I’ve been wanting to visit Tyntesfield in Wraxall, near Bristol, for years. So on the slightly shaky pretext of tracking down a grapevine to photograph for the book (in all good bookshops from next Easter, assuming I can find a blimmin’ grapevine – Ed), and a passing mention of there being a grapevine somewhere in the grounds, I set off up the M5 on what passed for work but was actually a garden visiting jolly.
The house is a spectacularly beautiful Gothic revivalist confection, bought by the Gibbs family in 1843 and owned by them for four generations until the National Trust took it over.
The Gibbs family wealth was built on Peruvian bird poo: apparently guano was a hot commodity in Victorian times. They made fertiliser out of it. What the difference was that made it necessary to ship poo all the way from Peru when there was plenty to be had on the coasts of England is a mystery.
William Gibbs – who bought the house – was made a rich man by his lack of squeamishness about trading in the sort of stuff most buttoned-up Victorians wouldn’t even admit existed (and by not caring all that much about the thousands of African and Chinese slaves who died in his Peruvian guano pits, some 40 years after Britain abolished slavery).
He was known as the richest non-nobleman in England, though Victorian music-hall singers, in that wonderfully arch snobbery that was a feature of the period, were less kind: the song went
‘William Gibbs made his dibs,
Selling the turds of foreign birds.’
Anyway, I digress.
Of course I was there mostly to see the vegetable gardens: and a fine walled kitchen garden it is too, though it’s tucked a bit out of the way like an afterthought at the bottom of the hill that slopes away from the house.
The grapevine, along with some excellent peaches, was in a fine row of lean-to glasshouses (not your average off-the-shelf from the garden centre: think scalloped glass and metal frames). Unfortunately you couldn’t go inside, rather annoyingly, so that was it for my book photography excuse. I just about managed to squeeze the camera in through a side window to take the above photo of an exceptionally well-trained fig tree round the corner, though: must attempt this on a couple of figs I look after for clients.
It’s a modest sort of garden, run largely by volunteers with an honesty box outside for the veg. I did like their careful use of traditional materials: here old clay pipes used for forcing chicory and the like. There were some lovely rhubarb forcers too: and I do like a well-written slate plant label.
All very shipshape and lovely: even if I wasn’t a bit biased, the veg garden would actually be the best bit of the whole garden for me. There was a rather fetching spot just outside, full of dahlias (of which more later); alongside that was a newly-restored Grade I orangery, but the plants were a half-hearted afterthought – just a few slightly diffident-looking pot plants inside looking as if they’d rather be somewhere else. It was crying out for some majestic lemon trees dripping golden fruit and blossoms.
There’s also a not-bad rose garden, but all on its own, separated from the house by a rather unnecessarily long path (and unfortunately suffering badly from box blight so part-cordoned off when I was there). And there’s a formal terrace in front of the house itself.
But that’s pretty much it – in a 500-acre estate. I came away a little disappointed.
The garden didn’t hang together, somehow: to me, it felt like a series of slightly inconsequential interruptions to the otherwise expansive (and presumably easier to maintain) lawns-and-trees combo the National Trust is so fond of. As if someone had gone along thinking, hmm, we’d better have a bit of garden here – without really thinking about how it all links up.
An interesting lesson, perhaps, in how not to design a garden: it would have been better to group the disparate areas together, leading one into the other and relating to each other in some way. Like the gardens around the house at another local National Trust house, Knightshayes, perhaps – a similar era and style of house, yet the gardens so very much more successful (though for some reason there the kitchen garden is miles away too).
Just goes to show: bird poo can buy you a grand house but it can’t buy you discernment.
Thanks for your interesting post. Have never visited but will have to go now just to see that well-trained fig. The one I look after embarrassingly looks like a tangled mess in comparison- although it did produce some lovely figs this year 😀
Thank you, it is a fine example, isn’t it? I think to get quite that good an effect you have to start on them really young – the two I look after are also fruiting pretty well but totally rampant. I think one was originally trained against the wall but that’s way in the distant past and it’s just a huge mess of leaves and branches now. So I don’t suppose I’ll quite achieve that look but something approaching it would be nice… itching to get my hands on them, will have to wait till next May now I guess though!
Last time I visited Tyntesfield, they’d just started on the restoration of the glasshouses, so it’s interesting to see what’s been happening since then. Apparently much of the garden records were destroyed before the NT took over. as it was so nearly bought by developers and in that process many important documents were swept away. It might help to explain some of your disappointment with the design, but then the NT should have plenty of access to advice and documentation to provide something better… I liked Tyntesfield for the feeling that the family have only just stepped out of the door, it would be a shame if that was replaced with something more NT-corporate 😦
Yes actually to be fair I should say that Tyntesfield is still a work in progress and there’s plenty on the website and at the house to say they’re still developing it. But I got little impression that there were any particular plans, grand or otherwise, for the gardens: they’ve just restored the orangery, of course, but that was more about the masonry really.
As you say, all credit to them for rescuing it from the developers. I’m a huge fan of the National Trust and have been an enthusiastic member for many years, so I don’t want to belittle what they’re doing at Tyntesfield. However – though you can’t always have the plans for the garden as it was, there are plenty of gardens of a similar era and you could always create something that was authentic without having to be slavish to what was actually there.
Perhaps in the coming years we’ll see lots of work on the gardens too, once they’ve finished developing the house etc. Now that would be a nice excuse to go and revisit…
Lovely looking garden.