Historic Landscapes Assembly 2019

Historic Landscapes Assembly 2019 speaker Fiona Davison

The fourth annual Historic Landscapes Assembly, organised by the Garden Trust’s Historic Landscape Project team, took place on 19th November 2019. Delegates from across the historic landscape sector gathered in the Linnean Society’s historic meeting room at Burlington House, Piccadilly. The Gardens Trust are extremely proud that this information and networking day has grown so successfully in just four years. The day is now one of the highlights of the landscape conservation calendar, offering a wonderful opportunity to hear from professionals and volunteers who share our aims.

This year we were joined by representatives of 20 of the 36 County Gardens Trusts (CGTs); and 19 external organisations, ranging from national bodies such as Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the War Memorials Trust and the Ancient Tree Forum, as well as county-based planners and landscape architects, local groups and individuals who care for historic landscapes.

Historic landscapes conservation

After a welcome from the GT’s Chair, Dr James Bartos, Linden Groves, the GT’s Strategic Development Officer, described two of our campaigns – one just finishing and one yet to come. In the past few years, the GT has been putting a lot of effort into reaching new people, by getting garden history out of its niche; responding to pleas from CGTs to give help getting more volunteers involved; and by making sure that we are relevant in the 21st century. Sharing Repton: Historic Landscapes for All was a 2-year project funded by the NLHF and has been so enthusiastically supported by the county gardens trusts that it has wildly exceeded expectations! The project designed five easily-achievable activities for CGTs and other community groups to encourage new audiences to visit and enjoy historic designed landscapes. The pilot events have had tremendous success. At a cultural day in Catton Park, Norfolk, for example, 60 attendees were expected, but over 600 came. The CGTs have enjoyed working with a wide range of groups, including the Somali community of Bristol, refugee groups in London, and new researchers (both adults and children) in the West Midlands.

We now have models that can be used to attract any demographic, and all of the materials from these are available for free download on our online Resource Hub at our website – we really hope that CGT volunteers, and anyone else with an interest, reuse them for their own benefit. Nearly all of the pilots have already been repeated and it is hoped that they will continue to be used around the country for years to come.

Unforgettable Gardens

The GT’s next project veers away from celebrating important individuals from garden history and instead takes a much broader theme: Unforgettable Gardens. Volunteers in the CGTs have worked hard to get people interested in historic parks and gardens, garden history, and garden history figures, and now it’s time to really show off all the hard work they do, in both research and conservation. Thus the message of Unforgettable Gardens will be ‘the historic parks and gardens you have come to love are under threat and some have been lost already but the good news is that we can do something about it and you can help.’ Activities following the theme could be about what these landscapes mean to us, the threats they face, and ways we can help save them for future generations.

The GT will be applying for a Lottery grant to help support and co-ordinate this theme. There are a few events lined up already, including, in 2021 the Gardens Trust/Welsh Historic Parks and Gardens Trust joint conference on the theme, probably at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Unforgettable Gardens has been conceived with the brilliant support of Fiona Davison from the RHS Lindley Library and in 2020 the Lindley Library will be running their exhibitions along the theme, which fits perfectly with the work they’re planning to launch their new RHS Bridgewater garden, which was almost forgotten but then saved.

Historic England news

Historic England’s National Landscape Adviser, Jenifer White, once again joined us to give an update on HE’s activities affecting historic designed landscapes. The Register of Parks and Gardens now has 1,670 sites and a recent entry is the youngest landscape so far: the Pearl Centre, Peterborough, was constructed 1989-92 for Pearl Assurance and has been registered Grade II for its creative design. And other modern landscapes are also currently under assessment for registration: sites nominated during Compiling the Record, a joint GT/HE campaign to identify mid to late 20th century landscapes suitable for Registration. So look out for these exiting new designations! Jenifer also updated us on HE’s new Corporate Plan 2019-20; the Heritage at Risk register, which currently includes 102 Registered parks and gardens; the Communities Secretary’s ‘most ambitious heritage preservation campaign for 40 years’ which aims for every local authority in England to draw up lists of buildings of historic and cultural significance; the publication by HE, on 22nd November 2019, of a reference catalogue of ‘Capability’ Brown’s drawings; and an introduction to the work HE is doing to understand and help mitigate the effects of climate change on historic designed landscapes.

