Because of its mild and wet climate, Britain is well-suited for flowers, and England has a proud history of gardening going back to the 1500s. In this visually rich lecture, tour some of the most stunning gardens in the nation today, including the Botanic Garden at Oxford University; Kew Gardens in London; and others, grand and obscure, throughout the provinces.
Click on GREEN links to visit the highlighted location in Google Maps. Hover over BLUE text for more information about that item.
Apothecary Gardens—Gardening for Practicality in England
Two of the earliest gardens that can still be seen in something approximating their original form are the Botanic Garden at Oxford University and the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. The former dates back to 1621, when the Earl of Danby donated the money for a physic garden at Oxford, in other words, a garden in which medicinal plants could be grown and studied.
The Chelsea Physic Garden in London was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. It had a similar function to the Oxford garden, to be a concentration of medicinal plants. It has been open to the public since the 1980s and includes the oldest rock garden in Britain.
Architectural Gardens in Britain—Gardening for Visual Appeal
In the early 1700s, a vogue began for landscape gardening. One example is the gardens at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, laid out in rigorously geometric patterns by George London and Henry Wise, for the Duke of Kent. Wrest includes a long canal that leads to a Baroque pavilion, built in 1711, and fronted by a statue of King William III.
The first celebrity designer was William Kent. He collaborated with the Duke of Burlington in designing Chiswick House and Gardens in the 1720s, blending formal elements, such as straight avenues of trees, with rolling meadows, lakes, and classical temples. Kent later became head gardener at Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, whose gardens still bear the imprint of his work.
Stowe is full of references to the classics, including a Doric arch from the 1760s, built in honor of King George II’s daughter Amelia, and a Corinthian arch from the same decade.
Its counterpart, catching the afternoon sun, is Kent’s “Temple of the British Worthies,” which declares by its presence that Britain has men and women worthy to stand side-by-side with the great figures of the ancient world.
There is a comparable collection of garden buildings at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Walking a footpath from the house down to the perimeter of the estate’s artificial lake was supposed to recreate Aeneas’s journey into the underworld. As you move through the half-wooded landscape, your eye catches glimpses of elaborate temples as you turn corners or reach open vistas.
19th Century Masters—Capability Brown and Joseph Paxton
Meanwhile, William Kent acquired a talented apprentice, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who eventually outstripped his master in influence. His handiwork is still visible in many parts of Britain, an estimated 170 parks. The great parks at Kedleston and Chatsworth in Derbyshire were landscaped by Brown; so were those at Blenheim, Warwick Castle, and Althorpe (home of the Spencer family). In 1764, he also became master gardener to King George III at Hampton Court.
When Brown’s work was complete, there would be no sign of roads or villages from the house or from the avenues that wound among the grounds. He offered his patrons the illusion of total seclusion, even when their wealth was based on renting the majority of their land to hard-working tenant farmers.
Where Brown had let the meadows roll right up to the stately house, Humphry Repton introduced themed gardens—at Woburn one is Chinese, another is an arboretum with diverse exotic species, and a third is the “American” garden. There is even a “thornery,” a concentration of thorny plants and bushes.
The most influential gardener of the 19th century was Joseph Paxton. He began his career at Chiswick House in London, where the sixth Duke of Devonshire noticed his work and brought him to his great country estate, Chatsworth, in Derbyshire.
In 1844, anticipating a visit from the Czar of Russia, the Duke asked Paxton to create a great fountain, “The Emperor.” Chatsworth sits in the valley of the River Derwent and is fed by streams flowing down the valley side. In the 1690s, a French engineer had taken advantage of this topography to create a cascade that flows down a series of steps from a fanciful domed temple.
Another 19th century achievement was the Heligan Gardens of Mevagissey, now known as The Lost Gardens of Heligan. The mild climate of Cornwall, England’s most southwesterly county, enables many tropical plants to survive the winter out of doors. The Tremayne family that designed Heligan took advantage of species that would have perished elsewhere.
The garden had disappeared under mountains of creeping vines and fallen trees, but has now been largely recovered. The restoration drew nationwide attention and a sympathetic six-part television show. Heligan is the place to see just how much work is involved in reviving a neglected garden, keeping it alive, and making it presentable.
Gertrude Jekyll—A Fresh Female Vision for Garden Archtecture in Britain
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two women gardeners became nationally famous.
The first was Gertrude Jekyll, who lived from 1843 to 1932. Many of her gardens have now disappeared but a few remain. One of the best places to see Jekyll’s work today is at Hestercombe House in Somerset. The structure of the garden is quite strict but the plantings are deliberately irregular, to soften the impact of the strong shapes. Gardeners there have carefully restored her approach to color and form. She also designed a walled garden next to Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland.
The second of these distinguished women gardeners was Vita Sackville—West. Between 1946 and 1961, she wrote a regular gardening column for a Sunday newspaper, The Observer. Although she referred to them as her “beastly little articles,” they were popular, reprinted in a series of books, and widely influential. The finest monument to Sackville-West are the Sissinghurst Castle Gardens –– an old Tudor tower in Kent that she bought with her husband Harold Nicolson.
Today, visitors can enjoy the fruits of Vita and Harold’s efforts. Sissinghurst has been open to the public since the 1960s, and its gardeners have attempted to preserve her approach to gardening. The beds tend to be crowded with a profusion of plants and flowers, offsetting the disciplined structure with random elements.
Gardens of Scotland and Wales
The gardens and estates I’ve mentioned so far are all in England, but there are plenty to see in Scotland and Wales, too. The challenge to Scottish gardeners is the combination of acidic soils, high rainfall, and low temperatures, but an offsetting opportunity comes with very long, summer days. The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh has responded by specializing in hardy plants from temperate latitudes. The Edinburgh arboretum, on-site, includes hundreds of distinct tree species from around the world.
Further north, at Pitmedden, near Aberdeen, stands a garden that combines geometrically rigorous “parterres,” with a slightly French feeling, and wild herbaceous borders that feel more domestic.
Far smaller in scale, but delightful, is the garden at J. M. Barrie’s birthplace, a weaver’s house in Kirriemuir, near Dundee. Barrie was the author of Peter Pan. Beside the house, stands a statue of Peter, based on the author’s older brother, who died in childhood.
Wales, as much as Scotland, has many outstanding gardens. Conwy, which is home to one the country’s best castles, is also the site of Bodnant, whose gardens have the Snowdon mountain range as their background. Bodnant’s most striking feature is an avenue formed by the overhanging branches of laburnum trees. When they are in flower, during late May and early June, the whole thing becomes a brilliant yellow tunnel.
Wales’s National Botanic Garden is in a remote part of Carmarthenshire, northwest of Swansea. It’s only been there since 2000, but it is popular because of its dramatic domed glasshouse, built by Norman Foster, which is the largest span of its kind in the world, 360 feet across.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture
Suggested Online Reading About Gardens in Britain
The Chelsea Physics Garden: A London Inheritance
About Lancelot Brown: The Hudson Review
Lessons From Gertrude Jekyll: Then and Now
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