Gardens of Memory

Gardens of Memory

Gardens are personal things. As a garden designer, I can objectively say what is a ‘good garden’; picking up on ideas of balance, structure, flow and so on. But falling in love with a garden, like falling in love with anything, is bound up in familiarity and memory.

Asking clients ‘what’s your favourite garden?’ is often the wrong question. Most times our favourite gardens don’t really exist. They are imaginary hotchpotches of childhood landscapes, holidays, the scent of a particular plant, a lawn to play on.

I visit a lot of gardens. Partly to study them, but mostly to be entranced by them in an entirely personal way. This past year was no exception. I spent countless hours exploring other peoples gardens. Three stood out.

These were the famous flower displays of Great Dixter, Sissinghurst with its perfect garden rooms, and Rousham’s theatrical woodland garden.

And, last, I visited a landscape that wasn’t a garden at all; a wheat field in Kent. For me, it was the most magical.

But let me tell you about the others first, starting with Great Dixter.

As a garden designer, I should probably pick Great Dixter in East Sussex as my favourite of the three. It’s certainly the most in vogue in contemporary garden design. Guided by its brilliant head gardener Fergus Garrett, Great Dixter is arguably the foremost flower garden in Europe. Its rooms of wild flower combinations are breathtaking and overwhelming in equal measure. We visited on a rainy summer morning which kept the crowds away. You have to pick your way through overgrown paths, wet flowers brushing against you until you’re soaked. Earnest trainees tend the borders, or write in notebooks under shelter. It’s magnificent. It’s a place of learning, a modern art gallery of flowers. I left with scores of new plant combinations in a notebook, and a desperate need for coffee.

Close by is Sissinghurst. Famed for its White Garden, I expected an over-fussy tourist trap. In truth, it’s a garden to fall in love with. Not just for the beautiful setting and garden rooms leading to a riverside orchard. This garden was created by the writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband and it overwhelmingly feels like a space to be enjoyed and lived in. There’s nothing particularly remarkable in the design of each ‘room’ but the overall layout and the setting is perfect. It passes the essential design test – can you imagine having a summer dinner here and sitting out late to watch the stars?

Oxfordshire’s Rousham is something quite different. Rousham remains little known and scarcely visited, despite being one of England’s great gardens. Just like Kiftsgate, the owner is at the entrance, taking money in the tin. The orchard garden with its dovecote and the kitchen gardens are idyllic in themselves, but it’s the woodland garden, which is the Masterclass. Remodelled by William Kent in the 1700s, it is pure promenade theatre. The entrance is a nothing; a choice between two nondescript paths. Take the right one (literally) and you plunge down into shade and the theatre begins. Whether a track, a broad avenue, a petering gravel trail or the famous rill, the path continues through the woodland. You are led on via distant statues, water, paths under broadleaf trees and a gleaming understory of laurel. An arcadia in England. I walked this garden for much of a day and could write pages about it, but you might prefer to let Monty Don take you for a walk instead HERE

They’re all fabulous gardens. Sissinghurst and Rousham are the top two, for my money.

However, my favourite landscape of this past year was the wheat fields close to the Kent village of Wickhambreaux where, growing up, we had a family cottage.

I have an overwhelming childhood memory of this place. A stream ran through it. Woodpigeons called constantly. In summer, you’d walk on a path through the wheat fields to the neighbouring village. The wheat was head high. It was an adventure.

We went back to Wickhambreaux this summer, maybe thirty years since I was there last.

You expect change – more houses, less wildlife, none of the magic of childhood. Incredibly, it was better in every way. A village pub on the green, a field at the end of the village set aside for wildflowers. The road bent round, passed through a hamlet and there beside a tall hedge was a footpath sign to the next village. A gap in the hedge took us through brambles, over a ditch and there it was; unchanged, wheat fields with paths running through and Ickham village’s church spire in the distance. A picture perfect England that shouldn’t exist, except in a movie, or memory.

The task of a good garden designer is to draw on a client’s childhood memories and other favourite landscapes and create a space they feel genuinely connected to.

You can visit any number of spectacular garden and say: ‘Yes, I want this, or what about that?’ And we can incorporate these elements into a new garden, of course.

But to make a new garden feel like home, the trick is first to go back in time, to the gardens of your memory. Rediscover things that were magical then. I’ve had a client remembering the scent of box in a grandparents garden, another the slope of a lawn which he rode a toy car down, another a pond with fish in it. These can then become a hedge maze leading to a dining area, a landform, a formal rill.

For myself, a few months after our wheat field trip, I sowed the field in front of my house with wildflowers. Next summer, we’ll scythe paths through them.