Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Bourton House Garden

"The best kept secret in the Cotswolds" says their website.

Actually, I would say that Cerney House deserves that award, considering that Bourton House is slap bang on the main road from Moreton in Marsh, and almost directly opposite Batsford Arboretum: not exactly a secret location.

I visited this garden a few weeks ago, as it was another in the book The Cotswolds' Finest Gardens by Tony Russell, lent to me by a kind client, and the source of all of my garden visiting this summer.

The car park is on the other side of  the main road from the garden, which is novel: a brief dice with death across the road and a rather forbidding entrance to the house awaits, but if you are brave enough to walk into what is clearly someone's home, but not a home as you and I would know it, there is eventually a sort of sunken room with items for sale and, finally, tickets.  There wasn't a map officially available, other than the one in the "buy our expensive glossy book" but the kind lady on the ticket table let me take a battered old laminated one round with me, as long as I promised to return it.

To be honest, the garden didn't need a map: it was very much a one-way trip with one section more or less leading into the next, taking you round the house and back again.

Individually, each section had merit, but overall the garden seemed to lack something.  I've just had another look at their website, and the gallery is very cleverly put together to make the garden seem a lot bigger - for example, they use the same corner, photographed from different angles and with different items flowering.

Positive thoughts were that the knot garden was very well kempt indeed, and the central pool was quite nice.  The white garden was not bad, it had some interesting variations on the theme of "white", although from memory, practically nothing was labelled.

What's the point of opening your garden and not labelling the plants? I mean, visitors either know the plants, and want confirmation that they have the name right, or if they don't, they want to know what it is, so that they can get it for their own garden. Or avoid it, depending on the circumstances.

I do know that garden owners have a lot of problems with visitors stealing the labels - which astounds me: what rational person would think it's ok to steal plant labels? - but there are ways round the problem, and I don't think that simply refusing to label anything is the answer.

And the bad points? Every path in the garden leads to a dead end. In the white garden - nice paths leading out left and right, dead ends. Back to the centre. Onwards. Ah, more paths to left and right. More dead ends. Ooh, what's that over there - looks like a raised walk at the far side of the big lawn, with planting, and views... how do I get there? I wandered guiltily across the big lawn, hopping quickly off the grass onto the walk. I strolled to one end - ah, dead end. I went the other way - guess what? Correct, another dead end.

And this was on a day when it was drizzling, and I was only competing with a coachfull of Belgian tourists. I hate to think how annoying that would be on busy days: no matter where you go, you end up turning round and walking back ("Excuse me, thank you, excuse me, can I just get past, excuse me, oh, you again, hello, excuse me,") or having to walk across the immaculate lawns.

Now,  I've been round quite a few gardens in my time, and good paths are such a basic requisite that I shouldn't even be needing to write about them. Garden owners, if you don't want people walking on your lawns, you will need to provide paths. If you don't want visitors overflowing from the paths, you need to make the paths wide enough for at least two people to walk abreast, or pass each other comfortably. If you find that visitors are forever taking a short cut across a particular spot, don't try to head them off with nasty plastic tape, heavy-handed temporary obstructions or irate signs: work out why they are cutting across, and either change the layout so they no longer want or need to go that way, or accept the inevitable and install a proper pathway, so at least you can direct their trampling feet away from your precious plants.

In a large scale garden, people can be sent out from the ticket area in random directions ("Fly, little birdies, fly!") but in small gardens - and Bourton House is definitely on the small side - then a planned route around the garden works best. I think it's nicer if the visitor gets a choice of which way round to go, but I accept that in some situations, it is better to dictate the direction.

Bourton House have managed to get the single route all right, but all those dead ends! I suppose it would make sense if there were an "object of interest" at the termination of each path, but that did not appear to be the case.

With regard to the flower content, well, maybe I picked a bad week, but apart from the white garden, the only things of note were the Abutilons, and frankly, they all looked as though they needed ironing. And had been through a mixed-wash accident.

I love my Abutilon megapotanicum, seen here in unrealistic internet perfection, but I really don't like those more mallow-like forms. Presumably the garden owner was going for a National Collection, or had been sold a job lot by their local nursery? Who knows... there was no-one around to ask.

So, Bourton House, to sum up: only worth visiting if you are already in the area, only need to fill half an hour, and if neighbouring Sezincote House and Garden (highly recommended by me) is closed.

 And, trying to end on a good note? They don't allow dogs, which is great - we can look at the garden, instead of watching where we put our feet - and they did give me a "free entry for one adult with another fee-paying adult" voucher for Batsford Arboretum, although I am not sure if that's a regular thing.

And yes, I did return the map.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Rodmarton Manor

Well, here we are in September, and the weather has turned very much for the worse: as I write, the rain is lashing down, the wind is making the trees thrash madly, and I guess I won't be getting much work done this week.

Still, that give me time to tell you about Rodmarton Manor and Gardens, which I visited last week.

After the horrors of Hidcote, it was peaceful and lovely, and not a hedge-trimmer to be seen, although they were clearly part-way through the tremendous task of tidying up all their yew. Hidcote, take note: don't do it when your paying customers are on site. So there.

Here's a shot across the tops of the formal garden's topiary, showing the one closest to me being as flat as a table-top, while the one beyond it is still fluffy, and awaiting trimming:

Impressively flat, the one closest, isn't it?  I was standing on tiptoe to get the photo - these are seriously large topiary items.