Natural England initiatives

Next was Elaine Willett, Historic Environment Senior Adviser for Natural England, who, like Jenifer, is a regular speaker at our Assemblies. Alarmingly, the historic environment expertise within Natural England has reduced by 90% since 2010, to only 2.78 full time posts to cover the country. NE’s new Historic Environment Strategy does, however, recognise of the wide-ranging role that the historic environment plays across the whole gamut of Natural England’s business – from its more traditional place within Agri-Environment Schemes, to its potential new role to enhance NE’s work for People and Places, Net Gain and Natural Capital. NE now aims to consolidate and increase HE expertise – good news indeed.

Elaine outlined further new NE initiatives which should also benefit historic parks and gardens (HPGs):

  • NE’s Environment Bill highlights biodiversity ‘net gain’ as a way of funding and delivering growth and recovery of ecosystems at landscape scale. Historic parks and gardens could play a major role in helping to improve biodiversity, and landscape managers could tap into funding available for conserving and improving ‘natural capital’.
  • Likewise, the concept of ‘nature recovery networks’ is currently being developed by NE, as part of its 25 year Environment Plan. These large corridors of recovered ecosystems will require partnership working across public, private and third sectors and our sector should be involved. Elaine urged delegates to look out for consultations to feed into on both this and the Net Gain concepts.
  • Elaine described Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELM), which will be launched after Brexit, giving further opportunities to fund the conservation and management of historic designed landscapes.

County Gardens Trust updates

Next, we heard from representatives of two county gardens trusts, Essex and Bedfordshire. Megan Lloyd Regan and Maria Medlycott, Historic Environment Consultants at Essex County Council’s Place Services, described how they have been developing Essex GT’s volunteer research group to produce the Colchester Garden Inventory. Essex GT has already produced an impressive six inventories of historic designed landscapes. Almost all of the research for these has, quite astonishingly, been completed by Jill Plater, who was joint winner of the GT’s Volunteer of the Year Award in 2018 for this undertaking. The inventories are a hugely important resource which help to grow understanding of the sites, inform future research and guide future planning and development. In order to support Jill in this valuable work, EGT set up a small research team, which has been trained by Megan and Maria.

Megan and Maria took us through the detail of training the volunteers to use archives and other historical sources, and to understand the sites on the ground, and outlined the methods used to compile a database of around 300 potential sites in Colchester. The team has now narrowed this down to 82 sites for definite investigation and 140 with potential for inclusion. Enough to keep the volunteers busy for quite some time! The sites selected highlight the area’s huge range in landscape character, from urban Colchester itself, to heathlands, river valleys and coastal marshes.

The speakers reminded us of the importance of placing completed research on the county’s Historic Environment Record, where is available for all to access, for use in further research, management and planning. They have deliberately tailored the Inventory’s entries to mirror the HERs, allowing easy uploading. The volunteers are now experienced enough to work autonomously, but are supported at regular team meetings. This project has been a fantastic boost for Essex GT and for the future of the county’s historic parks and gardens.

Head Gardeners’ Network

Corinne Price, a volunteer at Bedfordshire Gardens Trust, spoke to the Assembly about Bedfordshire’s Head Gardeners’ Network. As a Head Gardener herself, at the Swiss Garden, Shuttleworth, Corinne was struck by the huge range of specialist technical skills and management responsibilities which come with the role. A skilled head gardener is key to ensuring good management and future survival of historic landscapes. Corinne decided to investigate what support was available to head gardeners and found that this came either from in-house managers (not always available) or nationally, by paying to join organisations such as the Professional Gardeners’ Guild or Chartered Institute of Horticulture. This was, quite clearly, not enough.

In 2016, Corinne and Bedfordshire GT trialled the Bedfordshire Head Gardeners’ Network, and it has grown rapidly since. Members, from both privately-owned sites and those owned by local authorities, meet three times a year, taking it in turns to host. There is no membership fee and the costs are minimal. The meetings include garden tours and guest speakers but are, primarily, a valuable opportunity to compare notes and share knowledge on a range of issues, including local climate and plant disease/pest challenges, supplier recommendations, training opportunities, plant propagation and, not least, to get some moral support from peers – much needed in a job that can often be solitary.

The group now has 14 members and will continue to reach out to others. This fantastic initiative, which was a deserving finalist in the Best Partnership category of the Horticulture Week Custodian Awards, would be so beneficial, and relatively simple, to recreate in other counties.

Parks Policy

Shaun Kiddell, Parks Policy Adviser at the National Lottery Heritage Fund, was our next speaker. The NLHF has undergone major changes this year – not just a new name and corporate identity, but also a new Strategic Funding Framework 2019-2014.

