As we enter National Gardening Week, the nation yearns for the historic parks and gardens that we cannot visit due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Any doubt about the place parks and gardens hold in the nation’s heart has surely been dissipated this spring. Historic parks and gardens have always been a much-loved part of our shared national story, but they are appreciated now more than ever as social distancing forces us to evaluate the role of open space in our lives.
When Mothers’ Day crowds at National Trust gardens forced them to close, in order to comply with social distancing, we came to understand how beautiful gardens from the past call to us like sirens for special days out. While those of us with our own gardens thank heavens for them, we have also come to understand just how essential free access to public parks and historic gardens is to the wellbeing of the nation as a whole.
Painswick Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire is England’s sole surviving Rococo garden, created as a place of fun, frolics and frippery, far away from local prying eyes, as it is hidden within the folds of the hills. It also has a unique collection of garden buildings threaded throughout the garden, particularly the Red House, which embodies the Rococo style perfectly with its asymmetrical design, as well as the Exhedra, the Eagle House, the Doric Seat, the Pigeon House and the Gothic Alcove and that fashionable eighteenth century garden feature, the Cold Bath. All of this surrounds the central feature of a diamond-shaped organically-run vegetable garden, which has supplied produce for the cafe on site. It seems unbelievable now that as recently as the 1970s this hidden gem was a forgotten jungle, partially planted with timber in the 1950s, with only the Red House summerhouse surviving (Photo below © Marion Mako).
The restoration of the garden was begun in the early 1980s by Lord and Lady Dickinson with a group of experts, spurred on by Professor Timothy Mowl. Until his death in December 2019, Lord Dickinson was Patron, and he and his wife passionate supporters, of Gloucestershire Gardens and Landscape Trust. A team of dedicated staff and volunteers faithfully cleared the undergrowth allowing hundreds of thousands of snowdrops to reappear, restored almost all the original garden buildings and replanted the garden with historically accurate varieties.
In 2012 Lord Dickinson gifted the garden to the Painswick Rococco Garden Trust and it has gone from strength to strength under the Head Gardener, Roger Standley and the Gardens Director, Dominic Hamilton. Until the recent shutdown, it offered forest school space, educational visits, nature trails, outdoor yoga, photography, painting and theatre as well as many opportunities for volunteers, not just in the garden, but shop and cafe too. The Trust is now at a really important point, not only to save this unique historic garden through the shutdown, but also as the loss of income from visitors may well jeopardise the crucial fundraising project for a new visitor centre as the lease on their old one comes to an end in 2022.
Alexandra Palace Park in London is very special to me and I adore it for its gorgeous views over London, vast open spaces, and hidden corners despite being right in the metropolis. As a child I visited every day to use its One O’Clock Club playgroup and iconic Brutalist playground. Now I have my own family and still live nearby so it’s the destination for simple days out and rendezvous with other local friends.
Built by the Victorians as a People’s Palace to rival Crystal Palace, it’s now run by a community trust who balance income-generation from events and hiring it out to fund public access to the palace and its park. During these times of Covid-19 it has gathered a fresh symbolism –hordes of locals without gardens are relying on it for their daily exercise and fresh air, whilst the community trust is struggling with the devastating loss of event income and appealing for donations to keep its head above the water. (Photo © Alexandra Palace Park)
Painshill Park in Surrey is another of my favourites, a uniquely-surviving 18th century circuit garden with eccentric follies – a crystal grotto, Roman temple, gothic tower, romantic ruins, exotic Turkish tent, thatched Hermitage, and a series of picturesque bridges – that play games with the imagination, through variety, mood shifts and concealment. The photo above left shows the view from the Hermitage (© Painshill).
After falling into disrepair as so many ambitious gardens do, Painshill has been restored over recent decades by a team of dedicated volunteers, and championed by the Garden History Society, predecessor to the Gardens Trust. We continue to lend a supportive arm to Painshill when needed, such as in 2018 when it was threatened by proposals to expand the busy A3 road that would have resulted in it virtually skimming the gothic tower.
Highdown Gardens, Worthing come as a wonderful surprise – and a miracle of survival – once you have ascended the long drive up the slope of the South Downs above Worthing. Nestled in an old chalk pit overlooking the sea the Gardens are home to the (now national) collection of the plant introduced by Sir Fredrick Stern – which includes two of my very favourite flowers, hellebores – in shades from chocolate to pink and green – and tree peonies.
Sir Frederick and Lady Stern spent 50 years turning this almost impossible site with its steep chalk cliffs and poor thin soil into a unique collection of trees, shrubs, perennial and bulbs, many of them the original stock obtained from pioneering botanists and collectors. The Gardens even have their own rose, bred by Sir Frederick, ‘Rosa x Highdownensis’, a hybrid seedling from R. moyesii that forms a bigger and better shrub, with flowers of cerise-crimson and superb orange hips.
Worthing Borough Council inherited Highdown Gardens under the terms of Sir Frederick’s will in 1967 and despite the many local authority reorganisations and funding crises over the decades has never wavered in its support for the Gardens or considered selling them off. The Sussex Gardens Trust supported Worthing Council’s successful grant application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund – which will both help save the hundreds of rare and exotic plants through expert cataloguing, preserving and propagating and improve visitor experience.
The Plantation Garden, Norwich has been cleared and cared for by dedicated volunteers since the late 1980s, many of whom are members of Norfolk Gardens Trust). It is such a peaceful and beautiful garden in the bottom of an old lime quarry in the centre of Norwich, which is usually open every day for people to enjoy or get involved with. However, I am worried that, with social isolation and distancing, the volunteers will not be able to come in and the garden risks becoming a jungle again. (Photo © Sally Bate)
Sadly though, unforgettable gardens like these are themselves at risk. Gardens and landscapes have always been vulnerable to destruction through maintenance cuts, neglect, development or mis-management but now these precious treasures are more at risk than ever, as Covid-19 has forced many historic gardens to shut their doors and lose essential ticket revenue, whilst on the flip side public parks struggle to serve the growing needs of their communities for outside exercise. The Gardens Trust and volunteers in the County Gardens Trusts are working harder than ever to support these amazing sites.
From 2020 to 2022 the Gardens Trust will be celebrating Unforgettable Gardens – what they mean to us, the threats they face, and how you can help save them for future generations. Why not get involved? Find out more here and follow us on social media for updates @thegardenstrust #unforgettablegardens