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
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.