Sense & Sensibility in Somerset

Somerset is stuffed full of garden delights and to visit in the golden sunshine of July, when the landscape is full of summer, filled me with such a nostalgia for a version of ye olde England, when everything was as it should be, that I almost believed that it had truly existed. Four gardens, all within easy reach of the market town of Bruton, tell their own story about what this fertile and gentle county inspires in them; their sense of Somerset expressed through their sensibilities. So, for now, I just want to explore this aspect of the gardens. I found them to be a fascinating quartet: The Piet Oudolf Field at Hauser & Wirth; The Newt in Somerset; East Lambrook Manor and Tintinhull Gardens.

The Oudolf Field at Hauser & Wirth – I first saw the one and a half acre Oudolf Field at Hauser & Wirth’s relaxed country homage to art, landscape and beauty a week after it opened to the public in March 2014. Newly made, after some of the wettest weather the county had seen for years, it looked pretty good; an ambassador for the Dutch New Wave approach to landscape design. The thing this picture of a site lacked for me was a frame and something to relate it back to the building: it bled out into the fields beyond and lost energy. So, it was a delight to revisit and see that the boundary hedges are mature enough now to keep the eye from wondering and that a pavilion, by Chilean architect Smiljan Radic, has been placed at the end of the garden which elucidated the whole composition. The sun was shining, the plants were flowering and everyone was enjoying the colours and scents of the 26,000 perennial plants which make up the design – but was this all the garden had to say?

Piet Oudolf was commissioned to design the landscape of the whole site by co-owner Iwan Wirth, an admirer of his work on New York’s High Line but who was also moved by a much smaller garden he created for the Hortus Conclusus Pavilion at the Serpentine in 2011, designed by architect Peter Zumthor. I too remember feeling the intense relationship between building and garden, nature and art – and there was a timeless quality to both. These are essential goals I suspect for both Wirth and Oudolf and is at the heart of their collaboration. It is interesting to note the contrasting treatment Oudolf gives to different areas of the site. The Interior Cloister is a good counter to the Perennial Field: in the Cloister the planting is a foil for art – the sculpture on display; in the Field the garden is the art. You could say that he demonstrates that gardens need to respond to place and function and can be quietly supportive or a cultural event in themselves.

The word art features a great deal; this is a site dedicated to it and the owners hold a real passion for it. The current exhibition, curated from Ursula Hauser’s personal collection, Unconscious Landscape, (on until 8 September 2019), shows how she has been viscerally drawn to art and artists from a young age. This sincere dedication to the visual arts informs what happens here and Piet was given complete freedom to create whatever he wanted. He says he was inspired by art, nature and time and that the design is like a giant artist’s palette: “It would work by itself, but I think it gets more sense of place when it is set in a wider context. In the gallery, there is beauty everywhere; then you come into the garden, which is part of the whole idea of everything that happens there.”

Whatever your personal response to the design of the garden, the broader message as I see it is that here is a garden which proclaims itself to be a work of art, responding to its physical place but also in the tradition of classical garden making, thus placing itself within the embrace of an historical context. It is of its time but is informed by the past, sharing old practices such as enlightened patronage, the romantic value of a folly, a desire to capture spirit of place and to surprise and delight. Interesting then in the next garden I visited, history would not simply be a delightful guest to invite in but a long-term resident with plenty of baggage.

The Newt in Somerset – many of you will know this place as Hadspen House; home of the Hobhouse family and the starting point for the long and illustrious garden career of Penelope Hobhouse. It was also the colour ‘laboratory’ for Nori and Sandra Pope whose book, Colour by Design, inspired many a colour-themed border at the turn of the century. However, it’s all change in the garden in an unapologetic and spectacular way; history, yes – baggage, no thank you. If you visit The Newt today come prepared to be amazed: there’s a new name in town with a new game, a clear raison d’être to the work. As the charming gardener who led the tour exclaimed, ‘everything here is a celebration of Somerset – with particular emphasis on the apple’.

