One of my favourite gardens is Hidcote, in England, on the northern edge of Gloucestershire’s Cotswold Hills. The Cotswolds are one of the most geologically distinctive regions of England. A layer of oolitic limestone flows close to the surface throughout these hills and this soft silver-gold stone makes ideal building material, even to roofing tiles. Every village once had its quarry and as the colour of the stone varies north to south this is seen in the villages. In the south, houses are silvery-grey, while Chipping Campden, not far from Hidcote, is a warm medley of ochre-golds.
These windy acres must have been an unpromising spot when Major Lawrence Johnston first saw them yet his garden became his life’s work. From 1907 to the mid-40s, Johnston and his gardeners, farm labourers from Hidcote Bartrim, the tiny hamlet down the lane, made what’s often thought the very finest of all those fabulous gardens of that great garden-making epoch, the golden Edwardian days of the Arts and Crafts revival. Hidcote comprises walls and hedges and trees massed as wind-breaks sheltering some two dozen garden ‘rooms’, each with its character and season of interest.
Hidcote is ten minutes from Chipping Campden in the extreme north-east corner of the Cotswolds. Chipping Campden’s High Street meanders leisurely around Dover’s Hill, a prominent rise on the northern escarpment of these hills, indeed a landmark for counties around. In Tudor times people gathered here for all sorts of rustic sports. Shakespeare, at Stratford, not far away, mentions the Dover’s Hill Olympicks in his plays.
From Chipping Campden there’s a pleasant drive to Hidcote via hedged-lined lanes, oaks and hawthorns to each side. Entry to the garden is through Hidcote’s manor house built with money from the wool trade of the 14th and 15th centuries. The Cotswold Lions, the great shaggy sheep of these hills, made Gloucestershire the wealthiest county in England. Most of the manors and villages one sees hereabouts date to those happy times.
From Hidcote’s manor, one steps out into a summer garden to a turf path laid between deep beds of perennials awash every August in a froth of pale flowers and silvery leaves. The path leads the eye on between panels of clipped plants, brick piers and iron railings, all these making an invitation to explore towards a distant gateway. Between its brick pillars there’s a glimpse of horizon. To the right is the one tree older than Johnston’s garden, a green cedar of Lebanon. Strolling from its shade we come to a circular garden, tall tapestry hedges around a circle of grass and curving beds filled with an old French lilac. Narrow paths divert attention left and right. Ignoring these, next we come to the red borders. Two of the finest borders ever made.
I once planted my own version of Hidcote’s red borders. We have beds on our terrace 22 metres long and four metres deep, dimensions much the same as the ones at Hidcote. I was referring to my notes on Hidcote as we were constructing Cloudehill. In the spring of ’94 I filled these with oranges and reds, purples and indigos woven through copper-grey foliage. The result that summer was a dreary shambles, and I’m not sure I’ve seen these colours used well together other than at Hidcote.
Major Johnston planted his borders while on leave from the Western Front. The story goes he almost died. After a big push and many casualties, a friend found Johnston’s body in a morgue. He was appalled to come across someone he knew well in this place, astonished also to find him alive and breathing. They shipped the Major home and very soon he was out among in his flowers. Johnston went on to labour at his borders for another 30 years, and Graham Stuart Thomas in his supervisory role for the English National Trust carried on in his stead for a further 30. Here we have two of the great horticulturalists re-positioning plants and re-thinking colours season by season for heading towards a century so perhaps it’s not too surprising my efforts in the spring of ’94 misfired spectacularly. I was adding yellows the next spring, and now there are crimsons and silvers and burgundy-blacks, even pink-mauves among the reds and oranges!
Hidcote’s red borders are among the finest things in gardening yet really they’re just one part of a carefully thought out series of incidents along this walk. At their far end, low steps rise to a grouping of the most perfectly realised elements of garden architecture I know of anywhere. Immediately above the steps are twin pavilions, one to each side. These tiny buildings are made from apricot-crimson bricks, their roofs oogee-curved panels of tawny-gold stone shingles topped with carved-stone spherical finials. The right-hand pavilion has benches for sitting out of the sun while visitors find its left-hand twin really a secret passageway to a new part of the garden altogether. Through this portal steps fall away to a hedge-lined path and a second handsome gate off to the left.
