Tuesday, 23 September 2014

And so my second English foray ends the same as the first: at the foot of St Paul’s cathedral in the YHA hostel. As the bells chime, I’ll make my final entry before coming home.

Part 1: Colchester and the Beth Chatto Gardens

After Oxford it was off to Colchester and the Beth Chatto Gardens, my final stop on what has been a whirlwind tour of English gardens. I suppose Colchester was doomed from the start, nothing can compare to Oxford, but regardless of where I was coming from I doubt I would have found much to cheer about. Colchester is a city that undoubtedly has the potential to be very pretty, but it ultimately fails to make good on that potential. When the High Street features betting halls, bargain clothing stores and boarded up shops, you know a city is in trouble. There’s a trend in the UK where cities and in some cases entire regions are being slowly drained of their vitality by the megalopolis of London. It seems like only those that have an exceptional history (i.e. Oxford, Cambridge, York), or are embracing the new contemporary era (i.e. Bristol and Sheffield), or a combination thereof (i.e. Edinburgh) are immune. Colchester seems to be none of the above. To be fair I don’t expect every place to be tourist-friendly, where’s the fun in that? That’s not what they exist to do. But when I travel to the smaller towns that are so far from the beaten track that I may be the only tourist within 30 miles, irrespective of their economic situation they still feel welcoming. In Colchester it felt a bit menacing. I think that’s ultimately what made the difference.

Regardless, I wasn’t there to see the city I was there for the garden nearby. Like Great Dixter, the Beth Chatto Gardens (as their name would imply) are the manifestation of the gardening philosophy and ideology of an icon of English horticulture. Beth Chatto is a household name both as a garden writer and designer and her humble Essex home (it’s so refreshing to visit a garden that isn’t at a manor house or castle but at an ordinary home of an extraordinary person) has become a place of pilgrimage for gardeners and designers from around the world. I can now add my name to the list.

The gardens reflect Chatto’s interest in thinking about plants ecologically, almost a precursor to the work of Hitchmough, Oudolf and others who model their plantings, like Chatto, after natural plant communities. This method ensures plants are good neighbours and work well together, minimizing the need for overly intensive maintenance and synthetic fertilizers. When Beth Chatto started down this path of ecological gardening it was revolutionary, but thanks to her efforts and those of her successors, it has become widely accepted by the gardening public. Also like Dixter, the gardens are only half the story, the other half of the operation is the commercial nursery selling some of the newest and most sought after introductions in the horticultural world.

After walking up the drive from the main road the garden begins with the Chatto’s famous gravel garden. It is a spectacular achievement, borne of a combination of poor local soils and creative genius, and one of the main reasons I wanted to see the gardens so badly. The gravel garden is decidedly not a case of top-dressing the garden with a layer of gravel mulch over nice rich topsoil, these plants are growing in some of the leanest soil imaginable and thriving with no irrigation whatsoever. Only the toughest of the tough make it here, including the ever-present Verbena bonariensis (I think every garden I’ve seen has involved this plant in one way or another), sages, Phlomis other Mediterranean species and even a couple of agaves (that are brought in in the winter). It all makes for a wonderful if very unconventional, un-English picture.

The gravel garden

From here you descend into the valley that has been made into a series of water gardens bordered by a long shady walk that shelters the gardens from the adjacent fields. The gardens feature Chatto’s trademark plants – things like Bergenia, Phlomis, Russian sage – in sweeping beds between swathes of quite perfect lawns. Again, in keeping with the themes of the other gardens I’ve visited, there is a stark contrast between the crispness and formality of the lawns and edges with the informality of the garden planting. Durslade, Dixter, Sissinghurst, and even Hitchmough’s borders all play with this theme in some way. After walking through the valley area you rise up a small hill and enter the woodland garden. Lush and verdant it is a delicious array of textures and occasional splashed of colour. A particular highlight was the path through rough grass that had been inter-planted with Cyclamen (one of the popular alpines I had first seen at Kew). In the late afternoon light they sparkled among the grass. After walking back along the borders, passing the scree garden that borders the house and through the valley the gardens empty into the nursery; the candy store of candy stores for people like me. Perhaps even more than Kew, Beth Chatto’s nursery became a tremendous resource for building my plant vocabulary, exposing me to exciting new plants and setting all sorts of light-bulbs off in my ever-churning head.

