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Princess Beatrice’s garden at Carisbrooke Castle:
Edwardian? Mediaeval? Or 21st century?

I’ve been wondering a bit lately about all these historic gardens we’re restoring.

I spend a hefty proportion of my days writing about garden restoration projects. We seem to be in a restoration frenzy: in the last two or three years alone we’ve seen Wrest Park rise from the ashes, the Elizabethangarden at Kenilworth Castle recreated, the Crystal Grotto atPainshill Park rescued from oblivion and Chiswick Park overhauled to within an inch of its life.

And that’s not even counting Hidcote, the Liverpool Garden Festival site, the Seafront Gardensat Felixstowe and Myddleton House, EA Bowles’s pad in Enfield, Middlesex.

I can’t prove it, but I’d be willing to bet we’ve restored more historic gardens in the last four or five years than at any point in the last 50.
A good time, then, to take a step back and really think about what we’re doing here.
Note the many different words we use for the restoration of a garden: recreation, revitalisation, reconstruction…. When we take a neglected garden and return it to something people will pay to come and see (and after all, that’s – at least partly – what it’s all about) – what, exactly, are we doing?
Ancient and modern: grass plats and mulberry trees

In a rather timely sort of way, the Professional Gardeners’ Guild held its annual seminar on Historic Buildings Parks and Gardens earlier this month, during which they considered this a lot more coherently than I can. They looked at the choices you make when you decide to restore a garden: do you restore them to a historic plan, perhaps the original design you’ve discovered at the back of some dusty cupboard in the Big House?

Or do you come up with a new design – perhaps echoing the style of the original garden, or evoking a historical reference but with a modern twist?

As it happens, I’ve been to visit one of each this year.

Hestercombenear Taunton in Somerset is a faithful restoration of what was there originally: and who can blame them. They had one of the most historically important landscapes in the country on their hands, including an iconic Jekyll-Lutyens design. They had lots of maps, documents, drawings, plans: so what you see now is pretty much an exact replica of what was there when each of the various parts of the garden was in its heyday. Double rills, terraces, pergolas and bedding in fancy formal layouts. Very beautiful; very late Victorian; very faithful.
Hestercombe: a truly faithful restoration
There is always, however, something of the museum about these gardens. I love Hestercombe, don’t get me wrong: and there’s something wonderful about being able to taste living history like this, to experience life as it must have been in the 19th century (with added tea-shops).
But it is Victorian life preserved in aspic, and gardens are living, breathing things that above all change: perhaps the essence of the paradox that lies at the heart of garden restoration.
At the other extreme: when English Heritage decided they wanted to return what was essentially a small field within the walls of Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight back to its Edwardian incarnation as the privy garden used by Princess Beatrice, daughter of Queen Victoria, they decided against a restoration, in the classical sense. Instead, they brought in Chris Beardshaw to design what you might call an evocation of the original.
Berkheya purpurea – it just looks historic
It does use the layout you would have seen in the original early-20th century garden, but the planting is noticeably modern. It does ‘reflect the feel and spirit of the period’, as the blurb says: there’s something about Berkheya purpurea that always looks like it’s been around a long time.
But superb colour combinations such as Agastache ‘Black Adder’, Sedum telephium‘Purple Emperor’ and Geranium wlassovianum had the exciting, vibrant feel of 21st-century planting. There were subtle references – a blue, red and gold colour scheme reflecting Princess Beatrice’s crest, for example – but it felt like a modern garden.
And that was odd, because it wasn’t. Actually I think this was further complicated by the fact that Princess Beatrice clearly had a penchant for the mediaeval: I suppose it was all those castle walls looming over her. So there are grass plats, and flowery meads, and spreading mulberry trees over seating areas. Very lovely, and a relaxing space to stroll around, but undeniably in the vaguely Mediaev-Eliza-Tudor mould. So not Edwardian at all, then.
Again – I don’t mean to give the impression I disliked the garden: actually, I loved it, especially the enclosed, intimate feeling. The big figs in planters didn’t work for me, leaving one side of the garden feeling rather unresolved, but that wasn’t really Chris’s fault as he was trying to avoid sending roots into the foundations of a 13th-century building they discovered while creating the garden. By such compromises are history-riddled projects beset.
Sublime planting… though perhaps not what Princess Beatrice
would have seen. But does that matter?
But I felt that as a garden, it wasn’t really sure what it was. A celebration of Edwardian style and elegance? A modern take on the mediaeval tradition? Or a homage to a lady who lived in the early 20th century but rather preferred the 12th? Perhaps all those things.
It’s clearly possible to capture the spirit, or the essence of a garden: Chris himself is a past master at it, and has successfully converted bare plots at Chelsea into slices of Boveridge House in Dorset, Hidcote, and next year Furzey Gardens in Hampshire.
But when you take that to the actual place – the location of the original garden – you end up with something akin to pastiche, or at best a mildly uncomfortable dissonance.
The PGG seminar concluded that design, and designers, have an important part to play in garden restoration. But Lord Cavendish – who has I think a better solution by commissioning Kim Wilkie, of Orpheus fame, to build him an unashamedly 21st century earthworks in the late 18thcentury grounds of Holker Hall (opening next spring) – made the point that gardens these days are used differently now to how they were in the past.
And, he added, perhaps saying the unsayable, ‘Some gardens will be lost. But gardens are and should be ephemeral.’
Which puts a whole new slant on the question: should we be restoring gardens at all?