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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