Garden staff outside Paxton’s Great Conservatory at Chatsworth in the 1890s
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After 20 years of inactive service my self-built swimming pool is in a sorry state. After more than 300 years of active service the greatest water cascade in Britain is still pouring vigorously down an entire hillside. At Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the 17th-century waterworks were lucky enough to be reworked by the Victorian practical genius, Joseph Paxton. I gladly defer to the great man. This year, the cascade is in particularly fine form. It is one of the beneficiaries of Chatsworth’s latest restoration. Two years into a big plan for the property, more than 700,000 visitors are paying to enjoy the results, a magnet whose scale is lost on gardeners in the south of England.

On the south façade of the great house the family motto is more than usually visible this year. The Latin words “Cavendo Tutus” are belying their message by gleaming in reapplied gold leaf. The tall window frames of the façade are freshly gold leaved too. So are the big garden urns around the balustrading. For a family whose motto means “Safe by being wary”, this restoration is remarkably punchy. Standing on the terrace, I asked the present Duke of Devonshire, the 12th in line, whether some of his urns were in fact restored with gold paint. “Once you have seen a gold-painted urn,” he cautioned me, “you do not exactly want to see another.”

Among Chatsworth’s urns, all that glitters is now gold in magnificent indifference to the recent rise in the metal’s price. If you mistime your next gold investment and have to take delivery of it, put the metal on the garden urns and tell yourself the bet was worth it. In context, it looks tremendously stylish.

Forgetting the garden’s history, I set off hoping to see Paxton’s enormous greenhouse in working order. Here the ducal interventions have been rather different. The glasshouse required an entire railway to transport coal to heat it and a system of underground tunnels to keep this dusty black freight out of view. As I advanced on the site, an incredulous television producer was planning a documentary on her latest fascination – the hidden remains of the garden’s high-speed train run. The glasshouse itself is gone. The dukes found it unsustainable and blew it up in 1922.

It must have been a stupendous explosion, occurring in the same year that F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby was launching his lavish career over in America. Bits of greenhouse glass even lodged in the façade of the main house about half a mile away. The huge foundations of Paxton’s superstructure are still visible, as are the low supporting walls. They will be an archaeological mystery if ever the written explanations are lost. Nowadays, the gaps between them are home to some excellent peonies, planted by the previous Duchess. One of her best, in generous mood, is the white-flowered Duchess of Marlborough. The glasshouse would be impossible to heat and maintain if modern planning rules had preserved it.

Chatsworth’s head gardener, Steve Porter, explained to me the modern problems of the site. On the floor plan of the former glasshouse there are beds nowadays for dahlias, annuals and even for a reassembly of the Russell hybrid lupins, whose bloodlines have become so muddled in gardens with less of a history. The problem, as ever, is wildlife. Rabbits have taken up residence in Paxton’s foundation walls. Flopsy, Mopsy and friends enjoy a meal of young dahlia shoots as soon as the late summer bedding is in place. What was once a steam-heating wonder has become an unofficial warren.

Denied a sighting of the glasshouse, I was keen to see Paxton’s famous rockery. It too was built on a noble scale. It used such huge rocks of local granite that they had to be held in place by iron clamps. Paxton’s placing of the rocks is remarkably informal, not just because some have slipped with time. They soar up here and there and almost overbalance in outcrops at the edges. Paxton was laying out his rockery before purists for “alpine” gardening had insisted on “natural” stratification of the rocks’ lines. It is fascinating to see how he disregarded their rules.

What would you do nowadays with a giant Victorian rock garden which has run back to wilderness? Chatsworth’s gardeners are replanting with wide-spreading plants to combat mere weeds. Vigorous evergreen carpets of Rubus tricolor will tumble round the rocks, where I had mentally pictured the better sorts of cotoneaster. Paxton did not plant his big rockery with true alpines, a cult whose golden era had yet to dawn. The aim now is to plant a manageably-covered garden with punctuating groups of fine-leaved acanthus and not to struggle with weeds among autumn-flowering gentians. Below a big outcrop I can well imagine some emphatic Eremurus, or Foxtail lilies, among which I once worked in the enormous rockery of Munich’s alpine garden.

Urns covered with gold leaf

Down by the house I learnt how gardens with long histories have constraints which pass the rest of us by. Beyond the new gold-leafing, one bit of the lawn looked decidedly tired and scruffy. “We cannot weedkill or replace it,” said Porter. This grassland is so old, older even than Capability Brown’s work on the site. The roots of Chatsworth’s landscaped garden have now been traced back long before him to plans by the redoubtable London nurserymen, London and Wise. The turf of the lawn has had such an undisturbed history that it is now a prime site for bacterial mycorrhizals. The grass has to be preserved because of its historic fungal underlay.

Against the big garden walls Paxton’s legacy has proved more manageable. He and his staff designed and maintained some exceptionally elegant glass-fronted fruit “corridors”. They were narrow houses for peaches, nectarines and all the luxuries of the day. They are still in first-class condition. They house half-hardy fruits and White Heart cherries against walls which are whitewashed to intensify the sun. A greenhouse does not have to be wide to produce a great variety of fruit.

Vines are another matter. For years Chatsworth has been a centre for the glasshouse cultivation of top-class grapes. After 37 years of work, the expert Ian Webster has now passed on his science and legacy to Porter and his team. The sweet white Muscat of Alexandria grape is looking in top form again, though I would never manage to keep it cool but not too damp and avoid rot on its bunches of sweet fruit. One trick is not to damp down the greenhouse floor but to cover the surface of the soil with plastic after watering to stop moisture evaporating and spoiling the grapes. Paxton, surely, would be impressed.

Recent years have seen so much activity to keep Chatsworth as the top place in which to see grand style. Some of it has even emerged from adversity. In 2001, the epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease devastated tourism at Chatsworth and the surrounding area. In response the 11th Duke decided to extend Chatsworth’s open season from October until Christmas. The halls and some of the glasshouses and outbuildings were enlivened with seasonal decorations and plantings. They were such a success that the pre-Christmas opening has become a fixture, the most popular weeks in the property’s entire year. New openings duly followed. This year, visitors are being admitted to walk through two of the three compartments of the cool-to tropical greenhouse. They can even peer in at Chatsworth’s most influential plant. The Cavendish banana has become one of the world’s pre-eminent varieties, low in height and dependable in cropping since its discovery for a former Duke. Watch out when you next buy bananas on a supermarket counter. In their energetic mood I would not put it past the Chatsworth gardeners to have gilded a banana or two with some surplus gold leaf.

Chatsworth garden is open every day, from 11am to 6pm, until December 23 2013 (last admission is 5pm).

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