Biddulph Grange, June 12, 2012: Victorian Wackadoodle

The third of my big field trips this summer was to Biddulph Grange garden in Congleton, about 2 hours out of London. Again, it was a case of train, tube, train, another train, and a couple mile walk to the gardens, and then doing it all again backwards once I was done. in between was lunch, a lot more walking, and over 200 photographs.

The view from the beginning: lunch. With the dahlia walk and hedged parterres in sight.

BG is one of those gardens that epitomises the wealth and clash of Empire in the Victorian era. The builder was an industrialist who spent his loads of money creating a garden to show off Britain’s hold on the world. Things start formally enough, but soon get weird.

The front carriage entrance to the house. This is closed off to visitors…

…but it’s important for my study because *this* is where the sundial is kept: off limits. Bummer.

Very little of the house is open to lookie-loos; the original house burned down in the 1860s, and the new house put up became a hospital. Part of the downstairs is a tea room/cafe, and there is one ‘grand’ room open that connects to a National Trust gift shop. But I wasn’t really there for the house.

The house is on a rise, with the gardens laid out below it for the most part. However, the owner, James Bateman, had giant earthworks built up that have created small ecosystems within the garden, allowing certain kinds of plants to be grown in a protected environment. Here is a view from the house down to parterres and the rhododendron ground beyond.

Advances in technology in the 19th century led to large heated glasshouses being built, which meant that various kinds of plants could be grown that would otherwise not survive. This, in addition to the Victorian idea of the garden as art and not a representation of nature, led to the popular practice of ‘bedding out’, or carpet bedding. There’s not much carpet bedding going on at BG (it can get very intricate), but this is one small example of the idea: dozens of small, colorful annuals laid out in a design. In the distance is simple topiary, a traditional garden design embraced by Victorians in search of a way to bring art into the garden.

Rhododendrons, much loved by Bateman (who collected plants brought back from far-away lands by plant collectors), were very popular in the Victorian era. The walk here, along a curved path, is reminiscent of the changes to gardens in the 18th century when the landscape movement took hold.

The earthworks that were built up created the right environment for ferns to grow, here in the Scottish glen. So far, the garden was close to expected, with paths to follow along banks of rhododendrons and a lake. But here is where things started to get interesting…

Rock walls and cliff faces were built to give the visitor the idea of being in another place. Paths are to be followed, similar to at Stowe, to give the best views and direct the eye toward what the garden builder wants people to see. This is not a garden that is in any way ‘taken in’ in one glance from the back of the house. The earthworks make that impossible, and even hide the house from view in the garden.

From the glen, you walk along a rocky path…

…and then through a cave … And then come out into…


The temple and arching bridge look especially like popular 18th and 19th century China patterns on plates come to life.

From China, you travel through another gate to…

…India! The design idea behind this garden doesn’t seem to be as developed as that for the Chinese garden. The whole of the BG gardens fell into decay in the 20th century and have only been rebuilt in the past twenty years or so.

High up the hill from China is a ‘Joss House” look-out.

Behind China and along the outer edge of BG is the pinetum. The Victorian craze for plants from foreign lands didn’t stop with hothouse orchids; those with the space built pinetums, or pineries, to showcase acquired trees, sometimes single specimens.

In the pinetum…

The pinetum path leads to Cheshire Cottage…

…Only it’s not a quaint cottage inside, where a rather un-Egyptian-like deity, noted to be a baboon-headed Thoth, resides.

The deity looks outside, into an Egyptian garden…

…where Sphinxes preside over geometrically shaped hedges.

And from Egypt you loop back toward China, but not before finding yourself in the stumpery. This is truly one of the strangest things at BG. Rockeries were a craze in the 19th century: walls and mounds made of rocks, broken bricks and crockery, shells, etc., all ‘glued’ together to create an artistically natural face upon which to grow alpine plants. But I’d never heard of a stumpery as a place to celebrate the roots of felled trees.

The ‘ruins’ near the stumpery, adding to the ‘picturesque’ quality of the scene, are actually the ‘great wall of China’, built to help with structural issues.

Beyond the edge of Egypt lies an avenue, beckoning visitors to see where it leads. I was tired, so I ignored the call and finished my tour of the ‘inner’ gardens.

Uncovered in recent years is the dahlia walk, once filled in. On the day of my visit, gardeners and volunteers were busy at work, spied on from high in the shelter house.

Beneath the house but still set higher than the previous gardens is the cherry orchard…

…an number of parterres set out between hedges, and a small knot garden, in ‘Italy’.

