Opposite the main shopping street of Hemel Hempstead – a new town built in Hertfordshire, just north of London, after the second world war – is a scruffy park alongside the River Gade. The trees are unclipped; the grass is threadbare, worn down by resident waterfowl; beer cans float in the silted stream and flower beds, once full of roses, are now littered with fading carrier bags.
These are the Water Gardens, designed by one of the most influential landscape architects of the 20th century, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-1996), and named by English Heritage – the government-funded organisation that protects historic sites around the UK – as one of the country’s most important postwar landscapes.
Over the course of his 70-year career, Jellicoe designed more than 100 landscapes around the world. He created the John F Kennedy memorial site in Runnymede – a water meadow near the River Thames in Berkshire – the gardens at Shute House in Dorset, and the unfinished Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas.
The Moody Gardens were Jellicoe’s final and most ambitious project. He pictured visitors travelling round a 142-acre barrier island, advancing through a linear history of landscape, from the Garden of Eden via the gardens of ancient Egypt to a design inspired by Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain (1924).
“Jellicoe wanted to liberate landscape from architecture,” says Hal Moggridge, an influential landscape architect who joined Jellicoe’s London practice in 1960. “He was deeply interested in art and wanted to promote landscape architecture as its own art form. He considered it to be the design field of the future.”
In the works of Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Henry Moore, Jellicoe recognised the artists’ concern to tackle issues beyond colour and form, to delve outside the confines of the visual world. “Like the portrait painter, the landscape designer needs to be a psychologist first and then a technician afterwards. He needs to dig into the subconscious,” wrote Jellicoe.
Jellicoe’s interest in the writings of Carl Jung lead him to explore the ways in which people are influenced by their surroundings. At the JFK memorial site, for instance, visitors walk through woodland on a path made of hand-cut stones, each symbolising a year of Kennedy’s life.
“The Water Gardens at Hemel Hempstead were one of Jellicoe’s first experiments in exploring, like Paul Klee, the role of the subconscious in design,” says Tom Turner, principal lecturer in garden history and landscape architecture at the University of Greenwich.
“At Grove Terrace [Jellicoe’s north London home], while Jellicoe fell asleep in his chair, his wife Susan plied me with sherry while I asked about the projects they had done and the places they had seen. She said the Water Gardens in Hemel Hempstead were their favourite and best project.”
Hemel Hempstead was one of several towns in the UK that was redeveloped to house the population displaced by the Blitz. Jellicoe designed the Water Gardens with the conviction that a relatively small, urban garden could dramatically enhance the lives of the town’s residents.
Jellicoe built a canal with weirs and delicate footbridges that lead visitors from the town car park to the shopping centre. He added a lawn so visitors could walk along the waterfront. Towards the south of the garden, Susan Jellicoe, a skilled plantswoman, created a rose garden.
Inspired by one of Paul Klee’s paintings, Jellicoe designed the canal in the shape of a serpent. “The lake is the head and the canal is the body,” wrote Jellicoe in his book Studies in Landscape Design. “The eye is the fountain; the mouth is where the water passes over the weir. The formal and partly classical flower gardens are like a howdah strapped to its back. In short, the beast is harnessed, docile, and in the service of man.”
In spite of his ambitious approach, Jellicoe was aware that his unconventional ideas were not to everyone’s liking. “Throughout his life he wrote and talked about the art of design at a time when the majority of people were preoccupied with cost efficiency and functionalism,” says Kathryn Moore, professor of landscape architecture at Birmingham City University.
“He once joked that had he discussed the design concept for the Water Gardens at Hemel Hempstead he would have been carted off to the asylum,” adds Moore.
Today the Garden History Society is campaigning for the restoration of the Water Gardens. There is talk of applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which uses money raised through the National Lottery to help preserve the UK’s historic landmarks. Others, like Turner, are pushing the local authority to use volunteers to look after the grounds, following the model of the National Trust.
“No one seems to realise that we have a 20th-century gem on our hands,” says Dominic Cole, chair of the Garden History Society. Although Cole believes the Water Gardens can be rescued, the longer they are left the harder they will be to restore.
“By not maintaining them we’re essentially letting down the public,” says Moggridge. “It’s a small garden that manages to give visitors a tremendous feeling of open space. But somewhere along the way we seemed to stop caring about our country’s traditions.”
The fear is that the Water Gardens will succumb to the fate of Jellicoe’s own garden at his former home in north London, where he lived until 1984. The Jellicoes often sat in their garden – long and narrow, ending in a sun terrace – with colleagues and students discussing their projects. Today it is barely recognisable.
Given that Jellicoe is often mentioned in the same breath as other celebrated landscape architects such as Lancelot “Capability” Brown, André Le Nôtre and Humphry Repton, this is a great loss.