Garden at the Roman Palace of Fishbourne
The history of gardens seems to go back to the earliest of human societies. Gardens represent many things, but perhaps most of all they represent peace and happiness. In many mythologies human kind was at its happiest living in a garden. H.G. Wells turned this ideal around in his book The Time Machine when he imagined a journey into a future where all problems had been solved. The world he imagined was set in a garden, based apparently on Kew Gardens in Richmond. This garden was filled with pleasant little Eloi people who did nothing much, and couldn't concentrate on anything for more than five minutes. Without problems there was nothing to do, and the Eloi had degenerated into virtual cattle. Perhaps, however, Wells had a reassuring irony in mind, since any gardener will tell you that in a garden there is always something to do. In Paradise Lost Milton does not show Adam and Eve sitting around in their garden sipping champagne. Each day they put in a good rewarding day's work, pruning, planting and digging. Gardens represent peace and happiness, and that peace has just as much to do with activity as with the sitting around afterwards. When a person has retired, their job done, work on the garden still remains, and many are grateful for it. Gardens through history represent continuing efforts of people to find an active Garden of Eden of their own. In a sense gardens represent both the end and beginning of our efforts.
The earliest recognisable gardens in Britain are Roman. At Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex, a Roman garden has been reconstructed and provides a unique view into the past. Fishbourne's garden is laid out in a formal manner, with a wide central path divided into two symmetrical areas. Paths are lined with hedges, which contain semi-circular recesses which might have contained flowers, statues or seats.
After the Romans left in 410 AD gardens did not become important again until well into the Middle Ages. Monasteries had gardens in their cloisters, usually grassed with perhaps a central well or a tree. There would also be kitchen and herb gardens. Beds of flowers would be included, not for decoration but to supply alter flowers. Castles sometimes had small, ornamental gardens. An example can be seen at Winchester Castle where a thirteenth century garden was recreated in 1986. At Tintagel in Cornwall it is claimed that a garden has been discovered as part of Earl Richard's thirteenth century Tintagel Castle. Evidence supporting this does not seem very strong, but it would be nice if this little square enclosure in such a wonderful location really was a garden.
Italian Garden at Penshurst Place
Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, Church estates were taken over by nobles favoured by the king. The fashion now was to create private parks around manor houses for keeping deer, cattle, sheep, for growing timber, as well as simply for pleasure. These deer parks had been popular since Norman times, with the New Forest and Ashdown Forest being famous examples. Perhaps the most impressive of all surviving deer parks is Richmond Park in west London created by Charles I in 1637. But as far as decorative garden design was concerned, this began seriously with the Tudors. House and garden were thought of together for the first time. Knot gardens, consisting of complicated designs of low hedge, were fashionable. These gardens were designed to be looked down upon from a balcony. The only partially surviving Tudor garden that I know of is the formal garden at Penshurst Place in Kent, which was laid out by Sir Henry Sidney in the sixteenth century. This is one of the oldest private gardens in the world. Sir Henry's Italian garden centrepiece still survives at Penshurst. No other Tudor garden survives as far as I am aware, but recreated gardens at Montacute in Somerset give an idea of Tudor design. There are also knot gardens at Hampton Court and Longleat. There are also gardens recreated in the style of 1600 at Basing House in Hampshire.
Westbury Court Garden, Gloucestershire
Most of the seventeenth century was dominated by formal French ideas. Andre le Notre, gardener to Louis XIV created Versailles near Paris, and this was the model on which smaller versions in Britain were based. Charles II had a huge formal garden built at St James's Park in London, based on royal French gardens he had seen during his exile. He opened St James's Park to the public, and would often walk there and chat to his subjects. Charles also had Greenwich Park remodelled in the French manner. Then in a kind of sub plot the seventeenth century also saw the foundation of botanic gardens, growing medicinal plants, and later assessing plants sent back from colonies for economic potential. Oxford Botanic Garden, Chelsea Physic Garden and Kew Gardens are examples. Most of the major botanic gardens have survived, but nearly all seventeenth century formal gardens were swept away by the next fashion, for naturalistic gardening in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Remarkably a formal Dutch water garden, built 1697-1715, in continuous use since then, survives at Westbury Court in Gloucestershire. A formal seventeenth century gardens also survies at Ham House in Richmond.
