In search of old orchards

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Intrepid times: I’ve become a volunteer surveyor for the Orchards East project, and undertaken my first site visit.  I did my homework, looking at the old orchard sites marked up for the project on modern maps, and reading the health and safety rules that came with my surveyor’s pack. When did going for a walk and snooping over fences get so complicated? I must tell a ‘responsible person’ where I’m going, take a fully charged mobile phone, avoid dogs and bulls, and be sure to tuck my trousers into my boots for fear of insects. I played safe and took a companion with me.

The first site is behind a remote house at the end of a track through an old hospital.  Turning off the busy road took us into an alternative universe, deserted and slightly sinister. We drove along an avenue of savagely pollarded old limes, waiting out the winter with their cropped heads and bare trunks.  Behind them were blank hoardings, screening off a building site. There was no sign of life around the buildings though some are still in use.

After the avenue, the paved track ran past a pair of derelict, boarded-up cottages. It turned into grass and muddy ruts, as our venerable car bumped and scraped its way up the hill.   Our destination was an old farmhouse. As we got nearer we could see it was abandoned, with rubbish piled by the gate, and boarded-up windows. The tiles on the gable hung drunkenly adrift.  All around were fields and silence. A green woodpecker called somewhere nearby, and a red kite, forked tail clear against the sky, wheeled over our heads.

‘Moat’, said the map, in the olde worlde writing that indicates a historic feature. There’s still a big pond in about the right place.  The area that was a sizeable orchard at the end of the nineteenth century is now a bare flat place of rough grass and wild flowers to the side of a barn with a caved-in roof. There are just two twisty old trees coming into bloom, last remnants of the once productive orchard.

I noted on my survey form what I could see, and we edged the car back down the track. A solitary man stood holding a sweaty horse by a loose rein as it cropped the grass.   He stared at us – we waved and smiled matily but he looked unimpressed, even suspicious. Had he called the cops? A police car was cruising slowly up from the road. Did that useful health and safety pack say anything about getting arrested?

The orchards project covers six counties in the east of England. It’s directed by the University of East Anglia, with National Lottery funding. The aim is to discover and understand the past, present and future of orchards in Eastern England.

 

Humphry Repton in Hertfordshire

Humphry Repton in Hertfordshire: Documents and Landscapes, edited by Sue Flood and Tom Williamson, Hertfordshire University Press. ISBN: 978-1-909291-98-0 Hardback, 304pp, £25

Repton book cover

Humphry Repton (1752-1818), the son of a Suffolk excise-collector, began working as a landscape designer five years after the death of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 1783. In his mid-thirties, running short of money after dabbling unsuccessfully in other occupations including textiles and farming, Repton finally found his vocation. This spring, the University of Hertfordshire Press marks Repton’s bicentenary with a lavishly illustrated volume on his Hertfordshire commissions, the result of several years’ hard work by members of the Hertfordshire Gardens Trust’s (HGT) Research Group.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet comes across Mr Darcy and the two Bingley sisters strolling in the shrubbery. Invited to join them, she exclaims, No, no stay where you are, you are charmingly grouped and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting the fourth…’. Longbourn, the Bennet family home, is situated in Hertfordshire. Its exact whereabouts has prompted speculation – could the nearby town of Meryton in the novel be Hertford? Or perhaps Ware?

In a famous scene in the novel, the confrontation between Elizabeth Bennet and formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the characters move outside into the garden, which has fashionable elements: “Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company, ”    “Go, my dear,” cried her mother, “and shew her ladyship about the different walks. I think she will be pleased with the hermitage.”

When Jane Austen moves her characters out of doors into the Regency landscape, we can find such gentle vignettes parodying the vogue for the ‘picturesque’. Designing a landscape as if composing a painting became fashionable towards the end of the eighteenth century, and Repton, himself a skilled artist, trod a fine line between this ‘Art’ of landscape gardening and the robust style of his predecessor, Brown. He was well known in Jane Austen’s world, and puts in a personal appearance in Mansfield Park, where the fashion for improving the landscape is addressed directly:

“Cut down an avenue! What a pity,” murmurs Fanny Price, when Mr Rushworth, suggests cutting down the avenue of ancient oak trees at his estate, Sotherton. Sotherton is thought to be based on Stoneleigh Abbey, home of Jane Austen’s wealthy relatives, the Leigh family. Repton produced a design for the grounds at Stoneleigh in 1809, two years before she is known to have visited in 1811.

Mr Rushworth has been inspired by a visit to a friend’s house and grounds, which Repton has transformed. In comparison, he says, Sotherton looks like a dismal old prison. “I must try to do something with it, but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me.”

“Your best friend upon such an occasion,” said Miss Bertram calmly, “would be Mr. Repton, I imagine.”

“That is what I was thinking of. …I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day.”

Plenty of Hertfordshire landowners followed Mr Rushworth’s fictional lead and called in Repton to modernize their gardens and grounds. Using a mix of site surveys and patient detective work in libraries and archives, the HGT’s team of volunteer researchers identified a total of nineteen Repton sites in Hertfordshire, more than any other county. Among them are eight sites of major importance, including Ashridge House, Haileybury College, Panshanger, and Wall Hall. The research was directed by Professor Tom Williamson of the University of East Anglia, who is the book’s co-editor together with former Hertfordshire archivist Sue Flood.

