As with any garden show there are gardens that work better than others, but the emphasis here is on the unusual, rather than on plant combinations. But this does make for a striking lack of colour in the gardens, as the photographs here show.
La Jardin Dechene, a collaboration between an engineering student and anthropologist, explores pride
Expect to find quirky objects alongside more traditional planting here and you will find yourself on a voyage of discovery, drawn into each and every garden. This show is not just about garden and landscape designers, but also has exhibits by architects, artists and writers. Part of the attraction of the Chaumont Garden Festival is that it is filled with new concepts and ideas every year. It was here in the early 1990s that botanist Patrick Blanc first launched his vertical planted walls.
Although the majority of show gardens are French, there are also exhibits from England, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. Bloom (far left) is designed to test the senses and underlines the sins of gluttony and greed by using a predominantly red theme, while Purgatorium (left), designed by two landscapers and an artist from the USA, is based on the garden of Thomas of Aquinas, who first conceived the idea of the deadly sins in the 13th century, and features a large confessional at its centre, constructed of black wooden posts, reflected in a mirror.
Golden apple amid tire treads at Paradis Inverse

Part of the charm of the Chaumont Garden Festival is being able to wander through the gardens at leisure. You're not restrained by ropes or chains here and can actually engage with the exhibits. And whilst this obviously presents some major challenges for the exhibitors given the length of time the gardens are on show, all those I saw this week (two months into the festival), were looking well preserved and perky, despite soaring summer temperatures and increasing numbers of visitors as more tourists flock to the Loire Valley in high season. The chateau is a major tourist attraction and the knock-on effect for the Festival shouldn't be under-estimated.
'Green without Greed', designed by a student and professor at Kansas University, USA
The International Garden Festival is just part of what's on show at Chaumont - visitors can also tour the castle and gardens, which include an impressive potager and extensive parkland overlooking the Loire, together with a new area of parkland, which features several major art installations, including Fujiko Nakaya's mist sculpture (below). Entrance to all parts of Chaumont - the castle, grounds and Festival is 16 Euros for adults, 11 Euros for 12-18 year olds and 5.50 Euros for children aged 6-11. This is one of the best-value castles in the Loire region as you will see from the reviews that follow in the next few weeks. Definitely one for the "Wish List" and worth making a detour for.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Head for Hestercombe Gardens this summer - the best Lutyens and Jekyll collaboration in Britain

Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned exclusively for the gardens at Hestercombe
Hestercombe in Somerset, is undoubtedly the finest example of the celebrated garden design liaison between Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll anywhere in the world, rivaled only by Le Bois de Moutiers in France. It is certainly the only property where Lutyens was involved solely in the hard landscaping of the garden, with no house commission attached. Combine his talent with the fortuitous discovery of Jekyll’s original garden plans in a potting shed, as restoration work on the garden was about to begin, and the result is a magnificent garden, now open for us all to enjoy.
Hestercombe has the benefit of both landscape and formal gardens
This was one of the first major garden restorations in the country - a real story of a phoenix rising from the fire as successive owners of the property fought to keep control of house and garden over a period of some 30 years. It is both the size and scope of the restoration which is unusual, because Hestercombe has the benefit of landscape and formal gardens, surrounding a house that has seen both landed gentry and public service workers in residence during its history. It has now been fully restored and this year sees the house in its new guise as an art gallery. 
The mausoleum at the heart of the landscape gardens
It is the both the size and scale of Hestercombe that make it extraordinary, and although there are only 50 acres of grounds, it is the combination of landscape and formal gardens that make it so attractive to the visitor. 
The landscape element was created by onetime owner Coplestone Warre Bampfylde in the middle of the 18th century, and is a delightful Arcadian scene of unusual buildings, urns, cascades and a pear-shaped lake. The formal gardens were added when the Portman family later acquired the property in 1903 and they commissioned Edwin Lutyens to re-design the  gardens in front of the house. Both landscape and formal gardens have been fully restored in the last 30 years.
The Dutch Garden acts as a link between the landscape and formal gardens at Hestercombe
The Dutch garden (above) is the link between landscape gardens and the formal parterre that graces the front of the house. It has been fully restored to its original appearance, using the Gertrude Jekyll plans that were found in the potting shed. From here, you can see both the landscape gardens behind and glimpse the formal gardens beyond and Lutyens' architectural landscaping skills become apparent when you descend the steps that connect this eastern part of the property to the Orangery.

The Orangery is built of local Ham Hill stone
Work on the formal gardens began in 1904, when Lutyens and Jekyll began yet another of their collaborations to transform a tract of land into a living watercolour. One of the outstanding features of this property are the steps and decorative features used to link the various different parts of the garden - fine stone walling is a prominent feature, as are the millstones laid into the ground at various intervals. The orangery (right) is a classic example of Lutyens' architectural skills and uses Somerset's honey-coloured Ham Hill stone to best advantage. The Orangery garden is connected to the Great Plat by a Rotunda, featuring a round pool laid into circular stonework. And as you emerge from here, you have a magnificent view of the formal parterre and magnificent landscapes beyond. 
One of several millstones laid into the ground

Gertrude Jekyll employed her planting skills to compliment Lutyens' artistry and used Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) to full advantage on the stonework throughout the garden, making the steps and connecting areas so memorable for visitors - as they walk through a tapestry of daisies sprouting from the walls (right). 

