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
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