Rodmarton is a private house, they only open two afternoons a week - Wednesdays and Saturdays - along with Bank Holidays. (Yes, I realise this gives them time to carry out maintenance without disturbing the visitors, but I really think that a NT property, with all our money, donations and legacies, could arrange to get it done after hours.)  I have to say, it's rather nice to be able to walk on the terrace - above - among their patio furniture and their well-used barbecue, it makes a  nice change from all the "Private" signs on other houses. Of course, if it were my garden, I would hate to have the public traipsing all through the place, but maybe for just two afternoons a week, it doesn't seem so bad. Certainly I appreciate the chance to see all round the gardens, including the parts where the family clearly sit out and enjoy it.

One thing that interested and intrigued me was their treatment of Irish Yew, Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'. These are the upright, columnar Yew that are frequently found in gardens, as they give height without width, and normally don't need trimming.

Although there was that episode in Hidcote....  no, don't get me started on that again.

Anyway, at Rodmarton they obviously had some very old ones, that had grown to be HUGE and were, we can guess, blocking the view and taking all the light from the terrace. So, some brave person had decided to chop them down, thus:

Interesting, huh?

You can imagine just how huge and overpowering they must have been before being chopped.

I have personally "topped off" a few of these: much, much smaller than these ones, obviously, in rather more domestic gardens, but in all cases they have grown back remarkably quickly, no matter how raggedly I lopped their tops.

So I was interested to see what the insides of these ones were like.

And here's the answer, they were indeed sprouting again from the inside.

Not all the way through, but then I don't know how recently they were done.

There was a good amount of growth spread all across the large bare brown stem area.

I think that if I were managing them, I might have been tempted to cut out at least some of the dead brown stems, but I think that would not have been necessary, as the outer layer is clearly already growing above the cut point.

And here's one they did earlier, as they say!

There weren't any gardeners or owners around to ask, so I don't know how much earlier this little fellow was chopped, compared to those two big old ones, but he's quite a bit smaller, so I'm thinking that maybe they did this one first, as a test, then did the others the following year.

So I reckon, looking at the re-growth, this one was done maybe early last year.

And as you can see, it's actually regaining quite a nice shape. I would imagine that in a couple of years, it will be continuing upwards, just as it did originally, and you would never guess that it had been chopped.

Which leads to another question -as Yew does regenerate so well, and as we saw in the earlier photo that it also comes back in the centre of a 'Fastigiata', would it therefore be possible to remove the outer branches at ground level, to reduce the girth as well as the height?

I'd love to try that sometime.  If anyone has an overlarge Irish Yew, let me know, and my bowsaw and I will be round to see to it! (You'll have to dispose of the cuttings yourselves, though...)

So, what did I enjoy about Rodmarton? Well, I was first into the garden, so it was peaceful and empty for most of my time there, which was lovely for me! It's a bit sad that all these gardens need a lot of visitors to make money, but they are at their best when there are very few visitors. One of life's dilemmas, I suppose. Big gardens like Wisley get round this by having very large paths, and lots of them, to spread out the visitors. This isn't possible in smaller gardens, of course, but at Rodmarton there were lots of ways to get around the garden, lots of cunning tiny archways in the hedges, so you never felt that you were just following everyone else around.

Not like, what was it, Bourton House gardens, the Gardens Of The Dead End. Pause while I look back through the blog - oh dear,  I appear to have missed out doing an entry on that one, whoops, will do it later.

So, Rodmarton has a lovely air of being slightly tumbledown, but this makes it feel "real" rather than neglected. You get a sense that the owners are doing the important bits, and are just leaving some other areas until they have time to clear them out properly.

And it's very clear to see where they have been busy, the new Orchard is quite interesting, and actually contained a tree that I couldn't immediately recognise.

Here it is - columnar, purple foliage, and small yellow fruits with a darkish centre.

The foliage looked rather like Medlar, and the leaves are certainly arranged in a similar layout, but the fruit isn't right.

I've done a cursory search with no luck, so if anyone recognises it, do feel free to add a comment at the bottom, or email me direct, as I'd love to  know!

After the kitchen garden, I wandered around the Long Borders, admiring the central pond which looked as though it were on the list of "things to be done when we have the time", as the water was only a few inches deep, and the sides looked as though they desperately needed some attention. But the remaining fish seemed quite happy.

And then I found the Kitchen Garden, which contains the utterly mad Animal Topiary section. If it wasn't planned to be so, then I can only assume that someone heeled in a lot of large-leaved Box plants in case they were needed, left it too late, and then decided to clip them into amusing shapes.

They seem to be mostly birds, it's a bit hard to tell, as they were only half-clipped on the day that I visited. But they were all quite delightful, and made me want to start clipping my own box plants. No! No! They aren't ready!

In case you don't care for the whimsy of animal topiary, be reassured that there were plenty of normal shapes as well - here's the section that is actually called the Topiary Garden.

And as you can see, it has the classic shapes, and all so beautifully clipped. I would dearly have liked to have had the chance to talk to the gardener - there must be at least one, in a place this size! - about it.

So, to sum up: Rodmarton, out by Cirencester, is well worth a visit. It's not particularly large, being about 8 acres in all, but it's nicely laid out and you borrow a laminated map on the way in, so you won't get lost.

Actually, I fell into conversation with a woman at one point, who was returning to the garden as she'd visited previously, but had the feeling that she hadn't seen all of the garden. She was actually complaining to me that this was wrong, the fact that she'd spent time in the garden but was left with the feeling that she'd missed some of it.

Gently explained to her that this is almost the definition of good garden design! If you see it all the minute you look at it, well, where's the mystery? Where's the journey? If a garden doesn't intrigue you into following that little path, or going through that arch, then it has failed somewhat.

She felt strongly that a map of the garden should not be necessary, and that you should be able to see for yourself that you have covered all of it.

We agreed to disagree!


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