The Romantic Garden
Celebrity pottery designer Emma Bridgewater waxes lyrical about the gardens she loves...
Sometimes it’s the gardens that might be wonderful that affect me most. A perfect lawn is a treat, but so is the old grass court grown meadow-high, the fine fescues and lawn grasses interspersed with cinquefoil and daisies brushing against the sagging net.
The love affair with the Picturesque, the Romantic and the Gothic is particularly English, starting in the 17th and 18th century. I am not immune, and felt excited returning to a house we left empty. Wading through the prairie lawns and seeing the borders drift deep in Scots thistle and other volunteers, I loved the abandon and feeling of chaos taking over.
My childhood holidays were split between Norfolk and Cornwall, my father’s spiritual home. He rented various cliff-side pleasure-domes along the north coast, mainly in Treyarnon where his grandmother, who lived nearby in Bodmin, built a holiday house. Walking along the coast path I was drawn into a gateway. Looking over a rusted but elegant gate revealed a further entrance; Alice-like, I was led from outdoor room to room, walled in feathery tamarisk or sea buckthorn, glaucous leaves contrasting with their iron red stalks. Abandoned lawns and grassed-over paths led to a well with sinuous over-structure, and on through a tunnel formed by banks of Cornish slate laid in characteristic herringbone pattern, the gaps between the slate crammed with clusters of elegant lemon yellow-and-cream banded snails.
The ruins of a kitchen garden came next, enclosed by rolling banks of tamarisk. Ancient gooseberry bushes, chalky grey with hanging lichens like Spanish moss, great antlered currant bushes and the ghosts of fruit cages, their rusting posts melting into the Cornish soil. Last of all, a hanging wroughtiron gate guarded a long-deserted swimming pool.
The autumnal leaf-covered pool at the end of The Great Gatsby reveals Gatsby’s fate. Pools, as any owner knows, are all maintenance – and if you relax that regime for a moment the gin-clear water can turn, in weeks, to a murky pond complete with miraculous draught of frogs or newts. But if the neglect becomes long-term, an atmosphere of utter Triste can establish. This Cornish ruined pool, lined in aquamarine and turquoise tiles that Fired Earth would kill for, summoned up long-gone Joan Hunter-Dunnes diving forcefully in after tennis, or midnight bathing with holidaying neighbours … secluded and silent, it’s a memorial to Edwardian summer loveliness.
Despite the most cursory maintenance and the almost complete absence of flowers, just a few hardy blooms surviving the neglect, this is one of my favourite gardens. An indication that it’s framework and ground plan that really lasts, and that manicured tidiness is not everything.
Not all romantic gardens are in states of disrepair. Try Hanham Court on the fringes of Bristol. The approach is uninspiring, as high street turns to tatty housing estates. Then, suddenly, lyrical meadows and scattered stone buildings herald the gates. The inviting curved drive leads to one of England’s most extraordinary gardens – the home of Julian and Isabelle Bannerman, two of the country’s leading garden designers (they’ve worked at Highgrove, Waddesden and Houghton, designed the English 9/11 memorial gardens in New York and, recently, the dazzling Collector Earls garden at Arundel Castle, based on an unrealised scheme of Inigo Jones).
Hanham Court is a house of almost every period: 17th-century walls, Elizabethan staircase, a fairytale medieval tower, a 15th century tithe barn. The house morphs imperceptibly into the medieval church. But all this is just a picturesque backdrop to a many-levelled and roomed garden that winds along the contours of this little valley. A spotless lawn with pea-shingle paths is edged by two grand borders, of the sort long abandoned by more feeble-minded gardeners. This leads to a baroque gateway, all volutes and pediment but made of muscular green oak, and on to a belvedere looking along the valley towards the Rowntrees chocolate factory.
On the right is a wooded gorge with ponds and streams under planted with giant tree ferns bought from Homebase, and drifts of the more esoteric snowdrops. Further round, a walled enclosure – sitting 10 feet above a meadow in which sheep gaze under lime-green walnut trees - contains the swimming pool. It’s black, small and hot, and around it grottos of ecclesiastical ruins are heaped up in ways never intended by their original sculptors. Old roses and pots of giant Agapanthus crowd around the walls and the whole effect is entrancing.
And on it goes, lots of loving, stylish and inspiring gardening such as we could never contemplate doing ourselves. This year it is open from February under the NGS’ auspices, so while to recommend the Cornish garden would be to suggest trespass, Hanham Court is available for all to see. Just the king of surprising private garden that the NGS helps you to find.