I have just been to the Underworld, propelled there by a very talented boatman. Down a cleverly widened river near Kettering, Northamptonshire, the landscape architect Kim Wilkie has been paddling me along to see his latest masterpiece. On dry land he has designed a pit of Hell and taken on the great landscape gardeners of England’s 18th-century golden age. At the bottom lies a rectangular pool of water that he presents as the entrance to Hades where the mythical singer Orpheus lost his love, Eurydice.
Boughton House in Northamptonshire has long been a seat of the Dukes of Buccleuch. The present head of the great house and park, the 10th Duke, still ranks as the biggest private landowner in Europe. In the 1980s I used to call on the expert gardener Valerie Finnis, who had settled her superb collection of alpine plants in Boughton’s adjoining Dower House, having married a senior family member, Sir David Scott. I would leave their heavenly garden and feel that the grassy park outside had missed a trick. Beneath an elegant stone bridge, an overgrown little stream ran towards a big clump of conifers and sycamores on a distant hill ... I had no idea that the stream was the spring-fed River Ise and had once been landscaped into a pattern of formal lakes in keeping with the French style of Boughton’s main façade.
As our flat-bottomed boat struggled through hellish carpets of blanket-weed, my panting paddler, the 54-year-old Wilkie, explained to me how the current Duke, Richard Buccleuch, had decided to reshape the river. Old plans of the garden in the early 18th century almost certainly go back to the masterly Charles Bridgeman, the genius behind the famous landscape park at Stowe. They show the Ise running in a wide, formal channel and opening out into the fine Broad Water lake before returning past a big man-made garden mound. Almost any other landowner would have framed the plan and left it as a memento of a grander past. Not so the 10th Duke.
If you want to know how to widen a river for posterity Boughton is now the place to study. The obligatory archaeological study found almost nothing except two old water pipes. However, the line of the landscaped river’s banks was re-established. Wilkie was intrigued to discover that it measured exactly a chain (20.1m) in width. The Duke’s landscape manager then decided to reinforce the banks with lengths of oak boarding, fixed together with coach bolts. Originally the boarding had been made of elm. The new banks needed no less than two miles of oak – not seasoned oak, which would buckle over time, but green oak which would harden in situ. It was too much for the English timber trade. The sturdy oak for this glorious English waterway has had to be bought in from Belgium.
In 2007 the Duke and his landscape manager were in Edinburgh for a major conference on whether landscape design is shackled or freed by the past. The Duke went in to one hall of speakers, the landscape manager into a second and it was there that he heard Wilkie lecture. Wilkie was then brought down to the park’s overgrown sycamore-clump which had once been a flat-topped 18th-century mound. What would he do on the opposite side of the river?
Landscape architects dread the need for sudden inspiration on site. The Duke had been thinking of a second mound to balance the existing one, but it would block the long view from the house. In a flash Wilkie proposed to go downwards, not upwards, inverting the proportions of the mound and digging them down into the river’s opposing bank. After a thoughtful grunt His Grace came round to the idea.
From the top of the mound I began by admiring the Georgians’ brilliant sense of proportion. The Broad Water and the widened river are a triumph and Wilkie has made an ingenious pathway to the mound’s top from which to view them. He has sown coarse grass-seed over a path of crushed-stone-gravel. It can be lightly mown by machines set high and looks green above a hard surfacing for human traffic.
Wilkie is on peak form at the moment. In the FT nearly 10 years ago readers voted overwhelmingly for his plan in the contest for the new garden in the court of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He has since been given the job of an entire new terrace for the US’s unsurpassed gardens at Longwood, Pennsylvania, funded by the Dupont Foundation. He is also the managing landscaper for the much-contested site of London’s former Chelsea Barracks. It is quite a career for a man who began as a marketing manager at Unilever.
Recovering from his paddling, he waxed lyrical about the mound as a new Mount Olympus with the depths of Hades on the bank beyond. All I could see was a sort of pit with a cube of metal on the far edge, which I mistook for a mocked-up frame for a future feature. It turns out to be the feature itself, based on proportions of the “golden section”, which flowery gardeners like me are too stupid to appreciate.
Boating across to the far bank, we looked down into the hitherto invisible – a descending pattern of brilliantly-planned grass paths and below, a stone-edged rectangle of water. Hell was at our feet, rippling in the breeze. We went down seven metres below the upper edge and discussed whether Orpheus had come up from Hades holding the hand of his beloved Eurydice, or not. In the myth he had been told not to look back until they were out into the light. He could not resist one backward glance at her, whereupon there was a triple crashing sound and she was tugged back for ever to the murky Underworld.
When did Orpheus come into the project? Not at once, Wilkie told me. Like me, he believes that a scheme should make a fine visual impression without the need for prior understanding of hidden deeper meanings. The meanings merely help viewers to see even more if they so wish. I suggested installing a model hand, vainly reaching from the pool’s waters, like Eurydice’s last plea. Could there be simulated crashes, what Virgil calls “terque fragor”, to remind visitors what Orpheus lost? Wilkie tactfully suggested it was time for us to climb out.
On the way up his path I realised he had refuted Virgil. According to the great poet, the descent to Hell is easy, but “to retrace one’s steps, that is the labour, that is the toil”. Wilkie’s grass circuit winds so cleverly that the return from Hell seems cheeringly effortless. The entire project was less easy. It took more than a year and as I looked at the interim photos I admired the Duke and his team for their boldness in the face of winter mud. The grass mound, banks and pits are now mown by two men for two days each week, using a remote controlled bank-mower. These mowers are at last importable and cost about £34,000 ($53,250).
Leaving the great landscape I walked back through the garden in which I once weeded fine alpines with Valerie Finnis. Not one is alive, 30 years later. The Underworld, by contrast, will live on for centuries to puzzle garden archaeologists. If you want to make a landmark, do not grow gentians. Get Wilkie to shape the myths of your dreams.