Shaun celebrated 20 years and £800m of  Lottery funding for public parks, most notably through the Parks for People programme. With local government funding cuts, however, parks are again in need of help. Although the Lottery’s dedicated parks funding programme has now closed, with the move to simpler and more streamlined grant programmes, parks projects are still urged to apply, but there has been a shift on the outcomes considered most important. There is now a greater emphasis on post-project maintenance, landscapes and nature, and community value. In addition, the NLHF has shifted its investment in public parks to focus more on strategic interventions aimed at entire cities, towns and districts, rather than single heritage parks.

The NLHF has also set up a new joint venture with the National Trust called Future Parks Accelerator which will invest at least £14m over the next two years to ‘support a cohort of places to develop bold new 25 year visions for their entire portfolios of green spaces looking at everything from health and wellbeing, to biodiversity and climate change, social investment and co-community management’.

Conservation Management Plans update

You may well be aware of the recent debate – which even made it into the national papers – about how and where conservation management plans (CMPs) should be stored. CMPs contain unique research and point-in-time assessment of the condition of heritage assets. They are often commissioned by national organisations with public funding, and their outputs are often inaccessible and vulnerable to loss.

The GT has been co-ordinating discussion about this issue and our next speaker, Sarah Poppy, Senior National Rural Adviser at Historic England, outlined a possible solution: to use OASIS (Online AccesS to the Index of archaeological investigationS) as a tool for archiving conservation management plans. This was developed for the archaeological sector in 2003/4, largely for planning/commercial use, and now contains over 55,000 reports, which are searchable via the ADS Library.

A recent major redevelopment of OASIS, funded by HE and Historic Environment Scotland and due for completion in summer 2020, includes tools to embrace the wider historic environment, including buildings; and access for new audiences, including amenity societies, researchers and community groups. The GT will be working with HE to develop OASIS’s suitability as a repository for CMPs: logging their existence, signposting their archive location and digitally preserving their outputs. A huge advantage will be that OASIS will act as a central repository for data, which will then be searchable via the ADS Library, Historic Environment Records, Heritage Gateway and PGUK Database, removing the need to upload research to multiple sites.

As at previous Assemblies, Philip White, of Hestercombe Gardens Trust, gave us an update into the progress of the Parks and Gardens UK database, which is now fully functional, more stable and easier to use. A new Data Manager is to be employed shortly. Philip hopes that each CGT will eventually write a summary for each site they have submitted, as a thumbnail introduction.
Philip has also been involved in the CMP archiving debate. Hestercombe already holds more than 800 records of English and Scottish CMPs, donated by, he estimates, around 90% of consultants. The archive also holds 3000 other documents relating to historic parks and gardens, such as Susan Campbell’s walled garden research. Hestercombe is currently seeking formal archive accreditation.

Key speaker

Our key speaker was Fiona Davison, Head of RHS Libraries and Exhibitions, who gave a compelling, and very funny, talk about her journey to research and write her book The Hidden Horticulturists: The Untold Story of the Men who Shaped Britain’s Gardens. Fiona told the story of how, despite being neither a gardener nor a librarian, she started her new job at the Lindley Library where she discovered an intriguing book:  Handwriting of Under-Gardeners and Labourers. These were accounts written by gardeners who had trained at the RHS Gardens at Chiswick, including, most famously, Joseph Paxton. Fiona told us about the importance of the Chiswick Gardens, which was the first place to receive numerous ‘new’ plants collected from overseas. She followed the careers of others who had trained there. Many became head gardeners of significant estates, such as John Collinson, at the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton Hall, where he had an enormous team of 40-60 men, boys and weeding women; and Henry Bailey, at Nuneham Park, which may have inspired the Alice in Wonderland story. Others went on to travel the world, and Fiona discovered the enthralling stories of Thomas Bridges, James Traill, William McCullock and James George Watson.

The Handwriting Book also marked the sudden and sad demise of the Chiswick Gardens. Entries stopped suddenly in 1829 – fraud and overspending in the RHS meant that training had to be suspended, plants dug up and sold and the gardens went into limbo, eventually to be replaced by a new garden at Kensington. All the Chiswick gardeners, except Paxton, were undeservedly forgotten, but are, at last, being given new life by Fiona’s book.

Fiona’s gripping talk gave the perfect end to a rich and varied day of news and discussion. We’ll be planning more of the same next year, and hope to see you then.

Tamsin McMillan, Historic Landscape Project

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith