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  • Great British Gardeners by Vanessa Berridge

    The title page of the original edition of Gerald's Herball, published by Queen Elizabeth I's printer, John Norton, in 1597. (Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    From the Early Plantsmen to the Chelsea Medal Winners

    My late father believed that people liked gardening because it was an aspect of their lives that they could control. I always thought he was wrong, as the vagaries of nature lie well beyond human agency. But the style of gardening in the 1950s and 1960s was to plant bright, long-flowering annuals and serried rows of dahlias. It only recently occurred to me that my father’s gardening wasn’t just influenced by gardening fashion, but that the fashion itself had been created by what he and his contemporaries had endured during the chaos of world war. For them, a garden was somewhere they could take charge. They blasted aphids, slugs and other pests with chemicals (no thoughts then about climate change), and would have hated the loose grasses and textural planting of a later, more informal age.

    This is the underlying theme of Great British Gardeners: From Early Plantsmen to Chelsea Medal Winners. This book follows on from my earlier The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew (also published by Amberley) about the political background to the founding of Kew Gardens in 1759. That book put gardening at the heart of eighteenth-century political life, because gardening, whether we realise it or not, is a political act. Gardening styles down the centuries have been influenced by many different factors, such as fluctuations in trade, war, industrial developments and environmental issues.

    Through the lives of twenty-six gardeners, I have explored four centuries of British history, showing what gardens and those who garden them tell us about political, social and economic concerns in each period.

     

    Illustration from Thomas Fairchild's The City Gardener. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    I have started with John Gerard, who, in 1597, published his Herball, or General Historie of Plants, used as a practical handbook into the nineteenth century. A qualified barber-surgeon, Gerard, had a wide knowledge of plants because he used them in his work. He was gardening and botanising during the Elizabethan age which saw a huge expansion in trade and the beginnings of British colonialism. Gerard travelled across northern Europe with merchant companies acquiring plants, and also invested £25 in the Virginia Company, set up to finance an early colonial settlement in America. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and John Donne, and shared their relish for language. That is why, 400 years later, his Herball remains a wonderful living, breathing book. To understand the Elizabethan age, look no further than John Gerard.

    In the eighteenth century lived a nurseryman called Thomas Fairchild. From a humble, rural background, he had little education, but wrote a charming and evocative book about gardening in London. Published in 1722, The City Gardener was aimed at the merchant class, who, enriched by British trade, now had the leisure to garden. He was also the first known hybridiser, dusting the pollen from a wild carnation on to the stigma of a sweet william. He was nervous about tinkering with nature, for it was still regarded as blasphemous even among the supposedly free-thinking members of the Royal Society. It was a century and a half later before the term ‘hybridisation’ was coined and it became an accepted horticultural practice. Next time you buy a tray of annuals from the garden centre, spare a thought for Mr Fairchild.

     

    Venus's Vale at Rousham. (Author's collection, Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    The eighteenth-century English Landscape Movement was a reaction against the French-inspired formalism of the Stuart period. The Whig aristocrats, architects of the Protestant Hanoverian succession, used their estates to symbolise on the ground the political changes in the country, as Britain became a nation and moved towards a constitutional monarchy. William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown were the two great figures of this movement, smoothing out the landscape for their aristocratic patrons. This new naturalism was intended to evoke the liberties of the British political system as opposed to the rigid autocracy of the French Catholic monarchy.

    Gardening was once a path out of poverty to fame and riches. That was certainly true in the nineteenth century, when Joseph Paxton rose to become one of the country’s leading figures, and the only gardener of my twenty-six to receive a knighthood. He was a landscape designer, an architect, a duke’s confidential friend, a botanical writer, a magazine and newspaper proprietor, an industrialist and railway magnate, a financial speculator, a politician and a visionary. This gardener’s boy was the personification of the Victorian self-made man, and his elaborate, contrived gardens reflected his age’s grand self-confidence.

    Reaction came, as it does: the 1860s saw the birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which stressed the importance of craftwork and socialism, as against factory production and over-weaning capitalism. Again, gardens mirrored what was happening in the country: William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll turned away from the formal parterres packed with industrial quantities of exotic plants needing over-wintering in greenhouses. They chose plants which would flourish naturally in British gardens – alpines for rock gardens and hardy perennials for flowerbeds – anticipating the late twentieth-century gardener Beth Chatto by over a century. Beth Chatto’s principle, ‘the right plant in the right place’, is now an almost universally held gardening motto.