I spent hours walking around Biddulph Grange, some of it backtracking to be sure that I didn’t miss anything, like the lime avenue, the arboretum, and even the geological gallery, which was unfortunately closed that day. In all of my field studies, I’ve never been anywhere like it, and it gave me a lot to think about as I create my fictional garden: folly, fancy, confusion, charm, distraction, bewilderment, mystification.

Your obligatory close-up: lilies.


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Sissinghurst, May 2012: The Flowergasm

Crude, yes. But it got your attention, no?

Like the trip to Stowe, the trip to Sissinghurst was an adventure. Trains, a bus, and then a long walk. Only this time there was a pavement. Of a sort.

The original house was built in the 14th century; none of it remains. In the 1500s another house was built; this long building (a gatehouse) is all that’s left of it. In the 1600s, an Elizabethan building surrounding courtyards was erected, but most of it was torn down in 1800.

The Elizabethan tower stands alone in the middle of the garden; inside and up a spiral staircase, Vita Sackville-West’s writing room/library has been left as it was upon her death in 1962. From the top of the tower, I got an amazing bird’s-eye view of the gardens below.

Except for the taller bits of tower on each end, I got most of a 360 of the garden. The White Garden, which ‘glows’ at dusk. Too bad I wasn’t there late enough to see it! The small building is a Boat House, situated at one end of the Moat.

A portion of the Yew Walk with the Orchard beyond. The white building in the center, hidden behind trees, is a Gazebo.

More Orchard. The trees at the top of the photo hide the Moat.

The edge of the South Cottage with the Moat Walk behind it, at the end of which is an Herb Garden.

The South Cottage and the Cottage Garden. Behind the garden is the Lime Walk.

The Rose Garden, with its center ‘compass’. In the foreground is part of the Lower Courtyard.

The rest of the Rose Garden and part of the Top Courtyard.

The Top Courtyard and part of the Tudor-era Gatehouse.

The Gatehouse and arch, covered in climbing roses.

This end of the Gatehouse is the Library. Next to it is the Purple Border, which showcases a spectrum of purple flowers, from red-purples to blues.

More of the Purple Border, with the Delos Garden behind it, abutting the Priest’s House.

The Priest’s House. The tower is blocking the rest of the White Garden. 

Gardens aren’t static. They aren’t planted and then attain the gardener’s vision and then just stay that way. Sissinghurst as it is now was envisioned by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, both writers. They took over the place in 1930 (the buildings were in a sorry state), planned out the gardens, and opened them to the public in 1938. This chalkboard greets visitors under the arch, detailing the work going on around them. In a garden of any size, there is always work to be done.

The Purple Border. Sissinghurst is a 20th-century garden. Where the landscape ideas of the 18th century (Stowe) focused on perfecting nature, with wide open vistas, the gardens of the early 20th century were concerned with creating garden ‘rooms’ and experimented with color theory, influenced by Gertrude Jekyll’s ideas of the late 19th century.

The yellow rose noted on the chalkboard. Each rose is the size of the end of my thumb, from tip to first knuckle!

As in gardens from other eras (except the landscape gardens of the 18th century), hedges are used to create separate garden ‘rooms’ and to play with distance and perspective, to frame a view and direct visitors on a particular path. Their formality is at contrast to the riot of color in the flower beds and gives the viewer’s eye a break. They also create drama, both in their form and in their function as a wall between one view and the next.

The Lime Walk’s pleached trees, forced to grow together and trimmed into a rectangular shape. Like with the hedges, they draw your eye and direct your movement.

Aquilegia, also known as Columbine. One bed in the Top Courtyard was filled with several colors/types of this flower. Rather than each particular type losing its identity in a mass of plantings, the different colors drew your attention to the variations, creating a visual impact that was greater than the sum of its parts.

In the Rose Garden, poppies the size of my face.

The White Garden. This garden ‘room’, more than the others, has the feel of being meticulously planned out. Gardens aren’t necessarily meant to be enjoyed at night–at least, those with flowers aren’t. But this one was created for just that: to be enjoyed when eating dinner in summer, while the sun dips below the horizon. The Victorians, in reaction against the 18th-century landscape ideals of gardens as ‘nature’, believed in gardens as art. Sissinghurst, coming as it does on the heels of that era, straddles the line somewhere between nature and art; the gardens have formal bones but are ‘blowsy’ and wild inside the lines.

One secret of the White Garden is the use of texture to create depth. Otherwise, it would just be a wash of white with no detail or interest.

Osteospermum, Pink Whirls. Just because it’s so alien.

