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Image: Armin Grewe
Grewe has other lovely images at his website.

Hidcote Manor Garden

Photographs cannot convey the fantasy and beauty of Major Lawrence Johnston’s Hidcote Manor, in Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire.

Major Lawrence Johnston adopted and loved Britain as his country, and fought for Britain in World War One. Afterwards he hunted plants in South America, South Africa, and the Far East, and created what is now the most visited garden in Britain. Hidcote has been called the most English of gardens for reasons of design and planting, and surely because eccentricity flourishes there.

Hidcote’s formal lay-out is built on a series of hedged enclosures. Poet James Fenton suggests that "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."

To create his garden where no garden had been, Lawrence persuaded exotic and beautiful plants to grow in chalky soil, a soil that many plants, with the exception of beeches, actively dislike. Pale and stony and hard, chalk is free-draining, which is a plus, and, if you are an optimist, it is moderately fertile. To grow plants you need to have crumbly, moist soil with a network of pores holding air and water and a teeming community of earthworms.

Hidcote garden pool framed by beech leaves

One hundred years old in 2007, Hidcote is cared for by the National Trust.

Johnston had his work cut out for him, but he persistently and repeatedly built up a rich, composted soil and planted the rare and exotic specimens he had found on his expeditions. The result could be striking. Russell Page wanders through the chain of small enclosed gardens which flank the main vista, and writes in The Education of a Gardener,

Each enclosure was devoted to plantings where, usually, one colour predominated. The various small gardens were carefully linked and separated by long axial lines; and, so that the richness of the planting should not appear confused, grass walks or lawns hedged with yew, beech or hornbeam were used as quiet interludes.

Garden 'room' filled with blossoms at Hidcote; manor house in distance

Perhaps Lawrence Johnston's most important contribution to modern gardening was his ability to combine plants in an unusual way. I remember a double border of old-fashioned roses combined with the equally old-fashioned Paeonia officinalis. The path between was edged with purple-mauve Campanula portenschlagiana and the mustard-green alchemilla which used to be called "Lady's Mantle".

Wandering on through Hidcote, Page finds that,

At one point we come through a yew arch into a tiny square hedged-in garden filled with so large a circular pool that there is barely room for the narrowest of paths between it and the hedge. The raised pool, perhaps twenty feet across, looks all the larger for being so compressed and the unusual proportion of the whole breaks down, for a moment, the mechanism of one's habitual criticisms and judgments. One is free to accept and feel this little scene as intensely real; the pool becomes like a sea which reflects the sky and a floating leaf. A passing bumble bee and each chance-grown plant in crevices of the stone border seem to shine with a special clarity - time and space exchange their scale.

View down linked gardens on misty morning

Johnston did not forget the chalk-hill beeches, either. Page remarks that one of the beauties of Hidcote, "with its varied tapestry of flower colour and closely packed foliage is the stretch of grass surrounded by a dark yew hedge which Major Johnston designed as a setting for half a dozen secular beech trees." (Odd that use of secular. Perhaps Page would like to distinguish them from the groves of beeches long ago used by Druids when they gathered for their religious rites.)

After he had established the main lines and themes of his garden at Hidcote Manor, Lawrence Johnston began to experiment in another way. Page, who designed great original gardens, describes what Johnston did -

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.

Any gardener could benefit - and dream of pink flamingos.


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