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Visiting British Gardens

Article contributed by: Sisley Garden Tours

Britain has an enviable reputation in the world for its gardens. The development of European garden design may be traced back to Persia, the Mogul Emperors and Asia Minor. The Moslems took their ideas to the south of the Mediterranean, along the coast of North Africa to influence the Moorish gardens of Spain. Around the north of the Mediterranean, the Greeks developed design concepts which then moved on into Europe. The Romans, the Renaissance architects and then the French had their day before leadership passed to Britain in the 18th century.
The most famous gardener in British history is undoubtedly 'Capability' Brown, who was responsible for sweeping away many formal French-style garden designs from stately homes of the aristocracy during the second half of the 18th century. However the fashion for landscaped estates which he encouraged had its beginnings under the earlier influence of Charles Bridgeman, George London, Henry Wise and the painter and architect William Kent. These men had a hand in creating many of the great garden estates which may still be seen today, such as Claremont, Stowe, Stourhead, Rousham, Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth, Hampton Court Palace and many others.

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, the great plant hunters, many from Scotland, introduced thousands of new plants to Britain. This resulted in a growing interest in flower gardens and the planting of rare trees and shrubs from many parts of the world. It also lead to the development of the nation's Botanic gardens, arboreta and many municipal parks and gardens. Humphrey Repton replaced 'Capability Brown as head gardener at Hampton Court and was the first to call himself a landscape gardener. William Gilpin introduced a romantic picturesque landscape style which may still be seen at Scotney Castle in Kent. Joseph Paxton in his time was famous for his high-technology cast iron and glass structures which secured him a knighthood by his creation of the famous Crystal Palace. W.A.Nesfield has lovely rose gardens to his credit which may still be seen at Kew, Inverary, Balcaskie and at Castle Howard. Besides the British Houses of Parliament the architect Charles Barry designed terrace gardens at Harewood House in Yorkshire and at Dunrobin Castle in Scotland, and Italian gardens in Staffordshire and Suffolk.

Other legacies of plant hunting expeditions were the collections of their patrons, who had first pick of their new botanic discoveries. Most significant among these are in the woodland gardens of western Scotland and the south west of England. These were designed to mirror the landscapes of the lands of origin of their contents - mainly the Himalayas. Today some of these temperate rain forests in the damp acid soils of Scottish glens like Crarae and Cornish ghylls like Trebah have matured for over 150 years. They are a wonderful sight and a plantsman's delight in early spring. There are tree rhododendrons, many camellias, asiatic magnolias, eucryphias and other plants brought to the country by the Hookers, Farrer, Forest, Frazer, Sherriff, Ludlow, Kingdon Ward and their colleagues, all under planted with wild Himalayan flowers including the blue mecanopsis poppy and candelabra primulas.

The wealth which accumulated from Britain's Industrial Revolution before the turn of the 20th century was followed by the construction of many new large private houses and gardens. This increased the interest in garden design. The architect Edwin Lutyens together with Gertrude Jekyll created masterpieces in many parts of the country, but their garden at Hestercombe in Somerset is a classic. Harold Peto is remembered for Italianate masterpieces at Buscot Park, Heale House, Iford Manor and on the island of Ilnacullin in Bantry Bay in Ireland. William Robinson, born in Ireland, was the leader of a new 'Landscape' school of gardening, teaching the nation to appreciate hardy plants and herbaceous borders at their true value at Emmetts, his own home at Gravetye Manor, and at Killerton and Nymans gardens. Reginald Blomfield urged a return to simpler formality of Renaissance and seventeenth-century gardens, demonstrated at Mellerstain in the Scottish Borders and Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home in Northamptonshire of George Washington. Lawrence Johnson developed the concept of the 'garden room' at Hidcote Manor, his home in the Cotswolds. The American garden designer Lanning Roper contributed to the garden designs at Wisley, the home of the Royal Horticultural Society in Surrey, Scotney Castle and Claverton Manor. Russell Page's work may be seen at Leeds Castle and Port Lympne in Kent. At East Lambrook Manor you can visit Margery Fish's garden, made famous by her books on the abundant style of cottage gardening.

Today's trend-setters of gardening are strongly influenced by the media and are more focused on popular gardening. Resisting the commercial temptations of the suppliers of timber, stone, brick and glass, gardening authors and plantsmen Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto, Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse still rely on plants for their effects in their gardens. However a strong new school of 'hard' garden design is emerging with emphasis on technology as well as materials. Anthony Paul's design at Hannah Peschar's Sculpture Garden uses electronics to generate surprises based on Renaissance principals of hydraulics. John Chambers, who has inherited the garden at Kiftsgate Court, has introduced a double row of slender metal stems, holding aloft gold-plated casts of Philodendron, dribbling water into a still, reflective, rectangular pool.

Besides the better known gardens in Britain, there are also over 3,000 private gardens in the Open Gardens Scheme, which may be visited by appointment during the summer. Among these are many gems carefully tended by their owners, who are always pleased to share the pleasure of their creations with enthusiastic visitors.

Garden visiting is a fascinating pastime, with many facets. While generating enthusiasm for discovering new plants, seeing design ideas, appreciating colour combinations, creating photography, following history or just soaking up the pure romance of gardens, it supports absorbing hobbies at any level of expertise. The gardens in Britain's beautiful countryside are without doubt the best in the world, are well worth visiting, will fill you with wonder and appreciation, and will surely tempt you to return.