I didn’t plan on going to these gardens in any special order, but I am glad that I saw Sissinghurst after Stowe, if only to experience the contrast of the two styles, in addition to touring a garden with no flowers followed by one where the flowers are the main event. To see the progression of garden fashion, even though historic gardens are (in whole or part) recreations of what was once there, helps me imagine how the fictional garden I’m creating for the PhD novel will change and morph as I move from one time period to the next, and how each style will influence the one that follows. Overall, the visits bring home the fact that a garden isn’t a ‘dead’ thing; I capture parts of it with my camera, and as soon as I turn my back it changes. No matter how many times I visit a particular garden, it will never be the same twice. That is the same idea that I am working to capture in fiction, that a garden grows, with a personality of its own, behind the gardener’s back.

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Stowe, May 2012

As part of my research on garden design and its changes, I’ve read about landscape gardens. However, like with most things that you read about, seeing one in person is a whole different experience.

Landscape gardens are a completely different animal from a ‘regular’ garden. They’re about scale and aspect, about what is shown and what is hidden, about mystery and artifice.

Gatehouses at the entrance to Stowe; one of each side of the road, they’re part of larger houses now.

To get to Stowe, I had to travel. A lot. Well, a lot for the UK. 15-minute walk to the station, 20-minute train to London Bridge, 20-or-so-minute trip via Tube to Marylebone station, an hour by train to Bicester North, about a 30-minute bus ride to Buckingham, and then a 2+-mile walk to Stowe (40 minutes from bus stop to the National Trust centre). About 3 hours, one-way. That left me a few hours to see the place before heading back to London.

The walk from Birmingham to Stowe was, thankfully, mostly dry and along a path off the road, so I wasn’t in danger of being flattened by a car (unlike at Sissinghurst, which I’ll describe in the following post).

The Arch, or Bell Gate, where once upon a time visitors would ring a bell and the gardener would allow them entry. Gamekeepers also lived inside.

After paying for entry at the National Trust visitors centre, which started life in 1717 as the New Inn, I started my tour with a map, knowing I would walk a lot, yet not expecting the sheer scale of the place. This was my first view of the house, on a hill beyond fields of grazing sheep…

…which are kept in check by a ha-ha. My first Ha-Ha! (For those of you making the ‘What?’ face, a ha-ha is a low wall backed by a ditch; those in the house can’t see the wall or the ditch and it looks like the animals are grazing right on the front lawn; the animals can’t jump up the ditch to get to the house. All very pastoral. All complete artificial and created to add to the feeling of being ‘one with nature’.)

The Eastern Lake Pavilion. On the same side of the entry road, and not very far, from the identical Western Lake Pavilion. Stowe–and landscape gardens in general–are thick with pavilions, temples, monuments, and other creations that both add to the view and are a place from which to take in the view.

Lakes: another artificial addition to landscape design, created to add to the ‘natural’ characteristic of, well, nature. Gone were gardens with right angles and straight lines; in were gardens with natural forms, serpentines, curves.

Architecture in the mid-to-late-Georgian period was inspired by the classical forms seen on Grand Tours of Europe. This travel also influenced the inclusion of statuary into gardens of the time. The picturesque was a third aesthetic idea to come out of the era’s expansion of scope; characterised by irregular forms–often ‘ruins’ of classical structures–the picturesque was all about making a ‘picture’ in nature. Stowe contains several ‘ruins’, including this arch with a cascade, Dido’s cave (complete with pieces of ‘classical’ buildings and shell work), a shell bridge, and a grotto.

The Rotunda. It now stands along the edge between a golf course and the Stowe School’s grounds, which definitely detracts from its once prominent place in a large ocean of grass. It’s hard to get the true feeling of this piece’s grandeur when men in pastel shirts and plaid trousers are playing through just a few feet away.

The house. Yes, it’s enormous! It was open for tours, but I decided not to be distracted as I was there to see the gardens.

The most important thing about the house for me that day was the view FROM the house. At the distance is the Arch. Between here and there, though, are temples and lakes, but none are visible. And though the Gate is a straight shot, you can’t get there from here because there are water features in the way. Again, landscape design is about artifice, about the view, about creating a reaction, about placing the human in scale to nature.

Temple of Ancient Virtues. Not far from the house, but invisible from it, this temple houses statues of Socrates, Homer, etc. From the temple, one can view…

…the Temple of British Worthies. Gardens of the times were set up to be ‘read’. There was a dialog between the garden and the visitor, who had to read the temples and monuments to discern the important ideas of the time, often influenced by politics and popular philosophy (the Enlightenment, natch). And, of course, the Temple of Ancient Virtue, atop a rise (which was very likely built by moving tons of earth), is visible from here. The placement of one temple ‘above’ another is no mistake in a garden laid out with such purpose.

