Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Garden Review: Westwell Manor, Nr Burford

This is a garden open under the NGS Open Gardens scheme, which I visited earlier this year.

As an aside, I was talking to someone the other day who spoke at length of their dislike of the NGS, mainly - it seemed to me - based on class resentment. They had tried to deal with an NGS local organiser, I can't remember exactly why (they did tell me, but frankly I was losing the will to live after listening to their lengthy complaint), and were left with an impression of a lot of hooray henrys who were completely inefficient and seemed to treat the whole thing like an old boys club, quite removed from the real world.

Well,  I have met my local NGS organiser, and she's lovely, despite having a double-barrelled name, so I don't quite agree with their complaint: I've also been to many NGS garden openings, and usually they are a treat, a chance to see round a garden that is not normally open, and a chance to see a "real" garden, with real weeds, real neglected corners, and one which is used by real people, which can often be more interesting than the sometimes rather sterile National Trust type of garden, where they employ numbers of volunteers *grits teeth* (I have strong views on this subject) and where nobody actually "lives" in the garden.

However, sometimes you find one that is annoying: the Mill House in East Hanney is a good example, they opened a few years as one of a small handful of gardens in the village, participating in an NGS day. At the entrance there were three utter hoorays, sitting in the shade of their parasol and braying - "hwah! hwah! hwah!" is the nearest I can get to conveying the noise - to each other while ignoring us, the paying visitors. The garden was tiny, and mostly filled with a gigantic industrial cable-reel, I'm not sure if it was supposed to be a table, or a Feature. Weeds were abounding, good planting was not. It took less than five minutes to see the entire "garden", then we had to troop back past the owners, squeezing past some incoming visitors as we did. I very nearly wrote to the NGS to complain. But I didn't.

Westhall Manor was very nearly as annoying: firstly they had completely and utterly failed to make any arrangements at all for car parking. Every verge in the village was littered with cars, listing at dangerous angles and ruining the grass, as it had been very wet in the days preceding, and was drizzling as we arrived. Despite this, the visitor numbers were huge: the Manor was surrounded by gates and tracks leading to empty fields, yet they had done nothing about parking. It felt like one of those situations where the lord of the Manor "owns" the entire village and can steamroll any tentative complaints about insensitive car parking or ruination of front gardens.

Having parked on a verge way, way out of the village, and hiked back, we were greeted by a queue to get in, and the traditional trestle table with three people stood there, but only one person taking money, and no sign to tell us how much the entry was. The queue was formed by each person having to ask "how much is it?" and being told £6 (or whatever it was - it seemed quite high) then having to rootle around in their purse. In fact, it was worse than that, as the publicity in the local paper had stated the entry fee, but incorrectly, so there were people presenting the right money, being told that it was more, which caused embarrassment, and confusion while people hunted for more coins, having put away their wallets and purses in the sure and certain knowledge that they helpfully had the right amount to hand.

Having paid extra for a map of the gardens - which I consider to be a bit of a liberty - we were firmly directed to the next trestle table, where they were selling bottles of wine. I don't think they had produced it themselves, I didn't see any sign of a vineyard or a bottling facility, so presumably they had struck a deal with a local wine merchant? Who knows. Who cares?

So now we come to the map: having had to pay extra for it - yes, I'm still annoyed about that - we had certain expectations. It was nicely printed, on very good quality paper, and seemed to be based on a rather wishy-washy colour-pencil drawing or plan of the garden. It was dated 1996... oh dear, they've been using the same map for the last 20 years? Perhaps they had thousands of them printed, and have been working their way through them ever since? Bit of a cheek to charge money for it, don't you think? Twenty years old and somewhat out of date, as there were elements of the garden completely missing from the map, not least being an entire section containing a tump, and what was presumably supposed to be a wildflower meadow of considerable size.

However, that was not the last of the annoyances of the map: they had made the obligatory list of named features, designed and intended to encourage visitors to see all of the garden, and to navigate between places of interest. So far, so good - apart from being out of date, to the point where the tennis court (of little interest) had been replaced with a beautiful reflecting pool (very much of interest). But instead of using simple numbers, or even letters, as a key, they had chosen to use roman numerals.


