Like faces, gardens evolve over time and can only be “conserved” as changing entities. Up in Derbyshire, in the town which gave its name to Melbourne in Australia, I have just been to see a garden which is widely believed to be England’s best surviving example from the reign of Queen Anne. In fact, Melbourne Hall has many more claims to fame than the upgrading which began in 1704. It has an earlier link with Thomas Cromwell, the Tudor protagonist of Wolf Hall, and a later one with Lady Caroline Lamb, so free with her favours to Lord Byron. It is now the beneficiary of thoughtful replanting and clearing which have taken it into the 21st century.
As a schoolboy I used to survive my history lessons on “Hawkins’s Naval Reform” by secretly reading a one-volume guide to English gardens as if it was a copy of my teacher’s textbook. In it, there were fine photos of Melbourne’s keystoned 18th-century façade and its famous iron-worked Birdcage. I remember the Birdcage, wrongly, as freestanding in the middle of the garden’s main axis among what looked like a big grass park. Even so, the house looked pleasantly manageable to a boy at a single-sex school, with unrealistic ambitions and dreams of 10 children, a cricket team in waiting. The garden was described as a great survival and sounded a delight. The façade of the house, built in the 1720s, is still as magnificent as its old photo, but my book never showed that the main garden axis is not central at all to its formal windows. Its patron, Thomas Coke, is thought to have been planning an even grander house, beyond a schoolboy’s ideal family-size. Meanwhile, the Birdcage was never in the garden’s centre. It ends the line of the main walkway and looks down on to a beautifully placed pond whose surface reflects its leafy metal decoration. It was made by a local craftsman, Robert Bakewell, in coloured wrought iron. For once a commission ended by impoverishing its craftsman rather than its patron. Bakewell lost money on the job and compounded his problems by fathering a bastard child on a Go-Between while he was working on site.
Across many centuries, the ownership of the Hall is evidence of the inability of childless English females to bequeath a major property to whomsoever they wished. Melbourne Hall has passed by marriage to fortunate husbands and outliers, to Cokes, then Lambs, then Kerrs of the Lothian line. Childlessness dogged it repeatedly but nowadays, the house and about a 1,000 acres are held in trust for Lord Ralph Kerr and his celebrated artist-wife, Marie-Claire. They are heroic parents of a team for six-a-side soccer but still have a few spare bedrooms.
With his lordship, I enjoyed standing by the wrought iron railings of a viewing point, another fine work by Bakewell, and watching the strollers of Melbourne passing beside the Mill Pond beneath us. The pond was enlarged in the 1850s to lake-like proportions but even so, the road is a pleasant walkway for families, visitors and parents who are keeping the peace with pushchairs. My garden guide never hinted that Melbourne Hall is fitted into such an angular space just off Melbourne’s main street. It talked of a comparison with Versailles and showed a long photo-shot of a grassy avenue with sub-French water-jets. A hectare or so of enclosed garden is hardly Versailles in Derbyshire, but the use of space is extraordinarily interesting.
In miniature the plan of five acres applies the cross vistas and sequence of ponds which typify grand French gardening. Longer avenues of lime trees once radiated up the grassy hill which concludes the view beyond the garden’s outer wall. To one side, shorter alleys meet at an urn representing the four seasons. Down the main pathway and in the recesses of the bulging yew hedges, plinths still carry the same Dutch stone sculptures which were first placed in the formal plan. Mercury flies with winged feet and heroic young Perseus has just beheaded the stony-faced Gorgon. So far, so authentic, and garden histories still compare the design to others in the brief period from about 1700 to 1725 when owners deployed formal avenues of trees in a slightly French manner before the “natural” style of Capability Brown. The grandest such garden is still Bramham Park in Yorkshire, visitable and just off the modern A1 highway by Boston Spa. My family-ancestors’ former home, it is on a far grander scale than Melbourne with which it is usually paired.
Melbourne’s design is more compressed and interesting in a different way. Some of the impetus came from the owner and commissioner of the house, Thomas Coke, but some of it came from the famous London-based firm of London and Wise, major imprinters on English landscape gardens in this era. Unlike most of Bramham, Melbourne has not stopped with a single 18th-century style.
Round the Birdcage’s formal pond stand superb Swamp Cypresses, trees from Florida which have been planted long after the first plan’s conception. As the weather cleared to a blue sky, I looked up into the fresh dissected leaves of this great tree, Taxodium distichum, and wondered why it is not more often planted. Despite its name and its usual placing, it does not have to stand in wet ground. To the right of the pond runs a grassy walk to yet more ponds beside overhanging trees. Until recently, the ground here was a tangle of 20th-century sycamores and laurel. Using her artistic eye, Marie-Claire has had the muddle cleared out and has been planting colour-controlled long beds, at their best in late spring and early summer.
In my part of England we only see blue Himalayan poppies and primulas looking happy on stands at Chelsea Flower Show. At modern Melbourne the blues of lovely Meconopsis Lingholm are well isolated among orange and yellow flowers, especially drifts of Primula cockburniana. The Kerrs also have properties in Scotland where these plantings are more familiar. However, never underestimate a portrait painter turned gardener. Among summer-flowering blue gentians, Marie-Claire has found and planted a Chinese form of rhubarb, Rheum alexandrae, with acid lemon-yellow bracts. It is a rare plant nowadays and one which I always admire. Unlike mine, at least one of hers is extremely healthy.
Opposite, across the supposedly Frenchified grass walk, the colour scheme is pink and white, deepening to the rose-pink of Primula pulverulenta in front of some excellent tall Eremurus, the foxtail lily, spikes of white Camassia, the bulb which has most loved our wet spring, fine cornusses, cleverly placed white Japanese irises along the running waterstream and the most perfectly shaped horizontal Viburnum plicatum tomentosum Mariesii in full white flower.
We talked of deutzias and white flowered hoherias for June and July and forgot to talk of eucryphias for later. Ten years ago there was no such planting, but it fits so well into a formal green woodland setting. Beyond it again are walled former kitchen gardens, one of which is to be a rose garden, including roses unashamedly on ropes. None of this style was in my old smuggled garden history book of the site. It is a reminder that no good garden should stand still.
Melbourne Hall’s garden is open to visitors on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons until the end of September (melbournehall.com). I wish I could marry its rich dark soil. Unfortunately, there is a six-a-side generation between me and such a takeover.