I had never visited Hadspen before, though I had seen pictures of it. In many ways I am glad I came to it with little prejudice because this place is breathtaking in its scope, ambition, attention to detail and last, but certainly not least, incredible budget. No expense has been spared in the endeavour to realise a vision. I have never seen anything like it in a private project. It crossed my mind that this is what it must have been like to visit a grand Brownian project in the eighteen century after the formal grounds had been cleared and the land contoured, mature trees planted and a new lake created. Or perhaps it is more on the scale of Victorian grandeur; a new kind of wealth updating some old country estate with new buildings, a grand set of gardens to delight guests, a functioning kitchen garden and a host of busy workers all part of a well-oiled machine. It was fascinating to be banged on the head with quality from the minute you arrived in the beautifully planted carpark; an extraordinary experience.

As a show case for Somerset it is certainly intended as an ode to craftsmanship, to rural bounty and to beauty. I am not going to describe The Newt here because there’s an awful lot to say but I have to mention the restored apple-themed walled garden. Every conceivable way of training an apple is explored here, with tribute to many varieties and apple growing regions. It is quite a sight and will have layers of meaning as it develops, not least when it becomes a centre for horticultural education, including courses in the traditional ways of training and grafting fruit trees. Sticking to my theme of sensibility and response to the county I have to mention the owner and driving force of the project, Koos Bekker. He bought the estate in 2013 when it had rather run out of steam and was advertised for sale in Country Life. He and his wife Karen had been looking for an English property and originally intended to live in the house. However, in response to the estate, its history, its geography and relationship with the people who inhabited it, they have developed a vision for these several hundred acres of Somerset: care for the ancient woodlands, restore the extraordinary parabola of a walled garden and Tudor period gardener’s cottage and overlay a new design, built in local materials, enabling visitors to engage with the best of Somerset while on a journey through the different eras of garden history. And they have done all of that in just five years – bravo. I will be writing a piece on The Newt in Somerset (explaining that slightly awkward name and much more) later in the year but if you have a chance to visit grab it – and expect to spend several hours.

East Lambrook Manor – was home to the prolific and influential gardening writer, Margery Fish (1892-1968), who through her books and regular magazine contributions popularised the idea of the ‘quintessential’ English Cottage Garden style. I had long held a fantasy of Margery as a kind of Miss Marple figure, pottering around her pretty garden, seemingly innocuous but, in fact, possessing a fearsome intelligence with which she was guiding the nation’s taste without them noticing. I recognise that I had also built up a bit of a fantasy about what her garden would be like. Both fantasies came crashing down at East Lambrook – though I suspect I may in time recover the first.

Margery Townsend was secretary to six editors at the Daily Mail the last of which was Walter Fish. As he was leaving the office before retiring it is said that she asked, ‘will that be all Mr Fish?’ to which he replied, ‘yes, I think so, except will you marry me Miss Townend?’. All very romantic but actually he was a bit of a tyrant and when he died after they moved to Somerset to avoid the worst of the bombing she could get on with her life without his interference. She had never gardened before, but it was the architecture of the little Manorial Hall they bought together that made her think she wanted a simple and relaxed ‘medieval’ garden to match. There was no actual historical accuracy for her design she just held a vision of olde Englande being a more relaxed and floriferous place. A sense of history was as important in its own way in this garden as it had been in the other gardens I had visited. She worked long, physically challenging hours to realise her vision, melding little pools of garden, each with a slightly different feel, by way of intricate pathways, steps and low walls. WWII had radically changed the world and she, like many other people, could no longer afford a full complement of gardeners and domestic help. The relaxed way of garden making she talked about in her weekly column in Amateur Gardening hit the spot for many people who were drawn to her books and later to visit her garden when it opened to the public in 1950s – with a small plant nursery attached.