Temptations lie all about now though completing the walk is irresistible for just beyond the pavilions, framing the way forward, are magnificent quincunxes of hornbeam. These immaculately clipped hedges on stilts, each tree has its pewter-grey trunk exposed to head-height, might have been shifted from a 17th Century garden in France. And a few steps further we come to those wrought-iron gates and only now, standing between their tall brick piers, do we see this garden is high on a hill. Below, hundreds of feet below and sweeping left and right and stretching for miles, are the hedge-rowed meadows of the Vale of Evesham. Grey hills wrinkle the horizon. This view has long been known as Heaven’s Gate.
Hidcote’s terrace is the best example I know of expectation and surprise in gardening. There’s been no previous indication this garden might be on a hill. Those great tangled hedges lining the road from Chipping Campden make it impossible to understand the landscape. Heaven’s Gate reveals everything in a glance and in a moment so exhilarating I’m sure most think back on it with more than ordinary delight.
Hidcote was much in mind as we ran stringlines over Jim’s old flower farm in ’92. Mind you, despite both gardens enjoying hilltop sites, Hidcote has the advantage in magnificent views from every boundary. Cloudehill lies among tall trees. Our mountain ash are magnificent mind you and the denouement of one important vista is the majestic copse of these trees in our neighbour’s garden. However there’s only a glimpse of the High Country, Victoria’s Southern Alps, from the highest parts of Cloudehill. Still, Hidcote in mind, I was determined to use architecture in the garden, pavilions of some sort, and if not framing axes where might they best be? In the rainy cold months of the winter of ’92 I came to thinking pavilions could be placed at the end of axes rather than to their side. Here they’d be central to sightlines from middle parts of the garden, eye-catchers if you will, elements encouraging visitors to explore, shelter from weather if need be.
Garden pavilions can be for utilitarian purpose and still be a feature. At present Cloudehill lacks a convenient tool shed. Now such buildings do not need to be tucked away and covered with creepers. They can be prominent if they’re interesting. A corner of Valerie’s vegetable garden is too shady for vegetables. Just right for a small shed though. This might be a feature for those inspecting the potager though from elsewhere in the garden the structure should be as inconspicuous as possible. Especially from the cool borders! Now one way to hide a building is to paint it black. And this leads to another chain of ideas.
One of the more notable gardens of the past 30 years is the film producer Derek Jarman’s. Jarman’s is the most austere garden I know. Prospect Cottage is made on an immense shingle beach on the Channel coast of England. Indeed not far from the Dungerness Nuclear Power Station. There’s no soil among the pebbles of Dungerness, high light levels, plenty of wind, salt, those few plants tolerating these things around a fisher’s cottage. Also there’s that nuclear power station close by. In this part of England cottages within spray-reach of the sea are traditionally painted with bitumen paint. Prospect Cottage also has yellow doors and window frames. So our little shed will be charcoal black. From the cool borders (where all eyes should be on the flowers) our tool shed will vanish among the shadows of an old Japanese maple. Its windows and doors however, facing the vegetables, can be vivid chrome-yellow. Jarman made his garden in the last years of his life and what he made is a dragon’s tooth garden. Jarman was a victim of the aids epidemic of the mid-’90s and his wind-swept plot of thrift and poppies and seaside cabbage among heaped arrangements of surf-smoothed pebbles and driftwood detritus was made not so much for solace as in rage.
There is a poem by John Donne, The Sunne Rising, made from cut-out wooden letters hung on the weatherboards at one end of Jarman’s cottage…
The Sunne Rising
Bufie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why doft thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtaines call on us?
Muft to thy motions lovers’ feasons run?
Sawcy pendantique wretch, goe chide
Late fchool boyes and fowre prentices,
Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call countrey ants to harvest offices;
Love, al alike, no season knows, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time….
Thou sunne art halfe as happy’as wee,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age akes eafe, and fince thy duties bee
To warme the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy centre is, thefe walls thy fphere.
John Donne (1572 – 1631)
I intend taking two lines for the gable of our tool shed:
Love, al alike, no season knows nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time….