    Gertrude Jekyll at the Deanery, Sonning, home of Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life, c. 1901. (Great British Gardeners, Amberley Publishing)

    I’ve touched on suburban gardening after the Second World War, with its brief return to Victorian formalism. But horticultural currents continued to flow in the direction established by Robinson and Jekyll, as exemplified by the Chelsea Flower Show. Each year, the show is dominated by gardens designed and planted to raise concerns about climate change, care for the environment, conservation of water, and health. Turn on the News at Six: all these issues will be covered at some point in most bulletins.

    One of the most successful Chelsea designers in recent years, Tom Stuart-Smith, unites in his work many of the themes discussed in the book, as well as hinting at the rich variety in our contemporary culture. His gardens capture the spirit of the past, the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, current environmental thinking, and a sense that a garden is a microcosm of society.

    Vanessa Berridge's new book Great British Gardeners: From the Early Plantsmen to the Chelsea Medal Winners is available for purchase now.

  • A Passion for Public Parks – Why Parks Matter by Paul Rabbitts

    Great British Parks 1 The grand entrance to Birkenhead Park – a fitting monument to the legacy of our great British parks. (Great British Parks, Amberley Publishing)

    I recently published (2016) ‘Great British Parks: A Celebration’ which very much started out as a straightforward celebration of Great British Parks and followed by in 2017 ‘Parkitecture – Buildings and Monuments of Public Parks

    Parks were born out of the need to improve the quality of people’s lives as the Industrial Revolution took its hold. 100 years later, this was sadly abandoned as we embraced ‘the cost of providing’ rather than the ‘benefits (note the plural) of providing’, only to rediscover this by the end of the twentieth century. Thanks to successive studies and reports, surveys, analysis, continued lobbying, many parks have been rescued from virtual obscurity, primarily funded by the National Lottery, including the wonderful Avenham & Miller parks in Preston, which was restored in 2014 thanks to a grant of over £2.8 million. The irony is perhaps wrapped up in history itself – history tells us that parks are good for us. So is the renaissance really over? In 2014, the Heritage Lottery Fund published a report on the condition of parks in the UK called ‘State of UK Public Parks - Research Report to the Heritage Lottery Fund June 2014’ and was followed up by a similar report in 2016. The picture is bleak and none more so apparent with the fate of Ryelands Park in Lancaster, with the recent destruction of its iconic bandstand in June 2017.

    Great British Parks 2 Barran’s Fountain, erected in 1882. (Great British Parks, Amberley Publishing)

    In 2006 CABE Space highlighted the challenge was to ensure the ‘long-term sustainability of these improvements in the conditions of urban green spaces across the country. In many cases, this required the identification of alternative sources of revenue and capital funding’. Yet funding for public parks and urban green spaces was significantly reduced between 1979 and 2000, losing an estimated £1.3 billion in total. A timely report published in January 2013 by the International Federation of Parks and Recreation Administration (Ifpra) concluded that there was evidence for a range of benefits of urban parks and that there was sound scientific evidence that parks contribute to human and social wellbeing. Specifically, urban planners should focus on high quality parks in such areas, where the case is currently that parks are scarce and poorly maintained. Given the strong evidence for parks as promoting physical activity and reducing obesity (parkruns are surely the best example of this), more thoughts should be given to how parks are planned and established with good opportunities and amenities for exerting varied kinds of physical activity, such as walking and biking. In 2014, Dr Katy Layton-Jones published her final report for English Heritage on Urban Parks, Designed Landscapes and Open Spaces. It referred to the remission of the period of decline for Britain’s parks as a result of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme and its successor the ‘Parks for People’ scheme. But it warns of an uncertain future in terms not only of funding and maintenance, but also of ownership, and in some cases, existence. The economic crisis of 2007 marked a change in mood and expectation among many green space professionals. In the 2010-11 financial year, local authorities were forced to implement significant savings. Local authority budget cuts (average 28 per cent over a three-year period, and in some cases up to 90%), brought an abrupt halt to many ambitions for significant capital investment in public green space across the country. The requirement to demonstrate financial sustainability still places considerable economic pressure on local authorities. It is getting worse.