Somerset for Margery was fertile ground for her imagination to bloom, for her to be independent and to network with extraordinary fellow plant enthusiasts, and was the launch pad for her gentle guidance on horticulture and taste on a national level. Her garden was a passion and labour of love. The garden today is just a shadow of its former self and is a bit muddled, befuddled and sad – however, I was still very happy to have visited, and my companion came away with an armful of plants named after her all starting with the prefix ‘Lambrook’.

Tintinhull Manor Gardens – after the disappointment of missing the spirit of Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor I was primed for a similar feeling at Tintinhull – where not one but two women had famously gardened. Plus it is a National Trust owned property, so I assumed it would inevitably be popular and filled to the gunnels with other visitors (when, of course, I should be the only one allowed to enjoy it). What a delight; the garden was a pleasure to behold; with a satisfying balance between formal and informal, exuberance and restraint, practical and impractical loveliness. And there was hardly anyone there, except a smattering of friendly and cheerful fellow visitors to share our pleasure with. I wondered whether it was responding to a sense of place and time too.

I chatted to a group of gardeners in the lush and vibrant kitchen garden, inspired to find out why several women were drifting along the pathways carrying a large head of lettuce complete with roots as if it was a bridal bouquet. They were the source of the overgrown lettuce heads by the way – and there was certainly some gender bias going on as all three staff were female and were only gifting female visitors. They told me that they felt there was palpably a special atmosphere here; one that was recognised by the Trust who are keen to preserve it in any way they can. The spirit of the place was vital to the health of the garden. Then it struck me that my response to Tintinhull may be something to do with being a woman – was there something about the woman who created it, the shy and sensitive Phyllis Reiss which resonated still?

Phyllis and her husband bought Tintinhull, a seventeenth-century, Grade I listed manor house, built of mellowed brick and Ham stone, in 1933. She created the strong garden design on Arts and Crafts principles, linking the various ‘rooms’ and vistas to the architecture and viewpoints from the house. While she was of her time and knew other fervent garden makers of the period, like Vita Sackville West – she also did her own thing too, ‘colouring in’ the structure to give maximum impact. She essentially wanted us to have an emotional response to her garden, for it to be a ‘happy’ garden and a place of tranquillity and peace. Her interest in the emotional impact of colour was reflected in the work of Penelope Hobhouse, who took on the tenancy of the manor and worked on her own ideas about colour, which she shared in her many books.

This is a garden which invites you to stay, to not feel any pressure to think too earnestly but to just be, safely held in its reassuring structure but free to observe your own mood and emotions, inspired by the colour and form of the plants.

And so I feel my garden visit came full circle; colour, painterliness, emotion through the art of gardening is where I began in the Oudolf Field where Piet describes his work as an artist’s palette. History too is undoubtedly a driving force, both the desire to recognise and pay tribute to the past as but also to create new paths which lead us forward, as at The Newt but actually all four gardens respond to this in their own way, Margery Fish adapting style to meet the challenges of a post war world and Phyllis Reiss wanting to cloth the spirit of her heritage home with a new kind of expressive planting. I am certain that you will find all these things in other gardens and in other counties, but I have never felt such common heart in a group of disparate gardens. It was an interesting experience, and for me each garden revealed something about the other by way of comparison, making me a little more conscious of my sense of the sensibilities working in each of them.

Comments 6

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  1. I have really enjoyed your pieces about three very different gardens. The photos are lovely and I wish I could have been on the tour with you.

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      What a lovely comment – thank you for taking the trouble to post this. It is a pleasure to know that in a way I have been able to take you with me – even if it is just through this piece.

  2. An interesting range of gardens -the last two of which resonated the most . I guess i am an old fashioned artsy crafty kind of gal . thanks for broadening my horizons!

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      Visiting all four in quick succession was an interesting way of seeing which ones had the loudest voices and which elements spoke softly but stayed in the mind. I think most people in Britain are imbued with the Arts and Crafts aesthetic but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy other visions too – nothing old fashioned in that!

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