How many people, in 2015, use roman numerals on a daily basis? How many people, for that matter, under the age of 40 would even recognise them? This struck me as so pretentious as to be laughable, and we spent the whole visit saying the numbers as they were spelled, ie "Shall we go and have a look at Eye Vee now?"  "Why yes - let's cut past Ex Eye and round Vee Eye Eye."  It was surprisingly difficult to work out which one was which, not least because they were all hand-drawn, and whoever did it was having to squeeze three symbols into a place where the single digit "7" would have been easier, simpler, and much clearer to read.

These initial impressions did somewhat taint my view of this garden, and it won't be one that I ever return to.

However, if you don't mind inadequate parking and pretentious presentation, do go there some time, if only to have a schoolboy snigger at their idea of stylish and classy topiary:

It is simply not possible to call this "garden room" anything other than "The Big Willy Garden".

And, just to make it even worse, the entrance to the Big Willy Garden is via a narrow slit in the hedge, towered over by The Big Boobies.

This poor lady clearly has no idea where she is standing.
Elsewhere in the garden we found such treats as this one: is it a new rockery, is it a mini wildflower "urban meadow" recreation, or is it - as we suspect - an overgrown weed-infested old concrete terrace?

At this point in our visit, I was approached by a rather irate woman, flapping her map and demanding "where is the tennis court, then?"

I  pointed to this feature - right - which clearly used to be the tennis court.

"Hmmph," she replied "That's not much good for playing tennis on, is it?"

I have no idea why she was so huffy about it: who would want a boring old tennis court in their garden when they could have a reflecting pool instead?  Maybe she had heard about the rather clever terracing or banking that had been constructed around the "other", presumably newer, tennis court, and wanted to see it? We had found it, incidentally, but only by being nosy, as it wasn't on the map.

And so to the actual reflecting pool - was it better than the tennis court it replaced? Well, yes, but it could have been done a lot better: take the one at Kiftsgate, for example. That one is stylish, elegant, interesting, and amusing.

This one, in my opinion, is a bit dull: for a start, it's too big, as they seem to have felt the need to take up the whole area of the tennis court, and as it stands, it is not inviting to walk all round it. In fact, I'm not sure that you can. Furthermore, although it is raining in the photo, so reflections wouldn't work, even if the water were still, what exactly is it reflecting? Green hedges. Hmm.

My final comment on this garden concerns the vegetable garden, or "Ex-eye" as they call it.

Can you see the climber, working its way up the chicken wire netting of the fruit cage? At this time of year, the leaves are dying, but the fruit is ripening nicely.

Can you see, on the left, those bright red berries?

Red berries, in a fruit cage.


Not so much - the climber is White Bryony, Bryonia dioica. The berries are poisonous.

Just saying.


  1. laughing all the way through this! More Big Willy reviews please

  2. Oh! Katherine, I'm shocked! *shocked face* You were not supposed to laugh all the way through it, it was supposed to be a serious literary assessment of a garden!

    OK, secretly I'm glad that you found it funny.... I just couldn't stop laughing at the combination of the "terribly terribly" owners, posh as all get out, and the Big Willy topiary. Did they not realise? Do posh people not see things the same way the rest of us do? Do they have a subversive gardener who cunningly diverts them around that particular garden room, such that they have never seen it? Will they be shocked and horrified if they search for themselves and read this article?


    We can but hope!

  3. The Big Willy Garden is hilarious. How can they not realise?!

  4. "I know!" as they say.

    There were more, er, columnar, layered topiaries on the Weedy Terrace, which started me wondering if their gardener was a doddery old thing who couldn't cut straight, or was in fact a naughty youngster who took advantage of the fact that the owners simply didn't "see" how funny it was.

    And then I found the Big Willy garden, and decided that it was clearly deliberate! I suppose that it is entirely possible that the owners rarely go there: it's a very unremarkable "garden room" apart from the hilarious topiary. And the Big Boobies are just the cherries on the cake - - oops, oh, you know what I mean.

    I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who finds this hilarious!


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