I love visiting summer gardens in the winter. Those which will let you in the gates at this time of the year are in the minority, but if you can find one, you will find a garden out of its vibrant, party-animal summer finery. You might even say you can never truly know a garden’s character until you have seen it in winter.
Gardens in winter are quieter, more reflective. They show off less: there’s less ‘look at me!’ competition and though high points are fewer and more subtle, there is so little else around at this time of year that you’re inordinately grateful for a cluster of flowers, a scent, a shaft of sunshine glancing off snow-white bark. Each highlight, however small, takes on a significance which summer flowers can struggle to achieve.
We were at a loose end on Saturday and it was – miracle! – a gloriously sunny day, so as staying in was simply not an option and the gardens at nearby Hestercombe are free all through January and February, off we went.
Hestercombe is one of those great restoration stories, in a similar vein to Aberglasney and Heligan. The original garden dates back to 1750, and there’s a second terrace in fine Victorian style: but its finest moment was when one Edwin Lutyens moved in just as the 20th century began to create the Edwardian Garden, a tour de force of symmetry, grandeur and beautifully-judged stonework sweeping out from the front of the house towards a fine view of my house in the Blackdown Hills. Oh all right, you can’t quite see my house from the back garden of Hestercombe, but it’s there somewhere (and was when Mr Lutyens was at work, too).
He was followed shortly after by the redoubtable Gertrude Jekyll who did the planting. The whole lot amounts to some 35 acres, and it must have been utterly breathtaking for all of twenty years – until the World Wars came along. After that the story is drearily familiar: army barracks, garden staff whittled down to two harried souls: trees felled randomly or left to grow where they shouldn’t. Finally it was completely abandoned.
Then in the 1970s, planting plans were found in a potting shed: more exploration revealed a disused waterfall, the ruins of garden buildings and follies including an 18th century water mill. Some helpfully detailed paintings surfaced of the garden as it was in the 18th century by its original owner, a landscape architect by the rather wonderful name of Copplestone Warre Bampfylde: and the restoration was under way.
With generous funding from the National Lottery work began in earnest in 1995 and it’s still going on: there are half-rebuilt ruins and bits of ground with no obvious purpose here and there around the edges. But the majority of the garden has emerged triumphant, a paean to the Victorian sense of occasion: sweeping vistas and grand statuary give way to intimate terraces, rills trickle playfully and all pay homage to the majestic view spreading out like some amphitheatre at your feet.
The craftsmanship is superb, with lovely craggy stone holding back the banks of grassy hillside and archways framing paths laid with the precision of an artist. Alot of it is all looking quite ‘new’ still: and perhaps that steals a little of the sense of history. But as the moss and the lichen creeps its way in, it will settle into its landscape once again, no doubt. I hope I shall be here to see it.