In the eighteenth century garden designers began to turn increasingly to nature, and to the type of garden for which Britain is best known. Layouts were now designed to look informal or "natural", but were actually carefully planned. Pathways wandered and lines were no longer straight. George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham anticpiated the new trend in the 1660s when he designed a garden using the natural drama of a position on cliffs overlooking the Thames at Clivedon. But the style took another hundred years to really become established. One of the earliest gardens laid out in this new naturalistic way was Painshill Park, Cobham in Surrey, created by Charles Hamilton from 1738 to 1773. Another early and beautiful example of the English style park can be seen at Hyde Park in London, designed by Queen Charlotte in 1828. Capability Brown created a large number of the finest landscaped parks in England. His work can be seen at Longleat in Wiltshire, Chatsworth in Derbyshire, Burghley in Lincolnshire, Sheffield Park in East Sussex, and Petworth in West Sussex. As the naturalistic trend caught on entire villages would be moved if they got in the way of the vista. Nuneham Courtney in Oxfordshire was moved in the 1760s, creating a village that became a picturesque approach to the estate park. The landscape itself was now a garden, a contrast to the medieval idea of a garden as a private refuge from hostile nature outside. The eighteenth century poet Coleridge reflected this widening of garden borders in his poem Kubla Khan, where the natural world seems to become a pleasure dome for a great king. Kubla Khan's garden is "twice five miles" in length, but those small dimensions also contain caverns "measureless to man". Much of the "Romantic" period in English literature was concerned with the natural world and a new appreciation of it. William Wordsworth's garden at Rydal Mount in the Lake District, went for an artfully created natural look. The Lake District itself is virtually a garden, created by man's activities over thousands of years. Some of the Lake District's most famous locations, such as Tarn Howes were carefully constructed, in the case of Tarn Howes by damming and landscaping two swampy pools. Box Hill in Surrey, a tourist attraction for day trippers since the seventeenth century, is another apparently natural landscape which has been idealised by thousands of years of man's activities. With all the effort that goes into maintenance of open downland, with careful use of sheep grazing to keep down the growth of scrub, Box Hill qualifies as a garden.
Garden at Burghley, showing a "ha ha".
If there is one garden feature that symbolises a wider concept of a garden it is the ha ha. This is a sunken wall, which does not interrupt a sweeping landscape, but which still does the job of keeping livestock away from gardens near a house. This feature began to form part of the English landscape in the 1720s. In 1770, Horace Walpole was to say of them: "No sooner was this simple enchantment made, than levelling, mowing, rolling followed. The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonised with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without" (from Anecdotes of Painting In England. Quoted in Gilbert White by Richard Mabey P80). There are very attractive examples of a ha ha at Burghley in Nottinghamshire, and at the Titsey Estate in Surrey.
Our enjoyment of English landscape parks recalls idealised pre-industrial countryside, but might actually stir much deeper landscape memories. Some historians of mankind have suggested that modern humans began to evolve on the savannas of east Africa. Two and a half million years ago a cooler climate had caused the forests to shrink. Those pre-human apes least adapted to life amongst the trees were forced out onto grasslands, a generally open landscape with clumps of vegetation or trees in which to hide and survey the wide open plains that stretched all around. This landscape is remarkably similar to a Capability Brown landscape, as seen at Petworth. Perhaps a trip to Petworth isn't just a journey to a beautiful open park where deer run free. Petworth might also be considered as a journey back to man's original home. It's a nice thought to have in mind as you gambol about with the children, or have a picnic.
Emperor Fountain at Chatsworth
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw a slightly more formal influence. While Humphrey Repton continued with naturalistic designs, seen for example at Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, and Hatchlands Park in Surrey, Repton also worked with more structured layouts. He reintroduced terraces, and flower gardens, and this emphasis on flowers became important. Princes Street Garden in Edinburgh survives from this time, and illustrates the emphasis on flowers. Repton's more formal work can be seen at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, at Blaise Castle near Bristol, and at Chatsworth, where he supervised the building of the Emperor fountain which can still project water to 280 feet.
Nevertheless naturalism continued as an overriding theme. The nineteenth century saw the growth of public parks in towns. Green Park opened to the public in 1826, with parts of Regent's Park following suit in 1835. In 1840 Derby Arboretum, which ambitiously claims earliest public park status, was opened by the industrialist Joseph Strutt. In this new industrial age parks became idealised recreations of a lost countryside in an urban setting. The formal St James's Park where Charles II had chatted with his subjects was remodelled as a naturalistic landscape by John Nash in 1827. As the nineteenth century continued there was much enthusiasm for greenhouses, grottos, ferneries, and an overgrown, secluded effect. Examples can be seen as the People's Park in Halifax, Bodnant in Denbighshire, Hever Castle and Scotney Castle in Kent, and Wilton in Wiltshire. Kew Gardens also illustrates Victorian preoccupations. There's a recreation of a Victorian kitchen garden at Audley End in Essex.
