Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Hanbury Hall: nice ice house!

OK it had rather more than just an Ice House, but I was particularly keen to see it, as I have quite an interest in Ice Houses: I think, like ram pumps, it's the concept of something that works, but does not need electricity.

What's a ram pump? Oh, it's a brilliant piece of early 1800s low-technology: it uses the force of falling water to fill itself, then that energy is used to squirt a small amount of water to a height well above the original water level. That is, a way to move water uphill. With no electricity. All day, all night, free of charge. OK, that's a very simply explanation, but if you want to know more, this is a good site to start at.

There's a lovely one in a garden at Blewbury which I visited many years ago - it is situated in the stream running through the garden, at a point where there is a small waterfall, only a few feet high, and it is still used to pump water to a water tower, which is then used to irrigate the gardens, which are inconveniently far from the stream.

It makes a lovely deep clonking sound at every stroke - I'm not sure if it would get annoying if  you had to listen to it all night long, but all the ones I have seen so far have been quite a long way away from the house, and they are also masked by the sound of rushing water, so I don't think noise would be a problem.

And an ice house is even simpler - just a small building, made of brick or stone, usually circular, usually partially underground. In the winter, slabs of ice are cut from local ponds and rivers and tipped into the chamber, and they remain frozen all through the summer, providing a sort of basic refrigeration, as well as providing ice for cooling drinks and even for making ice cream.  They are usually accessed by a long tunnel with a door at each end - to keep the cold in - and they are often covered with earth on top of the brick roof for added insulation.

Melting ice drains away from the bottom, and more ice is added each year as necessary. Again, no electricity needed!  These days they are disused, obviously, and most of them have been filled in over the years and lost. That's why it's such a thrill to find one still available to look at - there's a nice one at Grays Court and I was quite excited when reading about Hanbury Hall to find out that they had one, too.

The group arrived, to be greeted by Neil Cook, Head Gardener since his arrival in 1988 when he took the job, planning to stay for 2 years, as it was mostly mowing the grass. At that time the house was under threat of closure, the gardens were just grass, grass and more grass.

"Four days of mowing, one day of edging, then back to mowing again" as Neil said.

Then the decision was made to "go corporate" and promote the house as a venue for conferences, weddings, and so on, prompting Neil to propose a plan to restore the gardens, to provide a prettier backdrop for some of those wedding photos. Grants were applied for, bequests were received, and planting began.

The result shows how captivating garden restoration can be - Neil is still here, twenty-six years later!

Using a balance of archaeological investigation - both actual digging, and the technical Time Team "geo-phys" - old documents and plans, and a good dollop of common sense, Neil has created gardens from nothing, providing us modern visitors with a feel of how an early 18th century garden would have looked when it was fresh and new.

Too often, we visit these historical houses and see what is now over 300 years old: ancient trees, massive hedges, so it's a nice change to see what the people who first lived here, the ones who paid for the gardens, would have actually seen.

It's lovely to imagine the Head Gardener of the time saying "Well, my Lord, that new row of trees over there doesn't look like much now, but in a hundred years' time..."

As Neil pointed out, it can't be a totally accurate recreation: some of the documents contradict each other, and in several places the building has been altered, with doorways being bricked in, windows being changed, and so on, meaning that some parts of the formal garden would not make sense if plans were slavishly followed. Also, the needs of a modern public-access garden have to be considered, with wear and tear on pathways to be considered, as well as the free flow of visitors.

However, he is confident that he has remained true to the spirit of the original in the layout of the garden,  which leads to an interesting debate about the contents: at that time, new plants were constantly being discovered and introduced to England, and there was great kudos to be had from having the "latest" discovery. So, in recreating the planting of the garden, is it better to source "heritage" plants, the cultivars that were newly available in the early 1700s? Or is it more appropriate to use the newest cultivars that are available now, as they are the "latest" discovery of our time?

Our tour started at the front of the house, where the original symmetry of path, wall and bed was being recovered in gradual stages. To our surprise, the very first corner revealed the Vegetable Garden, not tucked away behind walls and hedges, but right by the front entrance. This was another way of demonstrating wealth in the C18th; "oh, look at my immaculate veg, as decorative as your parterres" as well as offering visitors the chance to choose what the cook would be serving with their meal afterwards. The neat rows, the  highly decorative but wastefully topiarised fruit bushes at the ends of the rows, the perfection, all shouts "Hey, I have the staff to do this!" and was clearly the bling of that era.