The valley gardens
Mediterranean planting in the borders
The woodland garden
Cyclamen in the lawn
I greatly enjoyed the garden, it is undeniably beautiful but like at Kew, something was bothering me. I may change my mind when I think about it in hindsight, or I may be abjectly wrong, but the thing that came to mind was that where the gardens are indeed revolutionary in terms of plant palette they are formal in arrangement, composition and physical form. What was revolutionary in its day is no longer the cutting edge and now, aside from the gravel garden maybe, the gardens seem to reflect a sort of soft radicalism. That’s not a fault, just a result of the passage of time as trends and movements come and go. Again context plays a role here since my last garden experience was of James Hitchmough’s Merton Borders, so almost anything was going to feel more subdued and controlled by comparison but what I’m most interested in and fascinated by is the really radical, the boldly audacious and the philosophically challenging. It’s why Hitchmough’s borders and Waltham Place have left such a strong impression. They recklessly abandon convention.

Stylistic quibbles aside, it is definitely a place of pilgrimage for a reason and I’m glad I made the trek to Essex. The really important quality, the thing that has united every place I’ve visited and what I think is the most important of all, is that the Beth Chatto Gardens are a plant-lover’s garden that look and feel well-loved. The best gardens and the best designed landscapes are those that reflect a deep love of plants and Beth Chatto’s gardens are no exception.

The scree garden by the house
The candy store

Part 2: London

The train from Colchester dropped me at Liverpool Street, in the heart of the City of London. The City is a financial hotbed. Suits, ties, slick hair, thick perfume and briefcases make the sidewalks an awfully inhospitable place for someone in a green windbreaker and backpack while the roads are generously populated by the likes of Porsche, Maserati, Bentley and others. All are hallmarks of a lifestyle that I neither understand nor covet. Architecturally though, the City is a fascinating and dynamic mixture of the very old (St Paul’s, Temple Bar, Mansion House) and the very new (the Gherkin, the Shard), both of which I love. The City skyline is not the static picture that Westminster is, it is a collage where Wren mingles with Renzo Piano, where stone meets glass and steel, where construction meets restoration and where it all seems to achieve a remarkably cohesive balance. Best of all though is the experience of walking through this maze of architectural ingenuity. Walking through urban space is a kind of choreography. Different movements ebb and flow, sometimes quietly and sometimes rising to a great crescendo. There is something special about watching a shiny glass building slowly give way to Wren’s masterwork at St Paul’s or walking down a flight of narrow steps that open to a sudden, dramatic panorama of the mighty Thames. It’s something you can only experience on foot, and that’s just how I spent my final London day.

St Paul's
I walked from St Paul’s along the river, into the unexpectedly lovely Inner Temple gardens, and along the Strand and the Kingsway before coming to the British Museum where I spent a couple of hours (that’s about when the intellectual saturation sets in) before returning to the hostel. I went back out, this time in a sweater since the air is taking on a notably autumnal bite, and hoofed it to Regents Park, along the canal to Camden for a street-food dinner and after a short subway ride, back down to the Thames to say goodbye to Big Ben (almost as hard as saying goodbye to Oxford). I didn’t get to see everything I’d wanted to in London, but then in five months on exchange I didn’t either. It always keeps you coming back for more, why fight it? Now, back in the hostel again serenaded by the bells of St Paul’s as the clock strikes midnight, I’m getting ready to leave.

The Inner Temple gardens
Anemones in the shady garden

The British Museum

This trip has been fantastic. More than just a bit of English fun, it’s been a vocational validation. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve encountered kindred spirits, mentors and heroes whom have been, in their own way encouraging, stimulating, invigorating and inspiring. They have shown me beyond any shadow of doubt that this is what I’m meant to do. This is a group that I’m meant to be a part of. I couldn’t ask for anything more and I can’t wait to get started! Prepare yourselves. Things are about to get floral.