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Eaton Park, Norwich - bandstand and pavilions designed by Norwich Park Superintendent Captain Sandys-Winsch. (Parkitecture, Amberley Publishing)

    So the future of UK public parks in 2016 and beyond is at a crossroads. ‘The State of UK Public Parks 2014 - Renaissance to risk’ and its follow up in 2016 perhaps gives the clearest picture. It reports that maintenance budgets are being reduced, capital is less available for improvements, park facilities are becoming more expensive to use, management and maintenance skills are being lost, and some parks and green spaces may be sold or transferred to others to maintain. This is despite over 2.6 billion estimated visits made to the UK’s parks each year. Over 70% of park managers have recorded increased visitor numbers to their principal parks between 2013-14. Yet 86% of park managers report cuts to revenue budgets since 2010 and they expect the trend to continue for the next few years. Just as worrying is that 71% of households with children under 10 years of age are concerned that reductions in council budgets could have a negative impact on the condition of their local park. This is already having an impact with a number of local authorities who have already seen the positive result of ‘one-off’ lottery investments, struggling to sustain the quality of the once restored landscape.

    Great Britain has been a nation of park builders since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. J.C. Loudon writing in the Gardener’s Magazine in 1829, campaigned for public parks as ‘Breathing Places’ for towns and cities. 176 years later, The Times (13/11/15) reports that ‘its mad to let Britain’s glorious heritage of urban parks disappear’. Speaking at the Paxton 150 conference in 2015, parks historian David Lambert echoes this. ‘What Paxton and his fellow Victorians thought was bleedin’ obvious – that the health, social and recreational benefits of parks far outweigh the costs of maintaining them.

    Parkitecture 2 Stewart Memorial Fountain, Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow. (Parkitecture, Amberley Publishing)

    To conclude, Great British Parks and Parkitecture really are celebrations of some of the country’s greatest parks and the features within, and both celebrate the successes of both the Heritage Lottery Fund and BIG Lottery Fund and Green Flag Award and parks across the UK. It also recognises the impact and commitment of local authorities and park management teams who run them. The truth is that if we want parks to remain beautiful, safe, fun, free and managed by people who are answerable to the local population, local authorities are by far the best organisations to run them, and should be funded appropriately or many parks will suffer the fate of Ryelands Park in Lancaster, neglected and left to ruin. Ruskin has been quoted countless times, but there is no better conclusion than:-

    ‘The measure of any great civilization is in its cities, and the measure of a city's greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and squares’.

    Or perhaps the more recent quote from David Lambert above, that it’s ‘bleedin’ obvious’.

    9781445665627  9781445656366

    Paul Rabbitts' books Parkitecture: Buildings and Monuments of Public Parks and Great British Parks: A Celebration are both available for purchase now.

  • The Kitchen Garden by Caroline Ikin

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Fruit trees were trained up the kitchen garden walls in espaliered shapes, allowing for even ripening and ease of picking. (The Kitchen Garden, Amberley Publishing).

    When visiting historic gardens I’m always drawn to the walls.  A high brick wall – too high to look over, and with no openings to peer through – offers a tantalising clue to what lies beyond: the kitchen garden. What was once the bustling hub of the working garden is now often left derelict, grassed over, converted to a private swimming pool, or used as a car park.  But the walls remain, sometimes with the skeleton of a glasshouse clinging to them, or an ancient fruit tree still struggling up their bricks. These walls were built to last, their brick faces absorbing the light of the sun to ripen the fruit trained upon them in espaliered shapes, their stone copings sheltering delicate blossoms from rain, their solidity offering protection from wind and frost, and from predators - both animal and human.