From the Rotunda, you get an excellent view of the Great Plat, which takes the form of a large square parterre, with an impressive pergola creating a link between the garden and the landscape beyond. Yet none of this would be here, except for the valiant efforts of Philip White in the 1970s. He was the one who set out to save the gardens here at Hestercombe.
The Great Plat at Hestercombe in early spring - showing the clear geometric lines of the parterre
Philip White was a former dairy farmer and wildlife conservationist, who came to Hestercombe in 1995 to lead the restoration of the landscape garden. He originally invested money from his own resources to kick start the project, but as recognition of the importance of the gardens grew, other sources of fundraising were found and by 2003 the Heritage Lottery Fund had awarded a major grant to the Trust. Twenty years later, the gardens are among the finest in Britain, almost fully restored to their former glory and attracting visitors from all over the world. 
The Great Plat at Hestercombe in June, when the roses are in flower 
The Great Plat (above) is a large sunken garden, with stone steps at each corner. Geometric panels of lawn, flanked by stone cross the parterre diagonally, and meet at a central sundial. The planting scheme here was devised by Gertrude Jekyll and has been faithfully restored to provide year-round colour and interest. It offers a wonderful display at any time of year and it is only in springtime that you have the chance to admire the architectural aspects. 
The pergola at Hestercombe is one of the finest in Britain
At the far end of the Great Plat, raised above the garden is a Lutyens pergola to rival that at West Dean in Sussex. In high summer it is covered with climbing roses, clematis, honeysuckle and vines and is underplanted with lavender. But it serves another purpose too - to connect the garden with the incredible landscape beyond, because Hestercombe is sited in the Quantock Hills, but looks out onto the Vale of Taunton beyond.
The Great Plat at Hestercombe has rills at either end, planted in different styles
At either side of the parterre there are two rills. The West Rill terrace leads up to a rose garden while the East Rill leads up to the Rotunda and the Orangery beyond. Viewed from above, these two Lutyens features give the garden both symmetry and style and visitors should take time to look at all the artistry employed in the composition of walls, pools and surrounds, complimented by Gertrude Jekyll's distinctive planting. 
The daisy steps at Hestercombe will stick in your mind long after your visit
Hestercombe is open daily throughout the year from 10.00 to 17.00 (16.00 in winter) and is truly one of the great gardens of Britain. It is now operated as an independent charity and admission prices vary, depending on whether visitors wish to donate a small amount extra to the charity responsible for restoring the gardens. Full details are available on the Hestercombe website. Other notable gardens nearby include Cothay Manor and Lytes Cary.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Amazing Arley Hall - an outstanding Cheshire garden

The buttressed borders at Arley Hall are thought to be among the earliest in Britain
Most of Britain's gardens have just one striking feature, but Arley Hall in Cheshire has several, starting with its herbaceous borders, which could possible be among the earliest in Britain. They are shown on a map dated 1846, were painted by George Elgood in 1889, and were certainly in existence long before Gertrude Jekyll popularised the concept of borders in garden design. But they are not the only notable feature here - there is also an astounding Ilex avenue (below) and a well-established Rootery. 
Arley Hall in Cheshire is home to Viscount Ashbrook and his wife, Zoe
Arley Hall has been in the same family for 800 years. It is home to Viscount Ashbrook and his wife, Zoe who saved the garden from near ruin after World War II. The planting here is exquisite, and arranged so that the flowering season starts early in spring and continues throughout the open season well into the fall. There is always part of the garden in flower - not so surprising when you consider that the 23 acres includes two walled gardens, a vinery, herb garden, scented garden and kitchen garden, as well as a wildflower meadow and well-established rock garden, known as The Rootery, plus an extensive woodland area.
The Walled Garden at Arley Hall with its unusual fountain designed by Tom Leaper
With so many features and different garden areas, you could easily spend a whole day here. But one of the most striking features of Arley Hall is its gloriously peaceful feel as you wander through the grounds. The house (above) is somewhat imposing and was built between 1832 and 1845 to the designs of a local architect. It is open to the public and is well worth visiting if you wish to see fine collections of furniture and family portraits, together with some good views over the surrounding parkland.
The Ilex Avenue at Arley Hall - one of the garden's most astounding features
One of the most striking features at Arley Hall is the avenue of 14 evergreen or holm oak trees (Quercus ilex), planted in 1840 by Rowland Egerton-Warburton. The tree is Mediterranean in origin and normally spreads to a width of about 60 ft, but here the 14 trees are meticulously clipped into cylinder shapes and appear almost to be pillars of a temple with no roof (above). Equally impressive is The Rootery (below) - a rock garden - which has astounding early and late season colours.
The long-established Rootery at Arley Hall has astounding colour displays early and late in the season
Although the gardens here have been open to the public since the 1960s, they have managed to retain their charm and sense of privacy, which, apart from their rather grand scale, makes them feel like a family garden. Located sufficiently far off the beaten track to ensure they're not over-crowded, they're certainly worth making a detour to see. And one of the highlights of the calendar here is the annual Garden Festival - due to take place on 21st and 22nd June this year. 
Arley Hall sits at the heart of verdant parkland in Cheshire
Make sure you don't miss any of the secret corners of this property including the richly-scented rose garden with its charming tea cottage, the Fish Garden, the wildflower meadow and the extensive woodland area, which sports many fine trees and unusual shrubs. The gardens are open daily from March to October, 11.00 - 17.00 (16.00 at beginning and end of season).   For other gardens in the area, check out Cheshire's GardensArley Hall is a member of the Historic Gardens Association (so friends visit free) and is also an RHS Partner Garden.