We owe the richness and diversity of Britain’s gardens to the work of an eclectic cast. Generations of well-heeled patrons, swashbuckling plant hunters, bona fide eccentrics and epicurean horticulturalists have contributed. Thanks to the varied motivations of these disparate enthusiasts the UK is littered with great gardens, large and small. Yet for every one that remains, a dozen will have been lost. The point at which a garden ceases to be the obsession of a living individual is the moment its future is immediately in jeopardy. Heritage organisations have typically saved gardens with the view to preservation, but can important gardens survive outside their protective web and be given a viable future beyond the restoration and preservation model?
On New Year’s day 1936, Hugh Lowther, the 5th Earl of Lonsdale, left his family seat at Lowther Castle near Penrith for the last time. Having inherited a 75,000-acre estate, several coal mines, two castles and substantial residences in Rutland and London, Lowther had bankrupted the estate through profligate spending and the pleasure-seeking life of a bon vivant. He was certainly a character. Known as the “Yellow Earl” his extravagances included having his yellow Rolls-Royces specially adapted with a raised roof, so he could keep his top hat on when sitting inside.
Built by Robert Smirke for the 1st Earl of Lonsdale between 1806 and 1814, Lowther Castle was an impressive pile with a similarly impressive staff of 200. Eighteen gardeners tended the grounds, which included a Japanese garden, rose and iris gardens and the “Sweet Scented Garden”, complete with a French vase adorned with lines from Omar Khayyam – a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II to the 5th Earl. After Lowther’s departure the castle was mothballed and, following its requisition by the army during the second world war, was in such poor condition that the 6th Earl was left with two options; attempt to restore and open to the public, or demolish. With no funds for the former, a house sale was arranged to auction off the contents and the roof of the castle removed, rendering the grand old pile an empty silhouette. The gardens fared no better than the castle. The sweeping formal lawns had been dug up and huge concrete pads put down as hard standing for army tanks. Water features were clogged and overgrown and sapling trees had invaded the formal gardens.
Seventy years after the castle was last occupied, the Lowther Castle & Gardens Trust was formed with the aim of finding a way to help save the crumbling castle façade and to reopen the grounds once more.
Faced with such dereliction, restoration would be impossible. Instead, elements of the original layout have been uncovered and reinterpreted; path networks, the sweep of the grand lawns, the shape of long lost borders. The deep blanket of moss that now covers sentinel rocks in the Japanese garden and stone water features in the Scented Garden have been left in place. Inside the empty shell of the castle, wildflowers have taken up permanent residence, creating a ghostly secret garden.
Lowther Castle’s “anti-restoration” approach was in part inspired by the Gardens of Ninfa in Cisterna di Latina, central Italy. Laid out from 1921 by Gelasio Caetani, the gardens were created around the ruins of a medieval town and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Described as “the most romantic garden in the world” by Charles Quest-Ritson in his book of the same name, the garden teeters on a knife-edge between exquisitely tumbledown and ruination, and plucks at the heartstrings in a way a pristine garden never could.
Something of Ninfa can be seen in Easton Walled Gardens – the seat of the Cholmeley family near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Franklin D Roosevelt spent part of his honeymoon with Eleanor there, describing the 12-acre gardens as “a dream of nirvana”. Like Lowther, the house was damaged almost beyond repair during wartime requisition – grenades were detonated in glasshouses, and statuary used for target practice. After the war the house was pulled down, the gates closed on the garden and nature allowed to reclaim it. Thirteen years ago the garden found its saviour in the new Lady of the Manor, Ursula Cholmeley. With the blind enthusiasm of the then relative amateur she chopped down trees and hauled out vegetation, revealing impressive terraces, ancient walls and a Victorian “flat-packed” bridge. Within this framework of the lost garden, Lady Cholmeley has made flower beds, rose gardens, snowdrop walks and wild flower meadows. It is a model that works aesthetically and, one assumes, financially, being neither too prissy nor too ornamented to require countless gardeners to manage.
If it is tough rescuing somewhere as significant as Lowther, gardens of lesser historical note stand an even greater chance of disappearing without trace. In 1972 the Mackaness family bought the 2,000-acre Rudding Park estate on the outskirts of Harrogate, North Yorkshire. None of the authorities or heritage organisations was interested in the house, a handsome, Grade I-listed, Regency property, and it was a makeweight in the sale. Rudding had already had a life as a public attraction. Its former owner, Captain Everard Radcliffe, had returned from the war and a period as a prisoner at Colditz, determined to improve the estate and engaged James Russell, of Sunningdale Nurseries, to redesign the garden. Russell introduced a “Patte d’Oie” layout of grass paths in the woodland garden, radiating from a marble urn bought from the ruins of the Crystal Palace in London. An extensive rhododendron collection was planted, and a formal rose and herbaceous garden made in the old walled kitchen garden. By 1955 Rudding was the 10th most visited house and garden in Britain, but the glory days were long gone by 1972.
Finding a new use for the house and gardens proved a challenge for Simon and Judi Mackaness, and it wasn’t until 1984 that a controversial planning application to commercialise the house as a conference and wedding venue – and ultimately a hotel – and create a golf course was granted.
The controversy was in part due to the belief that James Russell was not the first gardener of note to stamp his mark on the estate. In the early 1790s, Rudding’s then owner, Lord Loughborough, invited Humphry Repton to cast his eye over the grounds. Repton’s method of working was to produce one of his famous “Red Books” – essentially a “before” and “after” makeover document – and occasionally stake out his ideas on the ground. However, he rarely, if ever, acted as a project manager or contractor, and so his ideas were frequently not acted upon fully. This may be the case at Rudding, and a 1792 painting by Francis Nicholson shows large trees and established lakes already in the landscape forming vistas that remain largely unchanged to this day. Frustratingly, the Red Book for Rudding was sold by Sotheby’s in 1916, and has subsequently vanished. Regardless of the lack of clarity over Repton’s role, the heritage and conservation bodies insisted that the Mackanesses assume the parkland was his work. This meant golf bunkers needed to be made “invisible” in the landscape, and existing avenues used to set out the course. English Heritage now cites the course as an example of successful integration in a historic landscape, while the James Russell plantings and subsequent additions, including a new kitchen garden next to the walls of the historic one, have become integral features of the hotel.
Commercialisation does not guarantee a successful afterlife and when the garden is a recent work the chances of survival are smaller still. Rosemary Verey’s garden at Barnsley House, near Cirencester, has largely survived thanks to its manageable size and its new life as a boutique hotel. The essential ingredient, it seems, is to ensure that the creative driving force of the original garden maker is replicated in the enthusiasm of the subsequent keeper. As at Rudding Park, the owners have recognised that the stewardship of a beautiful garden is a marvel, not a millstone.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London, as well as a landscape designer and consultant to Rudding Park