    The gardeners who worked within the walls would have worked their way up over the years, from garden boy to positions of greater responsibility, developing specialisms in the cultivation of glasshouse fruit, growing cut flowers for the house, forcing rhubarb and chicory, creating hot beds and cold frames, sowing, germinating, watering, pruning, harvesting, and keeping pests and diseases at bay. Kitchen gardening was a job that afforded little time off. The garden bell rang at 6am, and until 6pm, the workers would be kept busy under the watchful eye of the head gardener.  But the plants did not stop growing at the end of the working day, and the glasshouse boilers had to be kept stoked, and the vents adjusted to maintain the exact temperature required for the peaches, grapes, or figs to flourish.  Pests - whether aphids attacking the vines, wasps gorging on the plums, slugs grazing on lettuce, or mice penetrating the apple store - were active at all hours, and gardeners had to keep a steady vigil. The bothy was often built into the garden walls, positioned behind the glasshouse range on the north-facing side, not taking up valuable growing space, but benefitting from the heat penetrating through the wall. Here, the unmarried gardeners would sleep, wash, and eat their meals; what little spare time they had was taken up with reading garden books and journals for those ambitious to scale the career ladder.  A head gardener could marry, and was given a house and garden of his own.

    The Kitchen Garden 2 Pineapples were notoriously difficult to grow, which made them all the more valued at the table in an age of horticultural one-upmanship. (The Kitchen Garden, Amberley Publishing).

    The kitchen garden was also the perfect showcase for innovation, particularly in the nineteenth century, when industrialisation had revealed the possibilities of mechanisation, and spurred invention to new levels. The growing consumer culture rewarded novelty and ostentation, both of which could be amply satisfied through fruit and veg. The production of cast iron and cylinder glass allowed hothouses to reach new dimensions, and these horticultural havens housed exotic orchids, as well as tropical nectarines.  The favourable growing conditions created under glass, with reliable boilers providing controllable heating systems, gave gardeners the means to cultivate out-of-season fruit, and impress with unusual cultivars from exotic climes. The dinner table would be graced with a centrepiece of fruit and flowers, all produced by the skill and patience of the kitchen gardener, at which guests would express their admiration, and conceal their envy.  The ultimate prize was the home-grown pineapple - a fruit notoriously difficult to cultivate, and requiring specific conditions at each stage of its growth. This special fruit was tended personally by the head gardener, and if his expertise was not up to the task, enterprising businesses offered pineapples for hire by the day.

    The Kitchen Garden 4 The Victorians invented many labour-saving gadgets for use in the garden, not all of which have stood the test of time.

    The Victorian confidence in scientific understanding was also on show in the kitchen garden.  Now that processes, such as photosynthesis and soil nutrition had been explained, gardeners were able to apply the knowledge of modern science to their growing methods, adapting their green-fingered traditions to incorporate artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides, producing bumper crops of perfect fruit, vegetables, and flowers.  There was a tool for every job, with new-fangled, labour-saving gadgets stored in the tool shed alongside the spades, rakes and hoes, whose utilitarian design has lasted unbettered through the centuries.

    So, next time you follow the ivy up to the top of the garden wall, let your imagination fill with the sights, sounds, and smells of what went on beyond the protection of the bricks and mortar.  Taste the delicate peaches, hear the rumbling of the wheelbarrow, and watch the garden boy as he wipes his boots before entering the glasshouse with his watering can. The walls of the kitchen garden enclose an astonishing story.

    9781445668840

    Caroline Ikin's new book The Kitchen Garden is available for purchase now.

  • The Princess's Garden by Vanessa Berridge

    I have just started on my second book for Amberley Publishing on the lives of Great British Gardeners. I will begin in the late sixteenth century with the herbalist John Gerard and come up to the present day, probably finishing with handsome Chelsea superstar Tom Stuart-Smith.

    The British have always been a nation of gardeners and exploring the lives of some twenty-five or more Britain’s greatest exponents is a good way of understanding this island’s history. For gardeners and gardening have always responded to and symbolised political and social upheavals in Britain down the centuries. Take, for instance, early gardeners John Gerard and the John Tradescants, father and son. They were men of their time, investing in colonial adventures, and indeed all travelled far afield as few members of their class would have done before the late sixteenth century. Interestingly, gardeners from the Tradescants’ time onwards have been accorded enhanced social status, with an eighteenth century gardener such as ‘Capability’ Brown dining regularly with dukes and sending his sons to Eton.

