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Things That Have Interested Me

Flower Power

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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 has changed.

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 unwound".

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