One of the most pleasurable things about summer for me is visiting other people’s gardens: another, is lazing around in my own garden. If I am not careful, I can find that the season has slipped by without me making the most of it. So now I make a list in advance. It’s something I would recommend to anyone. Last year top of my stops was Bryan’s Ground, a modern Arts and Crafts garden, set in the sweet spot where England’s Herefordshire meets Welsh Powys, near the charming village of Presteigne.
Bryan’s Ground is a garden of two halves: a three-acre collection of garden rooms, set formally around its Arts and Crafts house; and its counterpoint, a larger, landscape garden embroidered with designed events to the east of the house. It is the formal garden around the house I wanted to see because I am working on a thesis that the Arts and Crafts ideal has somehow wormed its way into the English psyche and has informed, in one way or another, pretty much all our garden making ever since. The garden here makes no apology for its antecedent but it is certainly not an historical reconstruction or a pastiche of another era – so what does it have to say for itself? I was really looking forward to finding out and I knew it would be a great place to start my exploration of what it is about the Arts and Crafts style which has got under our skin.
I have to come clean at this point – Bryan’s Ground is owned by David Wheeler, who is the founder and editor of the garden journal, Hortus, and Simon Dorrell, an artist and garden designer who illustrates the journal and is the driving force of the garden. I write for Hortus, as does a garden historian friend of mine, so we made the trip up from London together and were graciously invited to spend private time in the garden, followed by lunch. It was a privilege which had my stomach fluttering, a little like a school girl meeting a pop idol.
The atmosphere was fulsome and golden as David let us loose in the early July sunshine and, with no-one else around except we two, we could fantasise that it was ours. This is a garden which has been written about quite extensively with lots of horticultural references, all of which are interesting and inspirational; but I wanted to look at it through a different lens. How was this garden typical of Arts and Crafts and how did it differ? I was struck by certain themes: the importance of anticipation and surprise; the visual and emotional impact of the hand-made; the interplay between inside and outside; the balance of formality and informality; and lastly, cultural literacy married to levity.
The Bryan’s Ground Garden Guide sets out the history of the house and garden and the story of how its current owners came to be here. It’s an excellent read but I like to experience a garden for myself first before knowing much about it at all, so I went home with this as an elegant souvenir. One of the reasons I don’t like to gen up is that you only get one chance to see something for the first time, with ‘innocent’ eyes, just you and the work of art in conversation. The other is that I love a visual surprise – and Bryan’s Ground delivers this as one ‘room’ opens into another. The idea of garden rooms is an old one, in fact, you could say that in medieval times that is exactly what a garden was conceived to be, an outdoor room where nature was civilised enough for you to be in it safely. This concept went through several iterations before the Arts and Crafts movement claimed it, organising the space to relate to the architecture of the house and its principal views from the inside out. This rule has been respected in the changes that have been made here but the flow from one room to another has been designed so we are treated by something new in each space, something unusual or surprising, one statement following another with an energy that makes the whole a lively dance. I liked the theatre of it.
I suppose the idea of the theatrical could be applied to some of the sculptural interventions and indeed, the garden buildings. Set builders in the old repertory troupes had to magic up scenic art every week and this model of hand built, evocations of the imagined seem to me to be present in this garden. The Arts and Crafts Movement valued the hand crafted and a visit to William Morris’ Red House at Bexleyheath, demonstrates how productive, (surprising given how much alcohol was consumed), a group of house guests in a weekend or two of decorating sessions can be. It looks like they were setting a scene, a backdrop for the kind of life they wanted to live. The Dovecote and The Sulking House both were collective projects, one built with the help of friends and the later a fiftieth birthday gift to David. They too set a scene; the former referencing the local vernacular, while the latter goes on a Grand Tour of the imagination. We could all do more of this rather than succumbing to the ready-made, bang-it-together shed because it is easier and instant. I remember my father in the 60s made quite a large structure in our London garden from marine ply, inspired by the crumbling pink and ochre palazzi he had seen in Florence. Could an element of DIY be a feature of the new Arts and Crafts garden, an update on the protest against the uniformity of mechanisation?
