Hidcote 13.07.12

Lawrence Johnston and the garden he made at Hidcote are world famous. He handed the garden to the National Trust in 1948 and they have been maintaining it ever since. Lawrence Johnston seems to have been a very private man, the garden is constructed on a very small and intimate scale for his own use and to entertain a few friends. One of the big problems for the National Trust has been maintaining the structure of the garden while accomodating the thousands of visitors that arrive every year.

This is a view of the old garden, looking back to Hidcote Manor. Johnston's mother had bought the Hidcote Manor Estate in 1907 and by 1910 he had started to lay out some of the key features of the garden. He was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and by the garden writings of Gertrude Jekyll but the garden is uncompromisingly architectural in its planning and construction. There is an almost mechanical precision about the layout that would not have sat well with the arts and crafts movement. Jekyll obtained a similar definition in her gardens through her collaboration with Lutyens.

The Rose Walk shows this mechanical aspect to perfection. The roses and herbaceous planting are colour themed with unwavering discipline but the most powerful statement comes from the clipped columns of Irish Yew.
Hidcote is often 'sold' to peaple as a garden of gardens, that is to say a collection of smaller gardens grouped together. Each one has a distinctive style (though Johnston repeats himself from time to time) and is contained by hedging that preserve its integrity. Gardens do not blend imperceptibly into each other. There is a boundary, a threshold and then a new garden. Johnston seems to delight in the theatricality of these transitions and to contrive surprises so that each new garden unfolds with a sudden but not unpleasant shock. Each new garden is unexpectedly appropriate without ever being predicable.

When I first visited, in 1980, the garden was still wrestling with the transformation from private garden to conservation project. Johnston had been dead for a couple of decades but there was still something rather frail and personal about the garden. Visitor numbers were beginning to wear down the grass and cause maintenace problems. Some areas of the garden had slipped into neglect and some of the original features were probably un-maintainable. One of the casualties was the plant house. Johnston had a second home and garden on the Riviera and the plant house at Hidcote allowed him to grow some familiar but tender plants. The National Trust have just replaced the building on the original site, following the original plans. It is a sensible way to conserve the content and intention of the garden, and it gives visitors somewhere dry to hide if it rains (it threatened all day).

This is a new feature in the garden. When I first visited, the functional end of the garden was sealed off. Vegetable gardens and potting sheds were kept well out of sight. I was impressed that the National Trust have accepted that these are an essential and interesting part of the garden. They show how a garden is constructed, it isn't simply a finished arrangement presented on a platter. Much of the space is now occupied by a production greenhouse and a frame yard, but there is also a large vegetable garden and a pig in a pen.
This annual cornfield meadow is a new feature, but an effective modern development of the arts and crafts mentality. Annual meadows are easy to do badly, and this was just perfect, so someone knows what they are doing. Throughout the garden the maintenance is skilled and unobtrusive and the garden shines as though polished daily.

The red border is one of the classic features of the garden. The path through it was discretely blocked off, so that the turf isn't worn. It is a lot more institutional than it was 30 years ago, when a jumble of red flowers and leaves spilled through it in a rather haphazard way. I'm not sure if this is better or worse, but it is different.

The long walk is probaly the clearest statement of Johnstons architectural intent. A very long green lawn leads from a pair of small pavillions (I'm standing in the second) to a tall pair of wrought iron gates at the far end. It is a magnificent vista though trees are starting to obscure it. There is a slight dip in the ground, but in effect the vista runs gently uphill and the gates at the end frame a view into the sky. He was a bit theatrical.
Hidcote is often presented as a garden of small gardens, but for me it is the complex network of contrived views and sightlines that define the style. The garden is built on a small scale, for a single person to wander round and it is laced through with geometrically precise pathways and vistas. I find it a lonely garden, filled with friendly and jovial strangers.

This is the Pillar Garden, using the same clipped yew pillars that featured so strongly in the rose walk, but using dozens of them in a complex interlocking rectangle of double rows with walkways between. The path between them is little more than a foot wide and without the long walk and some other large lawns the garden would be oppressively claustrophobic.

This is the newly excavated rock bank. This and the adjoining bulb slope had been lost in the undergrowth for as long time. It has yet to be planted fully but it adds a fresh texture to a garden that is at times very heavy and melancholy (Johnston did not have an easy life and his troubles and anxieties sometimes seen to be trapped in the congestion of the garden).

This tiny archway, about the height and width of a man, is matched by another on the other side of the long walk. It is a massively understated intersection of two long views that must have been calculated to be a constant surprise. If you were a child runing through here you could play hide and seek at every step. First you are here, then you are invisible again. Lost, then found, then lost again. I can't help wondering if that was what Johnston wanted, to be able to turn a corner at any moment as disappear into himself. Perhaps this was all just a way of hiding from it (that 'it' that persues us all in one way or another).

The bathing pool occupies a small round garden wrapped in a clipped yew hedge. I remembered this as a bright place, perfectly proportioned and leading on to the lower part of the garden. The clipped yew exit has been blocked off to reduce wear (which is quite reasonable - the design requires close cropped grass and a muddy footpath would be unacceptable), so it is currently a bit of a dead end. It has become stark and severe and rather gloomy. Perhaps it sparkles on a sunny day, but it made me quite sad.
Hidcote has matured a lot since I visited in 1980. The contents have grown bigger. I'm sure that in Johnston's day it was a lot more open and light. Now the mature planting is quite heavy in places and the feeling has become sombre. What do you do as gardens mature, leave them to change or tear things out and start again? This is an astonishing garden, and it is developing sensibly and sensitively.
I wonder if Lawrence Johnston would have recognised it as his.

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