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Hidcote at 100 and the Major's flamingos


Photographs cannot convey Major Lawrence Johnston’s
Hidcote Manor, now a National Trust garden.

In "Tale of the century" poet James Fenton writes about Hidcote and its elusive creator, Major Lawrence Johnston. An American who became a naturalised British citizen, Johnston fought in the South African War and World War One. Between the wars and afterwards he hunted plants in South America, South Africa, and the Far East, and created in the Cotswolds what is now the most visited garden in Britain.

Fenton suggests that Hidcote’s “formal lay-out, with its sequence of hedged enclosures, derives from the Italian renaissance tradition. What makes it so English is the planting of each of these enclosures, these ‘rooms’, and the snug way the whole ensemble fits into the landscape - a charming, seemingly forgotten part of the world.”

Lawrence persuaded exotic and beautiful plants to grow in chalky soil he persistently amended. The result could be striking. Russell Page writes in The Education of a Gardener,

. . . when he had established the main lines and themes of his garden at Hidcote Manor where planning and planting achieved a rare synthesis, Lawrence Johnston began to experiment in another way. Steeped in the site and its possibilities and having already pushed to the limit the pictorial possibilities of a conventional manor-house garden, Major Johnston freed himself from his frame and learned to handle plantings and compositions in a bold and unexpected way. For instance, on the outskirts of the garden lay a piece of undulating grass-land with a quiet view over stone-walled fields merging into the distant blue hills. Here he planted the higher parts of the ground with large groups of many kinds of berberis, red in autumn with their translucent berries and colouring foliage, which stressed in their close-textured masses of foliage the undulations of the whole site. But what lifted this scheme on to a higher plane were tufts and groups of Yuccas, Y. flaccida, Y. filamentosa and Y. gloriosa. Exotically Mexican, their sharp foliage and creamy candelabra spikes of flowers defied the expected and made a new kind of world, apt setting for a flock of rosy pink flamingos unbelievably wading in the shallow pond which was the centre of this garden.

Fenton, who writes poems about earthly trials, rightly observes,

The grandest and most magnificent gardens in the country, places such as Studley Royal, which incorporates Fountains Abbey at the end of a vista, give an intense pleasure without offering any advice as to what to do back home. Nobody has a valley and a ruined abbey to work with. But any small garden could benefit from something seen at Hidcote, whether it be an individual plant, a colour combination or a simple layout.

But not, perhaps, the flamingos.