The Grotto. Another fake ruin and a popular place for dinner parties in the past. But even it’s not immune to the importance of…

…a view! Again, what one may see from the grotto’s cave opening is no mistake. And viewing a seemingly deserted, completely ‘wild’ area from an irregular stone ‘cave’ opening is also not a lucky accident. This view was as planned as the one from the house’s front staircase.

To add to the feeling that the grotto has been here forever, has links to history, and grew ‘organically’, its inside is panelled in pebbles and shells (sorry–pics didn’t come out), while its outside is built of stones, some of them carved with what looks like Latin, as if they were pieces fallen from an ancient Roman temple.

Swans! Just because.

The Palladian Bridge. This is another example of a structure that I spied many times while on my walk, but could only reach by following an exact path. Granted, I could have gone off the path to reach it (and many other structures), but in a landscape garden like Stowe (which was the first garden with a visitors guide) the idea is to stay to the path and be forced to see each structure from afar, framed by a particular view.

Inside the bridge. Even though these structures were created to be seen from afar, they weren’t built like pieces of a stage set, without beautiful details.

The Chinese House. I missed the far west corner of the grounds (behind the golf course) and the far east corner, which contains more temples and other structures. But this tiny house made up for it because it was a complete surprise. It’s nearly 300 years old and covered–inside and out–in painted panels depicting flowers, fruit, and people. In the winter the house is covered to aid in its preservation.

View from the temple of Friendship (near the Chinese House) of the Palladian Bridge with the Gothic Temple and the Cobham Monument in the background. Chinese, Classical (or neoclassical) and Gothic all within a stone’s throw of each other.

Landscape gardens aren’t known for their flower beds. While there I saw a few (very few) primroses, poppies, and these lilacs (the burnt-out ruin of the Temple of Friendship is in the background). Trees and shrubbery, often planted for what it would look like decades in the future rather than immediately, were the ‘bedding’ of the landscape movement.

The Pebble Alcove. Built around 1740, the alcove is decorated with pebbles pressed into some sort of plaster or concrete. Most interesting is the inclusion of astrological symbols around the coat of arms.

What’s a landscape garden, or any English garden from the 18th century, without a hermit and a hermitage? I expected the hermitage to be larger–a sort of small house or cottage for said hermit to live in. Instead it’s one tiny room with a few alcoves and a small tower. Unfortunately, the hermit (who would have stood in as a sort of alter ego for the landowner) is no more.

Obligatory flower close-up number one: Forget-me-nots

After all of that walking (I figure I easily did 10 miles that day) it was time for a cream tea. NOM

Obligatory flower close-up number 2: Queen Anne’s Lace

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The Regent’s Park, April 2011

It is high time to update the blog and catch up with last year’s garden visits so that I am not completely behind once it’s time to start this year’s visits.

Last April I investigated The Regent’s Park, which is where I took the photo for the blog’s header.

The gates give you a clue to what's inside...

One thing I've noticed about parks here (as compared to those in the states) is how organic they seem. Rather than a square afterthought, forced into a planned neighborhood or as part of the landscape around an office building, and with a pond that is gated off, the parks here have grown with the surrounding streets and buildings. Perhaps it's their shape: not perfectly round, not perfectly square. They have a 'natural' geometry.

Paths force people to view the park and it's gardens in a certain order or from a specific vantage point.

This section of the park had smaller gardens, like rooms off to the sides of the path, each with a particular color or flower theme.

The rose gardens were extensive, and I had meant to visit again later in the season to see it all in bloom. I'm planning to make it back this year, in May or June, to see how the blooms look on these rope swags, gently looped from pole to pole.

I love the contrast of the clean lines of box & topiary with the wildness of the flowers planed inside the lines. It's formal, sure, yet feels like nature barely contained.

Wild fountains with mythical beings belong in gardens. They make sense there, as if they're the actual characters, frozen in time, waiting for the magical hour when they can come to life and re-enact their stories among the trees.

Not actually found IN the park! But Regent's Park abuts the London Zoo, and I saw these beauties on my walk out (their housing is open to the back of the zoo/the street). Also, giraffes are awesome!

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Ham House and Fenton House, April 2011

Ham House is similar to the house in my novel: a country estate surrounded by formal, laid-out gardens, which are in turn surrounded by countryside. Although now, of course, that countryside is parks and suburban neighborhoods.

View of back of Ham House, as the front was covered in scaffolding when I visited.

