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Saving our nation’s lost landscapes

By Helen Roberts

Historic gardens are an integral part of our cultural link with landscapes; a place where we can connect with nature. They represent a form of artistic expression and illustrate snapshots of past ages, cultures and societies. For that reason alone these garden masterpieces deserve recognition and preservation. 

Often the final level of protection for many of these gardens falls to English Heritage, a registered charity, independent of government since April 2015, which essentially acts as guardians for the upkeep of some 400 historic sites. English Heritage is often seen as the last resort of protection for these sites, some of which are so special that the government has stepped in to look after them and rescue them for the nation. 

Late last year the Friends' Lecture was given by Christopher Wedell, a former trainee of The University of Bristol Botanic Garden (21 years ago) and now senior gardens advisor to English Heritage. 

Bridge in Sheffield Park Garden.
Photo credit: ReflectedSerendipity
courtesy Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Christopher’s horticultural career began early; as a teenager he already expressed a keen interest in the outdoors. A stint of work at Sheffield Park in Sussex fuelled his passion for horticulture and historic landscapes and led to a degree in Horticulture at Writtle College with a final year dissertation on historic gardens. After his work at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden and Tylney Hall, Christopher obtained his Kew Diploma in Horticulture and then spent 18 months working in the famous Palm House. From Kew he went to Wisley where he eventually became superintendent under curator. When a 6-month contract offered itself at English Heritage he applied and 7 years later he is looking after 23 historic and contemporary gardens ranging from Elizabethan to contemporary in design.  

Christopher spoke in detail about the gardens under the care of English Heritage, the complexities of restoration and the many challenges the team faces when completing historic garden works. 

The importance of authenticity


The restoration of historic gardens is a difficult task in itself when there is a lack of historical information in the form of maps, descriptions and documents. Often gardens are multi-layered over time, making it difficult to know at what particular point in time to restore the garden to. 

Belsay Hall, a thirteenth century site located just north of Newcastle has magnificent Grade I listed gardens and were primarily the work of Sir Charles Monck (1779-1867). He was influenced by the Picturesque movement, which sought to create landscapes less conventionally beautiful and more naturalistic in design. The restoration of the unique Quarry Garden, a dramatic place with a special microclimate with many exotic trees and shrubs, presented English Heritage with a challenge of maintaining the correct authenticity. To achieve this, the team used a number of photographs collected over the decades to aid in the restoration process.

"Photographic and historical documents are very important in the restoration process," explained Christopher, "and it is vital that as much historical information is collated as possible, thereby restoring the landscape at the most significant point in historical time". 

Osborne House from the road to Swiss Cottage.
Photo credit: By Loz Pycock from London, UK
[CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes, as gardens change over time, plants become over-mature and cease to provide the effect for which they were first planted. English Heritage faces a number of challenges with such restoration projects because people often develop strong attachment to these mature trees. One such example includes Sovereign Avenue at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight - the private home of Queen Victoria. The avenue was planted in 1851-1854 with two lines of alternating deciduous and coniferous trees. Over time (as expected), these trees matured, but eventually became too large and made the avenue dark and oppressive. This was not the intention of the design when planted by Prince Albert. English Heritage then faced the challenge of how to visually present this avenue with the possibility of replanting every 50 years to maintain authenticity. 


Maintaining the fabric of the garden


The fabric of a historic garden represents the context in which a garden is situated. Gardens do not simply exist as islands on their own but connect and integrate with surrounding landscapes to create cohesion and robustness, both of which are sought after qualities in designed landscapes. Often it is difficult to maintain connectedness in historic landscapes due to the simple issue of land ownership. 

One such English Heritage example is that of Audley End House, a Jacobean Mansion landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and set within the rolling countryside of Essex. English Heritage has in their care the mansion and grounds itself, but also a tower located outside of the boundary of the mansion grounds some distance away and the land in between is not under English Heritage ownership. Here, English Heritage faces the difficulty of maintaining a connected landscape, as the sites are geographically distant from one another, but sit within the same landscape. Belsay Hall also faces similar challenges as the existing car park is set within the historical landscape fabric, which disrupts the harmony of the site. 

The visitor experience


It can be difficult to maintain a good visitor experience all year round in many of the English Heritage gardens. Many of the gardens are very seasonal in nature as bedding schemes took precedence over year-round interest. At Kenilworth Castle (just north of Warwick) an Elizabethan garden was created by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in order to seduce Queen Elizabeth I when she was staying at the property for a mere 19 days. This garden was restored in May 2009 using advances in garden archaeology and the survival of a fascinating eyewitness description from 1575. When the garden was originally designed for a short spell of interest, English Heritage now faces the difficult task of creating a garden that is attractive to visitors throughout the year. 

To attract visitors to the gardens, many English Heritage sites hold contemporary art exhibitions, such as the one held at Belsay Hall called ‘Extraordinary Measures’ with many of the installations located in the grounds of the Hall. 

Other attractions to entice families have recently been sensitively incorporated into some historic landscapes. An imaginative wooden play structure for children has proved very popular at Witley Court near Bromsgrove with a tree house in the form of a seed pod, outdoor musical instruments and wobbly bridges, scramble nets and slides. The opening of the beach at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight has been well received with people enjoying swimming, paddling, building sandcastles and looking inside a bathing machine. With the opening of access to the beach though, English Heritage was then faced with the challenge of incorporating essential utilities, such as power and water, into a historic landscape. Other interesting plans for enhancing the visitor experience described by Christopher included the potential restoration of the unique hard tennis court at Down House, home of Charles Darwin, which would provide a great play facility for adults and children alike when visiting this historically significant place. 

"It’s really important that sites do not simply stagnate in terms of a design sense and that the gardens are able to evolve and be used imaginatively," explained Christopher. 

Many sites have successfully integrated contemporary spaces into the gardens adding a new vitality to these historic places. A new contemporary garden was added in 2000 to the kitchen garden of Osborne House by designer Rupert Golby as part of the contemporary heritage garden project. It includes many plants with names associated with Albert and Victoria. 

The future


Christopher’s message was clear throughout the talk. These gardens need to be brought to life for current and future visitors and be places that continually thrive for decades and centuries hereinafter. 

Christopher emphasised that, "English Heritage is playing a vitally important role in looking after these sites; we are the landscape custodians helping to safeguard some of England’s most treasured historic gardens."

The next Friends' Lecture will be given by Nick Wray, Curator, University of Bristol Botanic Garden on 21 January 2016, Frank Theatre, Wills Physics Laboratory from 7:30pm - 9:00pm. Nick will be speaking about the ballast seed garden project. Friends are free with presentation of membership card; non-Friends will be asked for a donation (suggested £5).

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