The dialogue between formality and informality which went on in the Arts and Crafts garden scene also interests me. At one extreme architect Reginald Blomfield loved strict formality, while William Robinson urged using nature and ‘wildness’ as a template. In the past the Sunk Garden, a classic Arts and Crafts feature with its quartered parterre and central circular lily pool, (all on the original architect’s drawings), would have been ‘well kept’. David and Simon have brushed some modernity over it, not only heeding Vita Sackville West’s advice that a garden should have the strictest formality of design with the maximum informality of planting but extending that idea to fit the lifestyle and ecological concerns of the twenty-first century. I fell in love with the abundant and self-seeding herb fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in the Sunk Garden. The tension between the formality of the Irish yew (actually, I think Irish yew always look like they are longing to escape their straight jackets) and the other topiary is both thought provoking and amusing. It is as if a naughty child is messing up a perfectly ordered, grown up sitting room – reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously. Then there are the two ‘battalions’ of deciduous hawthorn obelisks which are both surprising and a little bit rebellious – deciduous topiary is bad enough but created in a very inexpensive species too?
Formality and informality, a thorough knowledge of garden history, and gentle humour walk hand in hand throughout the garden: Georgian railing dividing the garden from the meadow beyond is punctuated by a wonky gate; a straight-lined Dutch inspired canal is married to a crinkle crankle wall; and even in the formally proclaimed Dutch Garden the water pool is not the expected Dutch canal shape but has been inspired by a dog-bone. But this eccentricity never exceeds its remit. The boundaries are made clear, geometry rules and we know who is in charge here: formality is the head of the house but informality makes him or her a bearable companion and adds sparkle to the relationship. This is expressed in the planting à la Vita but also in the visual puns: a bed which will never be a resting place, ‘cannon balls’ piled like a game of giant boules and teasels, those ubiquitous National Trust tropes for ‘do not sit here’, planted next to an inviting place to sit. I wonder if a sense of humour, fun or irony can be added to the features to be found in a modern Arts and Crafts garden?
A classic element of the Arts and Craft garden is the relationship between garden and house, a conversation between interior and exterior. In fact, this is one of the few defining principles of the style upon which everyone agrees – most of the rest comes down to a sort of feeling. Bryan’s Ground was built with this relationship in mind but for most visitors today this isn’t as obvious as it might be – partly because the vegetation is mature but mostly because we don’t get to see inside this private home. One of the thrills of this visit was that I did get that opportunity – and pretty exciting it was too. Looking out into the garden from the principal rooms and experiencing the inside-out thrust of the Arts and Crafts home was the cherry on the cake, proof of the pudding. It all works as it should do. Perhaps the best experience of this from the outside is to stand with your back to the window at one end of the Rose Walk and appreciate the sight line extended through breaks in the hedge to the Formal Garden and again, through to the Pool Garden. Today, the desire to live an integrated life with the exterior has led to an explosion of bifold doors being fitted and ever-increasing areas of glass – the idea of our homes being connected to nature has never been more popular.
There was another sense in which we had an inside out experience too. We all ate lunch outside under a covered terrace but we ran a little late and the garden opened to the public and suddenly we became an exhibit, an interesting little vignette among so much visual splendour. We looked out at the peopled garden and it looked back at us – and that’s what Bryan’s Ground will for ever epitomise for me, a place of exchange of ideas and imagination, the twin joys of inside and out and a celebration of people, history and the natural world – The New Arts and Crafts Garden?
Stapleton (Nr Presteigne),
Herefordshire LD8 2LP
Open on Sunday and Monday afternoons, 2–5pm
From Sunday 21st April to Monday 29th July.
Groups welcome at other times by prior appointment.
Teas and plants available.