Oh, to be in England now that April’s there,” wrote the expatriate poet Robert Browning in Home Thoughts, from Abroad. And, he might have added, enjoying someone else’s garden. The latest season of our great English obsession has begun: garden visiting.
By the end of the year, 700,000 people will have tiptoed into 3,000 gardens that open to the public for a day or two. This is the National Gardens Scheme, which began 85 years ago when Miss Elsie Wragg wrote to 600 grandees to ask if they would open up their gardens in return for a donation of a shilling per visitor towards a charity supporting district nurses. This year the scheme will raise £3m for charity; Macmillan Cancer Support alone has received £13m since 1985.
It is not just the giving: our relationship with gardens is in the national DNA, which can be decoded by anyone who buys The Yellow Book, the directory in which 3,800 gardens are listed. This year visitors will be able to enjoy the Queen’s garden at Sandringham; allotments in the shadow of Durham Cathedral; and Scampston Hall in Yorkshire, a masterpiece by Piet Oudolf, the Dutchman who planted New York’s High Line gardens.
But how did a country in which every man’s home is his castle become so open? As we at London’s Garden Museum discovered when researching our next exhibition, Garden Open Today: 300 Years of Garden Visiting, the story begins (like most good things) in Renaissance Italy. The Villa d’Este at Tivoli was conceived as a stage set, teasing visitors with fountains, trompe l’oeil and erudite inscriptions.
The first great age of garden tourism was in 18th-century England. You might picture Blenheim, or Castle Howard, as dauntingly exclusive. In fact, every well-dressed traveller was admitted at “Stranger’s Gate” and given a tour by the gardener and his boy. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet re-encounters Mr Darcy when touring his gardens at Pemberley. Each great garden had an inn for visitors; the first guidebook was published for Stowe, Lord Cobham’s estate in Buckinghamshire, in 1744.
William Shenstone (1714-1763) was a shy, melancholic country gentleman who wrote poetry and made a garden at The Leasowes in the West Midlands. The pastoral gardens inspired by Virgil’s Eclogues became so popular that one Sunday he counted 150 visitors. So many, in fact, that he added a new inscription: “ … tread with awe these favour’d bowers / Nor wound the shrubs, nor bruise the flowers.”
It is a sentiment felt by many of those who take part in the National Gardens Scheme, which began life in 1927, Arley Hall in Cheshire being one of those in the scheme’s vanguard. It has opened every year since, explains Viscount Ashbrook, the owner of Arley Hall. In 1964 his parents opened the gardens to a wider, paying audience, charging half a crown. “I came back for the weekend and discovered the garden full of people. ‘Isn’t this wonderful, Brown?’ I said to the old head gardener. ‘I never thought it would come to this, sir.’ ”
However, 35,000 visitors a year do not pay for the five skilled gardeners required to meet the public’s expectations of such a famous garden. “But it helps, and I enjoy sharing it with people,” says Viscount Ashbrook. So much so that for The Yellow Book he will be opening The Old Parsonage, a new garden in the estate village.
The relationship between a garden and its audience is uniquely fluid. Very few of the visitors to an art exhibition, or a play, will be painters or actors; but the great majority of visitors to gardens are gardeners themselves and, compared with the dutiful crowds at an art blockbuster, they are bright-eyed, bold and vocal.
Hugh Johnson, the eminent garden and wine authority who opens his garden at Saling Hall, Essex for the National Gardens Scheme, says that he enjoys hearing visitors’ views and suggestions about his garden. He and his wife Judy bought Saling Hall in 1967 and he says that wherever they move, they will create a new garden and open that.
In the 1970s, when Johnson edited The Garden, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, it seemed as if private gardens were doomed: few owners could afford to pay for professional gardeners. Today, more good gardens are being created than at any time since before the first world war, owing to a new generation of wealthy people who will invest not just in an architect and interior decorator but also a head gardener and a designer.
Christopher Woodward is director of The Garden Museum, London, whose exhibition ‘Garden Open Today: 300 Years of Garden Visiting’ runs from April 24 to June 24.
Gardens open through The National Gardens Scheme can be found at www.ngs.org.uk
A global past-time
The Yellow Book is unique to England and Wales but garden visiting is not: garden lovers go to the best gardens wherever they may be. Renaissance gardens such as the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, south of Rome, and the sculptures at Bomarzo, close to Viterbo, were designed to astonish and impress with the mystique and wealth of their creators. In the 17th century Louis XIV’s gardens at Versailles were so busy with the chatter of the court that he created a watery park at Marly as a refuge.
The greatest gardens in 18th-century Europe were English: the guidebook to Stowe was published in a French edition, and the best-known tour of English gardens was made by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1786. Such visitors came to take le style Anglais home: the first travelling scholarship to gardens was granted by the Swedish king to a young artist, JM Piper.
Today the wheel has turned back: the majority of star designers will cite Italian gardens as their icons, whether the Renaissance Villa Caprarola, north of Rome, or Villa Gamberaia, in the hills above Florence – or, for the romantic, the ruins of Ninfa, in the plains south of Rome.
Garden open schemes
In 1987 a scheme began in Victoria, Australia, which today opens up 700 gardens across the nation: (www.opengarden.org.au). In 1995 gardeners Page Dickey and Penelope Maynard were inspired by the NGS to introduce open days in the US (www.gardenconservancy.org).
Some of the best contemporary gardens in the world are in Belgium and the Netherlands. Around 200 private parks and gardens open in Belgium (www.jardinsouverts.be) in a scheme set up by the charismatic Jelena de Belder, whose family made the great arboretum at Kalmthout (you must become a member). But perhaps the coolest scheme of the lot is in Amsterdam, where 30 secret canalside gardens will open from June 15 to June 17 this year in aid of horticultural charities (www.opentuinendagen.nl).