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Keeping it green and pleasant

Emma Tennant

17 October 2007

12:08 PM

17 October 2007

12:08 PM

The Management and Maintenance of Historic Parks, Gardens and Landscapes: The English Heritage Landscape John Watkins and Tom Wright

Frances Lincoln, pp.352, 35

John Watkins is Head of English Heritage’s Gardens and Landscape Team. Tom Wright was for 25 years Senior Lecturer in Landscape Management at Wye College. They are two professionals who have made an immense contribution to gardening in this country and abroad. This book makes available their combined lifetimes’ knowledge and experience.

The authors begin by reminding the reader that gardens, if neglected, will revert to woodland, which is the natural climate vegetation of the British Isles. Neglected lawns and borders become first scrub, then forest. Lakes and ponds silt up, then form swamps which are soon colonised by willow and alder. Without maintenance even garden buildings eventually decay, collapse, and become lumps and bumps in the ground.

This has been the fate of many gardens over the last 100 years, as the cost of maintaining their forebears’ creation overwhelmed many owners. High taxation, two world wars, and the shortage and cost of skilled labour are some of the obvious reasons for this decline and fall. Kitchen gardens are usually the first to be abandoned as they are so expensive to look after. Thousands of acres of once productive plots have been grassed down, planted with Christmas trees, turned into car parks, or simply abandoned to the jungle of brambles and nettles, with the gardener’s house and adjacent greenhouse slowly collapsing in the corner.

All, however, is not lost. The 20th century, as the authors say, was characterised by efforts at understanding the past and then reconstructing it. The National Trust pioneered garden restoration, based on careful historical research, at such places as Westbury Court, Claremont, and Stowe. English Heritage soon followed with, for example, Audley End and Brodsworth. The funds made available by the Heritage Lottery Fund have transformed the situation (though not for private owners, who are ineligible for HLF grants). The Lottery has helped to pay for the restoration of many neglected public parks, as long as they are well-maintained; they then become a key ingredient in urban renewal and in restoring pride in place.

Twenty years ago, in October 1987, the Great Storm cut a swathe through southern England. It devastated many gardens, parks and woods. Photographs in this book show just how bad the damage was. The storm was a blessing in disguise. It showed that trees have a limited (though sometimes long) life, that they cannot be preserved for ever by the imposition of Tree Preservation Orders, and that it is crucial to plant for succession and to maintain shelter belts.

After the storm the Government set up Task Force Trees to help owners restore parks and gardens on condition that proper historical appraisals were carried out. Since then Conservation Management Plans based on careful research, a current plan, or a vision for the future, have become the norm. The authors’ description of the work involved will be extremely useful to those who look after historic landscapes, though the list of ‘issues and constraints’ — in other words, bureaucratic obstacles — is daunting. However, they say, rightly, that without a CMP you don’t know what you have; if you first identify the baby you will be less likely to throw it out with the bathwater.

The central section of the book describes maintenance and management. It reminds one that as John Sales, for many years Head of Gardens at the National Trust, used to say, ‘Gardening is not a product but a process’. Good gardens are made by the daily practice of craft skills. Take pruning, for instance. The object is to maintain the natural shape and habit of each shrub. How often is it done well? My heart bleeds for the mutilated plants I see in every street, subjected to a short back and sides haircut, and unable to give of their best. Topiary, wall climbers (known in Italy as Rampicante) and fruit trees all need different and very skilled treatment.

The diagrams in this section are clear and helpful, though I wish the drawing of tree guards had shown a horse as well as sheep. Horses have a giraffe-like reach, and can do untold damage unless the tree guards are really tall. The best design I have ever seen is used in the park at Brampton Bryan in Hertfordshire. It has a gap at the base which enables sheep to graze out unsightly weeds. Other illustrations show how to look after the garden using the latest safety-conscious methods. Gone are the days when explosives were used to make planting holes and break up the subsoil.

The last section of the book consists of case studies of a number of very varied places which show how the principles of garden management and restoration are put into effect. It is not easy. Major restorations involve hard decisions, and even routine work can throw up a conflict between ecological interests and the look of the place. We are advised to keep old and dying trees as valuable habitats for birds and insects ‘especially if there are hollows, not holes and splits or sap runs’. But such a tree would be an eyesore in the wrong place.

Avenues provide a tricky dilemma. It is tempting to patch an old one which has lost trees, but the results are never satisfactory. Take the Long Water Avenue at Hampton Court, one of Wright and Watkins’ case studies. It was planted in 1661 by Charles II using 544 lime trees (Tilia x europaea ‘Köningslinde’) imported from Holland. The life expectancy of this hybrid is about 250 years, so it is not surprising that by 1981 only 479 of the original trees were left. The Great Storm blew down another 150. Something had to be done. It was bravely decided to fell and replant the whole avenue with Dutch trees of the same clone as the originals. This being the 20th century, planning permission had to be obtained, an ecological survey commissioned, and a major public relations exercise mounted. The old trees were not cut down, but pushed over by a JCB, which neatly removed the tree and its root-plate at the same time. The new avenue is now flourishing and a great credit to its owner, Her Majesty the Queen.

I learnt much more about Hampton Court from this book. Charles I created a 13-mile-long channel, the Longford River, to supply water from the River Colne to the ponds and canals at Hampton. It is still there, flowing right under Heathrow Airport. Queen Anne simplified the Great Fountain Garden in order to save money. Capability Brown, Royal Gardener from 1764 until his death in 1783, planted the famous vine, but made few changes. He thought the place should be kept as it was ‘out of respect for my profession’.

So there is nothing new about the quandaries of what to keep, what to change and how to pay for it. The case studies, which include among others Chatsworth, Levens Hall, Brodsworth, Sheffield Botanic Garden and Stonehenge, would have been even more useful if they had included enough detail to enable one to compare régimes. Understandably, owners and managers may be reluctant to reveal their figures.

John Watkins and Tom Wright have written a most useful reference book which includes a mass of interesting material about the future of our historic landscapes, which are some of the most beautiful places in the world. The next challenge is to raise the status of the craft of gardening, and to persuade more young people to take it up as a career.

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