The gardens are a mix of formal, almost stripped down–there were flower beds lining the brick walls but none in the parterres–and ‘wilderness’ with paths cut through shady woods and natural plantings.

Formal, shaped shrubs (topiary) contrasts with more natural bedding, many plants of which boasted id tags with historical info.

The parterres in the sunken garden. This garden is about space rather than small details, and I wonder if that is because of the upkeep necessary for such a large garden or if that was part of the original plan--that being 'seen' as you walked the paths was more important than what you saw.

Behind the parterres were wooded and grassed paths lined with shrubs that directed your movement and attention to seating areas far down green tunnels.

Espaliered tree, grown on brick walls that absorb the day's heat and protect the fruit from frost while also protecting it from wind and weather. Espaliering was traditionally the job of male garden labourers from the 16th century.

Sundial in the side yard. I wonder whether there was a more elaborate garden here when the dial was first installed, as they were often a centrepiece and carried epigraphs encouraging the viewer/reader to consider his or her mortality.

Obligatory flower close-up: Ham House

Fenton House, on the other hand, is a town house. The gardens–a mix of formal and informal–are more compact, with garden ‘rooms’ that have doorways leading one to the next.

Rear view of Fenton House in Hampstead.

The view directly out the back of Fenton House. There are more garden 'rooms' behind this main garden and raised walkways alongside it, giving it the look of a fashionable sunken garden.

The back garden 'room' with another set of steps and a centrepiece. Benches can be found throughout the garden, many in shady alcoves, giving visitors a spot from which to view the various levels and shapes.

A corner and symmetry are sacrificed for the nature of a tree to outgrow it intended spot.

Although gardens were planted to follow the fashions of the time, people--and their pets--still lived in there.

Hidden to the side and behind high shrubs, the orchard and kitchen garden, a charming contrast to the structured gardens more easily viewed from the house.

Obligatory flower close-up: Fenton House

The main difference between Ham and Fenton is the scale. Otherwise, each represents the time in which they were built. Contrasting them shows how gardens of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries–before the landscape movement–adhered to the same design theories whether in town or country. Formal plantings close to the house and within view, paths for walking (see and be seen), ‘rooms’. Informal plantings behind screens of a sort and for gardens of more practical use.

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Chelsea Physic Garden, April 2011

The Chelsea Physic Garden is full of contradictions. It is organized and scientific. It is wild and mysterious. It is lush and full and hemmed in by apartments and busy London.

The 'front' part of the gardens contains regimented beds, glass houses, and a cafe and gift shop. The corners are square and the paths are raked.

Several gardners were busy prepping beds, setting up stakes for taller plants, and doing early spring upkeep.

I love the look of grass paths around beds. Not something I'd ever seen before, but I imagine it takes a lot of upkeep.

Beyond the regimented paths of the front part of the garden, I found a small forest. Everthing was still labeled and marked, of course, but, in addition to it being a nice contrast, it reminded me why many large gardens do contain even a small plot of 'wilderness'. And here is where I had lunch on a bench in the shade.

Though the Chelsea Physic Garden is closer to the garden I’ll be writing about than the larger parks in London, being there was a bit of an overdose. Every plant is labeled–in Latin, of which I have none. There are markers to differentiate beds of plants that were found or brought to England by this scientist and that plant hunter. Beds of herbs and medicinal plants are labeled according to what part of the body they benefit. Glasshouses contain numerous variations of the same type of plant. There is even a small table-top garden of carnivorous plants. It was like being inside a dictionary.

So I paid attention to certain details:

I fitst saw this on an Alan Titchmarsh gardening special, but had never seen it in person before. A tree (in his case if was an apple tree) is forced to grow along a low, horizontal fence around a small bed. Called horizontal cordoning, the process makes the tree low enough to easily step over!

Veggie beds covered in protective netting.

Decorative trees grown with herbs.

Finally, the obligatory flower close-up:


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York Museum Gardens, March 2011

When I was in York I had a chance to visit the Museum Gardens. On the banks of the River Ouse, the Museum Gardens contain Roman, Medieval, Tudor, and Victorian-era buildings. The gardens themselves aren’t so much formal, geometric beds as softly sloping lawns, flower beds, and trees that surround these structures.

For my research, the gardens aren’t vital, but they did give me ideas about integrating Abbey ruins into a garden, which is something I’m thinking about for the novel.

Pieces of stone from the Abbey used to edge beds.

Ruins of St. Mary's Church.

Gothic arches spied through the still leafless trees. Also, daffodils. You can't go anywhere in England in March and April without tripping over seas of daffodils!

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