    The Princess's Garden 1 Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales by Allan Ramsay (1758). (© Bute Collection@ Mount Stuart, The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    This is partly because of the unique symbolic role that gardening has played in British history. This symbolism, perhaps, reached its zenith in the eighteenth century, and is the subject of The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew, my first book for Amberley, recently reissued in paperback. Kew was founded in 1759 by Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales; the princess of the title. When the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1987, few people realised that it had been named not for Diana but for her rather less high profile predecessor. I wanted to find out why Augusta, her husband Frederick, Prince of Wales, and her botanical advisor John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, had been all but air-brushed out of history. As I researched the book I uncovered a colourful story of dissension in the royal family, and of kidnapping, dramatic childbirth, sibling rivalry, and adultery.

    So my book recounts the turbulent political and personal background to the founding of Kew Gardens in 1759, revealing the discord at the heart of the royal family. It also shows how gardening in the eighteenth century was highly political. What, you may ask, has gardening to do with politics? At that time – to adapt the feminist catch phrase of the 1960s and 1970s – the horticultural was the political. The gardens of the aristocracy – Stourhead, Blenheim, Houghton and Stowe – were all used to display political affiliation. The royal gardens at Richmond and later at Kew were also manipulated to put forward the regal and princely points of view.

    Augusta of Saxe-Gotha arrived in England, aged just seventeen, to marry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the elder son of George II and his intellectual wife, Caroline of Ansbach.  Detested by his parents, and indeed eventually exiled from court, this slightly wayward young man had to make his own way in life. He was befriended by Lord Cobham, the leader of the Whig opposition to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. There was no love lost between Frederick and Walpole, ally of Queen Caroline, so with the rogue Whigs looking for a figurehead and Frederick seeking a role, it was a political marriage made in heaven.

    The Princess's Garden 2 View from the Portico of Stowe House to the Park by Jacques Rigaud. (By kind permission of Stowe House Preservation Trust/Stowe School), The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    Cobham was the creator of the pre-eminent political garden at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, where he set out his agenda as a Whig leader. Britain had only been a nation since 1707, with the Act of Union in the year of Frederick’s birth. The early eighteenth-century landscape movement was a means of articulating on the land the political voice of the ascendant Whig aristocracy, engineers of the Hanoverian succession. At Stowe, a series of talented garden designers laid out the ground and constructed temples of follies which embodied Cobham’s political creed. The grounds were meant to be seen by the public; indeed, in 1717, Cobham opened the first ever visitor centre at the New Inn by the gate to Stowe.

    Influenced by this powerful aristocrat, Frederick began working on his gardens, first at Carlton House and subsequently, as he prepared for kingship, on his garden at Kew, expecting his noble advisers to lend a hand. He led fashion, as a letter from 1734 reveals: ‘There is a new taste in gardening just arisen, which has been practised with so great success at the Prince’s garden in Town that a general alteration of some of the most considerable gardens in the kingdom is begun.’

    The Princess's Garden 3 The White House, Kew by Johan Jacob Schalch (c.1760). (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015, The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    But his lasting memorial is not Carlton House, which was razed to the ground by his grandson, George IV, but the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Frederick died in 1751, before he could inherit the throne, and before he completed his plans. But Augusta took up his spade, declaring herself determined to make a garden which would ‘contain all the plants known on Earth’.  Implicit in this aim was an awareness of the economic potential of plants as Britain developed into a world trading power, forged through commercial muscle. Augusta’s vision for her garden was innovative, combining for the first time the landscape and the botanic in one garden – and eventually eclipsing Stowe which was much more revered in the eighteenth century. Kew is a research institution of international importance, and since 2003, a World Heritage Site, whereas Stowe is a museum to the values of the eighteenth century, which needs interpretation boards at every point.

    It’s an intriguing chapter in British history, which shows how gardens helped Britain, by then a constitutional monarchy, to create a distinctive new culture for itself. At every stage of our history, our gardens have represented major social and political trends – look at the Eden Project, or indeed the new Hive at Kew, which is invested with important ecological messages in the early twenty-first century.

    It is stories like these that I hope to tease out as I research the lives of some of our Great British Gardeners.

    Augusta, Princess of Wales, will be one of the stars of an important exhibition this summer and autumn at Kensington Palace in London. Enlightenment Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Making of the Modern World highlights three overlooked Hanoverian consorts and charts their major contribution to British cultural life in the eighteenth-century.  The exhibition runs from 22 June to 12 November.

    9781445660295

    Vanessa Berridge's new paperback edition of The Princess's Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew is available for purchase now.

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