Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Sezincote: lacking in charm, right from the start

I've been to this garden once before, on a rainy afternoon (my favourite time for garden visiting, as it reduces the competition!), but only briefly, so I was looking forward to seeing it again, and having time to see all of it, and a few weeks ago I finally managed to get back there.

This time, I managed to drive directly to the car park entrance instead of having to drive all through the park, which was a good start: but on reaching the payment booth, I encountered a seriously grumpy woman who wouldn't smile, didn't respond at all to my friendly greetings, and who, when asked for a map of the garden, snarled "it's in the guidebook, £3."

Charming! I do consider that a map of the gardens is essential when garden visiting: how else are you going to know that you've seen everything? But to charge for one? Huh! *rolls eyes*. Virtually all gardens give you a map: sometimes you are loaned a laminated one, to be returned on the way out, which is an excellent way to do it - after all, what use is the garden map once you leave? - and sometimes you are handed a simple A4 paper map, that's all it takes, but no, not at Sezincote, you have to buy the guidebook.

Trying to look gracious instead of pissed off, I bought the guide book: this time, I intended to see the whole thing, so I grudgingly paid the extra money - in cash, incidentally, as they don't take any form of electronic payment. How very odd! In this day and age, they insist on cash! Makes you wonder if they are declaring all their income, doesn't it? I can't imagine how you can expect to run a business, sell tickets and indeed sell teas and cakes, without taking any form of card payment.

Anyway, turning to the rather slender guide book, I unfolded the paper map and guess what, on my previous visit I had indeed seen all of it. It's not actually that big! Oh dear. Well, let's check the guide book then: oh good, it has a brief history of the house, then it goes on to a Garden Tour, so I followed their suggested route.

The first thing I have to say is that the gardens are weirdly dislocated from the house. The "tour" starts by directing you up to the house, where there is a small area of formal garden to one side: it has a moderately nice water feature (which I would not describe as a "canal" as you can easily step over it), and a lot of my pet hate, Irish Yew which has been tied up with wires and chopped with hedgetrimmers in order to keep them slender. The guidebook explains that the design called for Italian Cypress, but they would not be reliably hardy in this position, so they used Irish Yew instead. I suppose that makes it ok....

Above this rather soulless and empty area, there is a long Orangery: anyone know the difference between an Orangery and a Conservatory? Nope, me neither. This is where the age of the guide book started to be felt, as the description of the plants within it did not fully match those in existence - plants don't live for ever, and clearly some have had to be replaced over the years. But at least I did get to see a Fatshedera in real life: a strange "why did they do it?" hybrid of Fatsia and common Ivy, which creates a semi-climbing shrub with leaves that are more like Fatsia than Ivy: and is as good an argument against genetic modification as any that I have heard.

A quick stroll around the "wildflower meadow" proved yet again that it may be trendy to have a wildflower meadow, but it's not always a great success: theirs, in August, looked like nothing on earth, just tatty grass, with dead stuff in amongst it, a ton of Wild Carrot (which looks exactly like Cow Parsley to non-gardeners) with a few tiny bits of Lotus corniculata (Common Bird's Foot Trefoil) scrambling at the edges.

Following the instructions in the book, I took the pleasant stroll on mostly grassy paths across the hillside, thinking as I did so that it would be dreadful on a really wet day... and passing on the way a set of three interesting little stone niches: not quite grottoes, not quite an ice house, not quite big enough to walk into it, but deep enough to be intriguing. Alas, no mention of them in the guide book.

On reaching the top pool and fountain, I took the time to read the guide book and to try to locate all the planting it mentioned.

Hmm, 12 years is a long time in a garden, and evidently a lot of the planting has been replaced over the years!  Still, it's pretty enough, and leads you into the rest of the garden, which are basically in a linear strip running down the side of the drive. The planting is lush, and there is plenty of it along the stream which babbles its way down the hillside, through a larger pond with a bridged island, to a terminal pond which was clearly being renovated, as the banks were scraped bare, with evidence of Mare's Tails being killed off.

I think what I enjoyed most about this garden were the lovely mature specimen trees: not all the ones mentioned in the guide book were to be found, but I managed to locate  and identify most of them. I think I must be having a bit of a purple craze at the moment, as the one I liked best was an enormous purple hazel, not exactly rare! Oh, and the saddest find was a recently-planted nearly-dead purple-leaved Birch, which you hardly see anywhere: the few surviving leaves were a fabulous deep purple colour, but an awful lot of the branches were quite, quite dead.

At this point I have to have a grumble: I've mentioned this before, and I'll no doubt do so again - why on earth do these paid entry gardens insist on using power tools during opening hours? This place only opens on Thursday and Friday afternoons (and Bank Hols) so why can't they cut the blasted grass on a Monday, a Tuesday, or a Wednesday? It's hard to appreciate the beauty of the views with a pair of hideously loud ride-on mowers cantering up and down, and throwing up dust. It also meant that there were no gardeners to be seen, so there was no chance of asking any questions.

Apart from that, it's ok, but a bit small for the money. I was quite disappointed to find that I had indeed managed to cover it all the other time I visited, and I probably won't be going there again, as there was nothing that felt particularly special. 

The grumpy woman on the entrance booth told me that they have a new Head Gardener, so maybe some changes will now be made: I did find one piece of new planting:

 ...and I have to say, it was like a breath of fresh air against the rather oppressively top-heavy growth elsewhere in this garden.

Makes you realise that "mature" planting is not always as desirable as it might sound! And I have to say, in my own gardening, I have noticed that my tastes have changed over the years that I've been gardening professionally. Fifteen years ago, I would not have "allowed" any bare soil to be seen - it was all about filling the beds.

But now I find that I prefer a little space around my plants: I like to see the structure of each one, I find it calmer and more peaceful to be able to see each plant in its own right, rather than stuffing the beds full of plants.

It's also healthier for the plants, allowing free airflow around them: it reduces the number of slug and snail refuges, and it allows the gardener (that's me) to move around the bed for weeding etc without trampling anything, or falling over whilst balancing precariously on one leg, trying to find a safe place to put the other foot down.

Overall, I would say that this garden is a very average way to spend an hour or so: not suitable for children as there is a lot of water, and in order to follow the route you have to negotiate the very exciting stepping stones under the bridge. These are not so good for wobbly Seniors either, I had to assist one lady who lost her nerve half way across!

There is also a fair uphill walk back to the car park, and it's a lot longer on the way back... you would have thought, with all those acres of fields, that they could allocate a parking area rather closer to the garden entrance? 

You do sometimes wonder why these people bother to open to the public, if they are not going to embrace the situation and truly welcome their visitors - I have a theory that there is some sort of tax advantage to being "open to the public", so they pay lip service by providing the things that make money, ie an entrance booth, a tea shop and (usually) a gift shop and/or plants for sale, but without really committing themselves to the experience.

On balance then: charmless from start to finish, and I doubt I'll bother to go there again.

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