which explores four iconic British gardens, from Christopher Lloyd's Arts and
Craft Great Dixter to Georgian Stowe and from Victorian Biddulph Grange to the
quintessentially English Nyman's.
Emma Townshend: British Gardens in Time - oh,
BBC, what do you think you're doing?
I don't know whether the BBC was
specifically trying to start a squabble, but last week it defo did so. Forget
the very mild controversy over Benefit
Street or that tiny bit of gossip you may have
heard about Strictly's Susannah leaving her husband: this is the big one. Yep,
if you want to get the nation really ranting, you know what you need to do?
Kick off a row about the best gardens in Britain.
In particular, you need to commission a big
series called British
Gardens in Time, with
nice presenters such as designer Chris Beardshaw and acclaimed garden historian
Andrea Wulf; and then include only FOUR gardens. All of which are ENGLISH. And
none of which is further north than junction 17 of the M6. (That's Crewe, for crying out loud.)
The series begins on BBC4 on Tuesday with
Stowe, an elegant, huge and leg-knackering landscape very handily located for
Silverstone race track. Stowe is also, once you start to look into the history,
a singularly argumentative garden. Despite all the apparent Arcadian ease, Lord
Cobham, the 18th-century landowner, created most of it during a period of
political exile after falling out with Whig prime minister Robert Walpole.
Far from trying to distract himself from
his worklife woes, Cobham went all out to make a garden that had a massive go
at Walpole, with a "Temple of British Worthies"
to hammer home the point about good and bad government. Seldom has a rolling
landscape had so much bitter political venom put into it. And the result is
If you like this kind of thing, you must
get the series' accompanying book, written by distinguished garden historian
Katie Campbell. Campbell
treads a nice line between juicy facts and the aesthetic qualities of the
gardens. I adore her description of Jane Austen-ish tourists turning up in
carriages, buying guidebooks and filling up the local inns, while commendably
tipping the head gardener.
The Beeb's most intriguing inclusion is
Biddulph Grange, a Victorian garden near Stoke-on-Trent
that sort of has to be seen to be believed. The garden's maker was James
Bateman, son of a businessman father who'd been "unscrupulous but
extremely successful", according to Campbell.
Shadily accumulated cash funded an orchid habit that began before James had
even finished university; and later, a properly crazy garden with a tomb-like
Egyptian garden, scarlet Chinese bridge, and stupendously likeable, er, thing
built entirely out of tree stumps (apparently they were all the rage in
The series winds up with two great English
gardens. Nymans is in West Sussex, and I've
never really fallen in love with it, though I understand it is technically
possible to do so. Campbell
calls it "the most exquisite Edwardian retreat of all", though here,
my argumentative side starts to rear its head. Why not include Arts and Crafts
Standen or tumbling-bordered Gravetye instead? (And that's just in Sussex.) If we
are being completely obvious, where are Britain's most famous gardens
internationally: Hidcote, Sissinghurst?
And if we're being more devolved in our
thinking, where are the Edwardian gardens of Yorkshire, Derybshire or the Lake District? Bodnant, the Edwardian jewel of North
Wales; Mount Stuart,
on the Isle of Bute, just 90 minutes from Glasgow?
I felt annoyed for all of these head gardeners, once more ignored.
But in the end, the series finishes exactly
where I'd have picked myself: Great Dixter, for my money (£8.80 admission, if
you were wondering) is the best garden on our island. Christopher Lloyd, its
maker, and his admirable successor Fergus Garrett offer a changing spectacle of
flowery loveliness in an underpinning structure of perfectly balanced weight.
And for once, I'm brooking no argument.