copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
9 September 2006
What's the best garden in Britain? I admit
I am very far from having seen and ticked off all the candidates
on the obvious list - a list from which I have anyway removed
all the great botanical gardens (Cambridge, Edinburgh, Kew,
Oxford) to place in a separate category. A great botanical garden
may be great as a library is great, for what it contains or
even for what it once contained: Padua is, for the botanically
minded, a great pilgrimage site; but it is tiny. Its tininess
reminds us that the early botanists never expected to need a
large site to house all the world's plants. A botanical garden
is like an encyclopedia that has grown over the centuries.
A great pleasure-garden is one that immediately
seems to set the standard. Everything attempted is carried off
with enthusiasm and panache. It may be small, but the great
small gardens suffer this increasing problem: they do not accommodate
their visitors with ease. Their paths are not wide enough, they
have circulation problems, their success as gardens is making
them impossible to see comfortably.
But gardens should be social places, and there
is nothing wrong with a crowd. The great big gardens, in their
varying degrees, swallow their visitors up, and give them just
as much solitude, and just as much company, as they desire.
Powis Castle, near Welshpool, has the scope and panache I am
talking about: its terraces hold the best borders, its pots
are the best pots, its cloudy irregular yew hedge, caught in
a gusty wind, is the best yew hedge you have seen - or all these
statements seem to be true as you wander around.
And, like all the great gardens, Powis completely
convinces you of its uniqueness. The castle itself, its situation
on a hill, the surrounding countryside, everything seems to
say: "This happens here, and nowhere else in the world
with such brio." This is what I think whenever I visit
Powis, which is why it tops my list so effortlessly. Or why
it did top my list so effortlessly until, this year, I went
back to Levens Hall, near Kendal.
Levens I knew from childhood, and remembered
for its famous topiary. It is the oldest topiary garden in Britain
and no doubt the best place to get a feel for what the 17th-century
formal garden (in the Dutch and English tradition) was aiming
for. The shapes of the yews have, in many cases, lost whatever
specific representational character they once had, a development
that recommends them to those who think topiary just silly.
They have turned into large, abstract, irregular shapes. They
have been celebrated for centuries.
On the day I went this summer, just as the
gates opened, the gardeners were having their break, and for
half an hour as I went quickly round, I was alone or just a
little ahead of my fellow visitors. It was not entirely quiet
- there is a main road not far from Levens - but it was entirely
harmonious. Every plant seemed to say: "This is how I look
when well grown." Every border - Levens is a very good
flower garden indeed - seemed excellently chosen.
Beneath the topiary shapes, the flowerbeds
were planted with bedding plants, and I was there - it seemed
to me - on just the right day of the year, since the single-colour
plantings were creating plain geometrical shapes of purple,
mauve and lemon-yellow. The pale yellow antirrhinums (a variety
called Liberty Classic Yellow) were all at exactly the same
height, which gave an unearthly effect. And I was not wrong
to think I had chanced upon Levens on just the right day - a
couple of weeks later this particular effect had been slightly
dissipated, the plants having put on a few inches.
The head gardener responsible for this and
the other plantings at Levens, including ornamental vegetable
borders, red-purple and pastel borders and a small rose garden,
is Chris Crowder. His book, The Garden at Levens, came out last
year (published by Frances Lincoln), and is sensible and well
illustrated, including old postcards and paintings of the garden,
and plans from which one gets an idea of how much and how little
So, Powis Castle and Levens Hall were vying
in my mind for title of best, when I took some friends to see
Fountains Abbey, near Ripon - the great ruins that sit in a
wooded valley at the end of the early 18th-century landscape
garden Studley Royal. The weather was changing continually,
flattering the landscape with bursts of sunlight and dark cloud.
The water gardens, laid out before the English landscape style
became thoroughly naturalised, include a straight-banked canal
and some geometrical ponds which, to the taste of the late 18th
century, soon looked absolutely ridiculous.
Most of these canals, in the other great gardens,
disappeared under later improvements. But Studley Royal has
preserved, or been restored to, its original idiom, which is
rather like Rousham, near Oxford. Once you recognise its oddities
as belonging to a specific and rather narrow period, falling
between the formality of Levens Hall and the naturalism of Capability
Brown or Humphrey Repton, it becomes very exciting indeed.
Pevsner's guide thinks it a work of arrogance
(albeit a resounding success) to incorporate a great ruined
abbey into such a garden. But what better thing could you do
with a ruined abbey? The man who laid out Studley Royal garden,
a disgraced Chancellor of the Exchequer, spent a long time working
his way towards the acquisition of Fountains Abbey, which belonged
to a Catholic neighbour who didn't want to sell. It completed
a set of garden features including a banqueting house, statuary,
rusticated stone bridges, a tunnel (scarily dark), temples and
pavilions seen through "artless vistos". At the time,
it must have been the greatest (at least the largest) garden
feature in Europe.
Studley Royal is immaculately maintained (by
the National Trust), and this immaculateness suits the idiom
of the landscape. It should express a nature somewhat tamed
and ordered, but with spots for reflection on the great disorders
of history and nature. In its early days, we are told, it would
have looked Chinese, and the walk through Skelldale would have
looked to educated visitors "like a Chinese scroll being