W. C. Fields once said that horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people. Certainly we could have used an injection of common sense whilst pacing the wrong way along the Roman Road to the site of demolished Horseheath Hall. Like that of Thomas Hardy’s poem, Horseheath’s Roman Road also ‘runs straight and bare’ but at the summit were the remains of a landscape Evelyn once described comprising ‘a sweet prospect and a stately avenue’. At nearby Horseheath Lodge, Stanlake Batson bred the 1834 Epsom Derby winner Plenipotentiary, who continues to grace the village sign. From the birthplace of one stallion to the resting place of another, horse sense brought us to Wandlebury. Here Lord Godolphin laid out an eighteenth-century landscape within the confines of the encircling Iron Age defensive work, and here he buried the famous Godolphin Arabian. The dilapidated Victorian rockeries of Babraham Hall and peaceful seclusion of Springfield, our B&B at Linton, provided a welcome respite from – dare I say it – so much horse-play.
Laura Mayer and I have now done five visits and found precious few gardens. Lots of moated sites though, which may have had designed elements. So this is going to be a short book. There are the usual suburban gardens in the college courts – even though David Loggan’s seventeenth-century engravings show several important formal layouts that have gone. It’s just like Oxford. No college ever thinks it’s worth restoring historic features. There are lots of plantsmens’ and womens’ contemporary gardens, but nothing earth shattering. However, we have made a major discovery about Capability Brown at Fenstanton – wait for the book – and, despite the frostiness of the owner, we found Dowcra’s Manor at Shepreth overwhelmingly beautiful. It’s going to be a volume about people, horses and relics. But then, that’s the nature of the whole series – every county is different and each has its own character. Best garden so far? The American Military Cemetery at Madingley. Most curious? The Crossing House at Shepreth. Most gracious owner? Toss up between Christopher Vane Percy at Island Hall at Godmanchester and Eustace Crawley at Chippenham Park – scrumptious Victoria sponge.
As a county, Cambridgeshire is – topographically speaking – flat and uninspiring.
As a new consultant, I was determined that there was to be nothing bland about our first garden visits. Life insurance came in handy as Tim and I, rattling along in an ancient golf-buggy, attempted to navigate the precarious bridges that spanned Chippenham Park’s surviving waterways. Reward came in the form of a drawer-full of architectural plans, and a Victoria sponge. Road rage once more prevailed at Island Hall, Godmanchester, where a modern-day Mr. Toad proceeded to rip off the wing mirror. Undeterred, we were compensated with the discovery of an unknown Repton sketch inside and a reconstructed Chinese Bridge outside. Leaden skies over the fens were split by a rainbow; encouragement surely?
Dr Laura Mayer
The last time I moved house I quickly learnt the shorthand needed to translate estate agents’ sale particulars and manage my expectations. Some features were invariably downplayed whilst others, including the prospective new garden, were exaggerated and so I learnt that ‘glorious views’ promised little more than a glimpse of the countryside from a bedroom window. However, in 1928 when local estate agents were asked to find a tenant for Lincoln Hill House, just to the south-west of Ross-on-Wye, they adopted the opposite strategy. Happy to describe the typical Regency villa garden as ‘well timbered and in splendid order’ with ‘Lawn for Tennis and Croquet, very fine walled-in kitchen garden, herbaceous borders, flower beds’ they must have feared that potential tenants would be discouraged if they went into more detail. This surely must explain why a one hundred feet long stone ramp disguised as a curtain wall decorated with blind arrow slits leading to a lookout tower was described as a ‘long avenue walk terminating in brick built tower house, from which good views are obtained over the surrounding country.’ I usually shy away from the term garden folly, but on this occasion nothing else will do for a garden feature that is said to have been constructed for an invalid Admiral who wanted a viewing platform with disabled access from which he could watch river traffic on the Wye and provide employment for veterans of the Crimean War.
Herefordshire bristles with castle ruins and earthworks if not the terraces and water features of mediaeval castle gardens. So we sort out Clifford Castle; the birthplace of the twelfth-century Rosamund de Clifford. The secret garden created for her at Woodstock in Oxfordshire by Henry II is still remembered on the Blenheim estate as Rosamund’s Bower. Her Herefordshire birthplace, high above the River Wye, is guarded by Paul and Lizzie. They have restored the adjacent Edwardian house and cleared away the invading brambles despite the interruptions of belligerent birds roosting in the castle ruins and unexplained forces moving objects around the house. Lizzie has concluded that Rosamund’s home stands at the confluence of three lines of elemental force.
Some gardens select themselves for projects such as this. Others, like Lawless Hill Cottage, have to be discovered. Initially identified only by a line of cloud-pruned trees strung out along the horizon everything else about this garden was secret. The steep gradient rendered it invisible. Anonymous gates made it impenetrable. Even the absence of a letter box and a silent response to a practiced list of Google questions made it unapproachable. The result was a visit without expectations that was made all the made all the sweeter by the sophisitcation of the discovery.
The garden’s creator, Keith Meehan, plays to his strengths. He understands space, construction, project management and people and he assembled a team of skilled local craftsmen, and international experts and artists to ‘build’ a three dimensional garden. The result is a mirror pool and swimming pond cantilevered from a rocky hillside and connected by a Japanese-style dry river garden supported on a battery of stone terraces. The construction philosophy was even extended to the planting as mature specimens were hoisted into position by crane. It is, therefore, fitting that this garden should owe its development to a planning officer who appreciated design and craftsmanship and wanted to see a twenty-first century legacy added to this historic Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Jane
Instinct tells me to begin exploring a garden at the house so I was frustrated to be marshaled in the opposite direction, through a lych gate and down onto a deserted grass tennis court. A dry rill encircling an overly-large stone seat changed that as it continued down the valley to a pergola-ringed pool and on to a Florentine Garden with loggia and plinths for long lost statues. Arts and Crafts has been rare in Herefordshire so far and How Caple Court is unique stretching down into a hidden valley, constructed from local red sandstone that is balanced on the point between romantic neglect and decay.
We have set up this blog to keep everyone interested in garden history up to speed with all the exciting discoveries we are making as we research the counties for the Historic Gardens & Landscapes of England project. Tim Mowl, his Research Fellow Clare Hickman, and the county consultants will be posting regular blog entries and we hope that you will come back to us with your comments on our findings. The three counties currently under research are Warwickshire, Herefordshire and Berkshire. The book on Somerset has just been published by Redcliffe Press; it would be good to know what you think of it. We look forward to telling you what we find.
The Project Team
Seventeenth-century Dovecote at Hellens, Much Marcle, Herefordshire