Moving round to the sunken parterre, it was almost impossible to believe that there was nothing here at all until Neil starting digging it out. "Just grass," he said cheerfully "straight across, right up to the top of the steps." He and his team dug out the infill of ages, rebuilt the walls, laid out the parterre, planted miles of box hedging, and the result is fabulous:

As you can see, every aspect of it is immaculate!

One interesting note is the spacing of the plants: this is in keeping with the 18th century approach, which could be summed up as Domination Over Nature.

It was all about control: the spacing between the plants, the tight clipping, the superb topiary, all contriving to show that Man has mastered Nature, and that this Man in particular - the owner - has the money and manpower to make it happen.

This is demonstrated even more dramatically in the next garden, which I can't call an orchard, even though it contains fruit trees: they are tightly clipped to produce these neat, tidy forms, with no thought for their fruiting capabilities.

Or rather, they are clipped like this to make the point that the owner is so rich that he does not need his trees to produce food for him: he can afford to clip them for his visual pleasure,  to show what control he has over nature.

A different age, eh?

The next part of the garden was laughingly called The Wilderness:

Yes, this is the correct photo, these neat rows of trees, alternating deciduous and evergreen, with the most fastigiate junipers I have ever seen for punctuation, are actually known as The Wilderness.

Not quite to my taste, although possibly in another 20 years or so, it may be a bit less impossible to get yourself lost in it.

We made our way through various other parts of the garden, including the Circle of Trees, the Bowling Green, the Orangery, and the Mushroom House at increasing speed, as one member of the group (er hem) had asked to see the Ice House which was not originally on the tour, and which was at a slight distance from the main gardens. Neil, being an obliging fellow, kindly agreed to take us there, on the understanding that we would blame that one member for any delay in getting our tea and biscuits.

When we got there, it was well worth the delay - a charming little building, partly underground so it appeared to be set into the hillside, with grass all around and over it. The tunnel entrance was long, and cool, and the interior brickwork was in absolutely excellent condition! I don't think I've seen one as well preserved.

The light which allowed us to see it came through an opening at the top, the one through which the ice was shovelled in winter.  I scampered round the back to take a look at it:

The opening is covered with a sheet of perspex for safety reasons.

You can see how thick the walls of the ice house are, and there is a considerable thickness of soil and turf on top of that, all contributing to the insulation.

When the fresh ice had been dropped in, this gap would have been plugged by a keystone, and soil shovelled over it again, until refilling was needed, which could have been a year or more later: if the ice house was well built, and well drained, the ice could last for 19 months, which is quite remarkable, and makes you wonder if it isn't time for some eco-group to start promoting a modern wave of ice house construction.

Luckily no-one blamed me for the delay in getting tea, and we headed back to the Staff workroom for a much-needed cuppa, and a very interesting lecture/discussion with Caroline, one of the other gardeners (it seems insulting to call her an Under-Gardener!) about volunteers, and how they are managed at Hanbury. No mean feat, with a pool of 70-80 volunteers, who turn up as and when they want to, with varying levels of skill (that's me being diplomatic) all of which have to be used, made to feel welcome and useful, and at the same time have to gently be prevented from destroying anything or arguing with each other.

After tea break, we were taken round the working kitchen gardens, where we found crops grown for sale and for use in the tea room: chicken and bantams, ditto: and the collection of polytunnels, heated and non-heated, in which they grow on huge numbers of plants for sale, generating a large proportion of their income. They supply several NT properties with plants to be sold, so if you've ever wondered where the plants for sale come from, there's the answer - an awful lot of them come from Hanbury!

I was somewhat surprised to hear that they buy in plugs and grow them on for sale, rather than propagating their own: but then, I was also surprised to see that they only have one small compost heap. Caroline explained that they are not a herbaceous garden - it's mostly trees, grass, and hedges, with the parterre planting being mostly renewed each year, to maintain the fresh, total-control look and the clear spaces between plants. I guess this means that they just don't have the plant material from which to propagate, which seems quite odd for a place with 20 acres of gardens!

One final thing of note: when we were in the parterre, our attention was drawn to a particular plant,  Pulsatilla vulgaris, Pasque Flower, which was just starting to go over. Visitors always asked one of two questions, apparently: either "How long does it take you to clip the hedges" or "What's that plant?", to the point where they were considering getting t-shirts printed with "It's a Pulsatilla!".

On our way out, two of us were walking back through the parterre when we were accosted by a group of elderly ladies, and guess what they asked us? Yes, you guessed it!


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