Heritage’s thorny old question

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Garden history, garden archaeology and garden restoration are subjects that have taken off in the past 25 years. They are well represented by English Heritage, one of those public bodies that distinguish Britain worldwide as the prime land of nationally valued houses, and now gardens too. Imminent reorganisation and cuts may mean that English Heritage merges with our Lottery fund and its other heritage neighbours. What does it actually do?

English Heritage, formally the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, grew out of the Ministry of Works in 1984 and took over a massive range of duties. It became responsible for every private property that is listed Grade I or II in England and its inspectors intervene whenever planning permission is sought for their restyling or redevelopment. It also took on more than 1,000 historic sites, from Stonehenge to London’s Kenwood House. In 1984 the portfolio was regarded mainly as one of buildings. Plants were inconveniences that had to be sprayed if they grew on historic walls. Nowadays English Heritage is heavily engaged in gardens too. Major additions to its programme have been accepted in the past 10 years and its present director of gardens, John Watkins, is himself a committed gardener who loves plants, not just the archaeological traces of a watercourse.

As English Heritage faces a Coalition future, a new book does it splendid photographic justice. In The Gardens of English Heritage (Frances Lincoln), Gillian Mawrey and Linden Groves have picked a shortlist of gardens and written detailed essays about the long centuries of each property’s previous ownership. When, in 1984 or so, English Heritage then comes along, in a paragraph or two all is uplift and happiness. It is like reading a history of that more obviously “heritage” item, the British economy, which ends with Gordon Brown’s wondrous discovery that the public-private finance initiative can become an open sesame.

I think the writers have missed a chance. It is a pity not to read about the genuine dilemmas and compromises that each property throws up. So much good has been done, and so often, but there are not easy answers. “Conservation” is a slippery slope, especially in a historic garden. Which part of a garden’s long history should be preserved as “heritage” and why? The 19th-century rhododendrons? The 1930s herbaceous terrace? The underlying medieval “flowery mead”? What is decided and why?

There is also a vocal public who should surely be discussed. Everybody likes to complain about the committee style and safety excesses of public conservation bodies. They are sitting targets because they are always underfunded, but they are also prone to putting down Tarmac and putting up squirmingly “correct” notices about their projects. English Heritage was not helped by those television programmes a few years back that followed their Simon Thurleigh about his business and even encouraged such idiocies as shots of a Heritage female posing, nude to my eye, beneath one of the institution’s statues of a naked lady. Malicious viewers could not bear to miss the episodes.

I wish Mawrey and Groves had confronted some of the continuing difficult choices. English Heritage depends heavily on paying visitors and supporting grants, both of which mean access, car parks and visitor centres. Are they “heritage”? I would like to hear about the siting of the car park at Audley End and the policy of not buying fresh vegetables from the co-tenants, Garden Organic, who produce them by the truck-load in the kitchen garden and have to sell them off to dealers, not to the Heritage part of the site’s restaurant. What about the car park plans for the four old kitchen garden sites at London’s Chiswick House, a major challenge, which were partly saved only by the prior efforts of a great cultivator on the site? It is no use writing blandly about the recent restorations at Kenilworth in Warwickshire without taking on the barrage of criticism they have provoked.

Of course, the restorers are valiantly struggling with legal guidelines – but was it inevitable that Kenilworth had to be given such a new staircase outside the existing ones, complete with a chairlift for the disabled?

In Heritage mood I have just been down to one of the institution’s most amazing ventures, Witley Court in Worcestershire. I first saw this terrifying pile of a ruined house on a grey day in 1970, just before anyone tried to rescue it. Trees had seeded themselves through its windows and roofs. Clouds of screeching birds clattered off every surface and the ruined garden statues were on a scale worthy of a horror movie. The saving grace, then as now, was the wonderful church nearby, filled with fine 18th-century Italian ceiling paintings and an organ on which Handel himself once played. All these treasures had been bought and transferred to Worcestershire by Lord Dudley, the lavish builder of Witley Court in the 1850s. It depended on the family’s immense Midlands coal fortune.

In 1937 the Dudley family’s monstrous pile burnt down, by then in the ownership of a carpet tycoon from Kidderminster. By 1970, I gave it another five years at most unless Alfred Hitchcock realised the petrifying genius of the place and rescued it as a film set. In fact, English Heritage has engaged in heroic works, stabilising and clearing most of the huge façade, planting thousands of trees and even rescuing the gigantic fountain. It shows the hero Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a sea monster. Its Victorian artist, the famous WA Nesfield, equipped it with extraordinary waterworks and English Heritage has cleverly made them work. The place is now one for a picnic, not a shiver of fear.

On its ruined terrace I wondered nonetheless where the heritage begins and ends. The Dudley family built a white elephant in order to show off. It was funded by a much more plausible candidate for national “heritage”, the coal under their estates. Most of us in England had nothing to do with it and were certainly not welcome during the family’s tenure. Fine, we can prop up bits of it and make the fountain work, but I do not think of it even now as my “heritage” – a brilliantly slippery term cooked up by James Lees-Milne when the National Trust was launched in the teeth of a ruinous postwar Labour government.

What about the formal garden? Mawrey and Groves would not have prepared me for the token bit of reconstituted parterre on one side of the house and its miserable bedding plants. There is a new sweep of lavender on the other side but a true restoration of the Victorian scheme would need an army of trained gardeners. Even then it would only be token. The Dudleys’ heated conservatory is a vast ruin, though integral to the garden’s effect. Should we restore what we can, or recognise that the place has now entered a different, Dudley-free phase as a cautionary ruin?

A sign for the garden told me that the overgrown shrubs on the parterre had been “gently” trimmed back. Pull the other one: I hope they were cut back ruthlessly with powered saws. Can we not be less mealy-mouthed about what has to be done? Or do the rats in Heritage properties never die but “fall peacefully asleep”?

‘The Gardens of English Heritage’ by Gillian Mawrey and Linden Groves, RRP£25

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