Gardens created in this era also reflect a greater ease of international travel. Plants were collected from many different parts of the world and placed in gardens in Britain. There was much interest in the Far East. Gardens such as those at Kew reflect this international feel. In the case of Kew this is not surprising, since Kew's job was to collect and develop plants from overseas. But many other gardens from this period also show an international influence. Nymans Garden in West Sussex would be a good example, as would the later additions to Sheffield Park. There are many examples in the warm climate of the south west; The Lost Gardens Of Heligan near St Austall, Trengwainton near Penzance, and Killerton near Exeter were all used as a test bed for nineteenth century plant hunters. There are also gardens of exotic plants at Trelissk Gardens near Truro in Cornwall, and a spectacular tropical garden called Overbeck's created in 1901 on a cliff top site near Salcombe in south Devon.
As an unfortunate side effect of greater ease of travelling, the introduction of plants into new environments has led to many extinctions. In fact Kew claims that invasion by foreign plants is the leading cause of extinction in the plant world. This is a sad fact to consider amongst the rich variety of a garden like Nymans.
In the twentieth century it occurred to gardeners to combine the formal and natural in one garden. Good examples are Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire, Nymans Garden in West Sussex and Sissinghurst in Kent. Garden "rooms" became popular, where different areas of the garden would be divided off to reflect different themes. I like to think back to the Tudor world where gardens were designed to shut nature out, to create a place of refuge. Now we bring nature into our place of refuge, creating rooms in gardens, as if they existed within a house. Sometimes this idea is taken even further and ruined rooms of an actual building are included in a garden design. This fashion actually started in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when ruins were considered very romantic. There were earlier examples of picturesque ruins, such as the Byron estate at Newstead Abbey, established in the sixteenth century, but the idea of blurring the indoors and outdoors was generally speaking a nineteenth century innovation. Ruined buildings as part of a garden can be seen at the Victorian Scotney Castle Garden in Kent, and at the late nineteenth/early twentieth century Nymans Garden. At Great Dixter Garden in East Sussex old out-buildings have been incorporated into the design. This garden was created by the great twentieth century architect Edwin Lutyens, who often collaborated with garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.
Gardens began as an idealisation, a lost Eden. People worked hard to create a better place out of the wilderness of nature. Now nature itself is looked upon as a rapidly retreating Eden. The twentieth century saw a growing interest in conservation, which is reflected in a vast garden known as the Eden Project at Bodelva in Cornwall. Perhaps the Eden Project is the modern age's defining garden. The Eden Project is built in an old clay pit, on soils carefully made from constituent materials. It is a living example of the possibilities for regeneration. Gardens have always been a demonstration of the way people can work with nature, idealisations of that relationship. Gardens show that man does not have to be nature's enemy. It is a mistake to believe that nature left to itself will always protect diversity, the great watch word of the conservation movement. Go to the ancient yew forest at Kingley Vale in Sussex and see how densely packed trees shut out light and leave the ground beaneath them virtually barren of other plants. Go to Lydford Gorge in Devon and see what seems to be a primeval area of nature, which is actually managed by removing some of the natural tree cover to allow in more light and encourage plant diversity. Go to the warm temperate biome at the Eden Project. On an information board here Fernard Braudel is quoted as saying that "when you don't cultivate the land in the Mediterranean the land dies". When Mediterranean land is cultivated scrubby desert becomes an Eden as presented in glossy holiday magazines. On the other hand, as founder of the Eden Project Tim Smit says in his book Eden: "Go to California and marvel at the millions of acres of citrus and vines and ask where the water comes from... the water table is falling so fiercely that large tracts of the state are suffering from excess soil salinity, and many fear catastrophe" (Eden P250). In the Bible Eden was a garden, and as we know Milton portrayed Adam and Eve as busy gardeners. It might be reasonable to say that a beautiful garden of Eden cannot exist without man and his activities. On the other hand those same activities can be a serious threat to the natural world. It is in gardening that this endless conflict is played out. There is no beginning and end with gardens. Travel in a time machine into the future and people would still be busy digging, pruning and watering.