Repton’s Red Books

Repton is famed for the individual Red Books he produced for his clients. ‘When called upon for my opinion concerning the improvement of a place’, he wrote, ‘I have generally delivered it in writing, bound in a small book, containing maps and sketches, to explain the alterations proposed: this is called the Red Book of the place; and thus my opinions have been diffused over the kingdom in nearly two hundred such manuscript volumes.’ Bound in red Moroccan leather, the books contain Repton’s watercolour paintings of the ‘before’ views of a landscape, with a hinged flap to lift to reveal the ‘after’. His descriptions of landscape features and proposed improvements are handwritten in elegant copperplate. Six of the original books he produced for Hertfordshire clients survive, including the Red Books for Panshanger and Tewin Water, sites where Repton’s work can still be seen today. When the fifth Earl Cowper engaged Humphry Repton in 1799 to improve Tewin Water and his other estates in the River Mimram valley, Repton proposed to give each individual estate ‘a degree of extent and consequence’, while ‘their united lawns will, by extending thro’ the whole valley, enrich the general face of the country’.

However, Repton generally relied on more subtle effects than ‘Capability’ Brown. ‘If Brown was a cosmetic surgeon’, says Tom Williamson, ‘Repton was a make-up artist’. Repton’s thirty-year career crossed from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth, his style a bridge from the landscape parks of Brown to the more structured gardens of the Victorian period. By the end of his career, Repton was designing highly formal gardens, even geometric parterres, features that would have been anathema to Brown.

Repton more often designed the grounds of local gentry or businessmen than the great estates of aristocrats. He was sensitive to the social aspirations of the moderately wealthy. The social importance and influence of local gentry was rising in the late eighteenth century, and there were increasing numbers of merchants and financiers, keen to build ‘villas’ with parks, but often without a significant estate attached, within easy reach of the major cities. Such changes were particularly important in Hertfordshire, and especially in the south of the county, where many wealthy London businessmen bought small manors or even farmhouses and converted them into fashionable residences. Repton’s designs fulfilled their particular concern that their houses should appear to dominate the countryside around them, something he described as ‘appropriation’.

Sometimes these clients did not see eye-to-eye with Repton about the extent of work needed, causing him to write on one occasion that if profit was his employer’s only motivation, the flower garden might as well be sown with potatoes and cabbages.   ‘Good taste’, he wrote loftily, ‘can only be acquired by leisure and observation; it is not therefore to be expected in men whose time is fully employed in the more important acquirement of wealth and fame’. But Repton certainly worked for many such clients in Hertfordshire, newly rich individuals who acquired a country property near London and were impatient to have it ‘improved’ in the latest style.

A conference celebrating Humphry Repton will be held at Ashridge in August 2018  .

 

 

 

Making a potager

 

Chelsea inspiration

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What could I do with the dull patch of grass in the centre of our garden? Inspiration struck when I saw the show garden at Chelsea (above) made by Jekka McVicar of Jekka’s Herb Farm, near Bristol.

Her Modern Apothecary Garden, a harmonious mix of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers, was put together on the basis that every plant in it should be useful. The result was something between a conventional herb garden and a ‘potager’, a mix of flowers and vegetables. Constructing a traditional potager involves using the principles of garden design to create an area that is both ornamental and productive.

Ballymaloe gardens

The gardens of the Ballymaloe Cookery School near Cork, which I visited last May, include a flourishing potager complete with sculptural scarecrows. Globe artichokes, sea kale, squash, chillies and oriental vegetables grow side by side, ruby chard, sprouts and ornamental cabbage provide winter colour, and edible flowers include lavender, marigold, nasturtium and cornflowers. Crops are rotated each year and the gardener practises companion planting whenever possible.

The Potager du Roi at Versailles

The grandest potager of all must be the 22-acre Potager du Roi, created in Versailles between 1678 and 1683 to provide fruit and vegetables for the Sun King, Louis XIV. Still a productive fruit and vegetable garden containing many old and rare varieties, the Potager du Roi is now used for training horticulture and landscape architecture students. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, architect of the Palace of Versailles, designed the layout of 29 regular plots around a central fountain, and the king had a raised walkway built so he and his courtiers could stroll round watching the thirty gardeners at work.

Flowers and herbs, fruit and veg

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With no palace architects to hand, we dug up our battered lawn and laid out a simple grid of beds edged with gravel board, installed a rusted iron arch and large terracotta pot as focal points, and made paths by putting down weed control fabric and covering it with gravel. Two iron obelisks reclaimed from elsewhere in the garden provided height in the central beds.

A small solar-powered fountain that had been lying unused in the garage for years found a place at the central crossing, and we planted standard hawthorn trees at the corners.

After adding plenty of compost to the clay soil, we began planting: herbs near the front, salad and vegetables in the middle, and fruit at the back. Lavender went in near the entrance, and two tiny myrtle bushes grown from cuttings by a neighbour began their duty as evergreen winter interest. I copied Jekka McVicar’s idea of a carpet of different varieties of thyme, and added sage, parsley and mint. I sent to Kent for a hop – variety ‘Fuggle’ – for one side of the arch, to David Austin for a climbing rose for the other side, and to Jekka’s Herb Farm for seeds of camomile, lovage, feverfew, lettuce and chard. I added marigolds, foxgloves, and two majestic cardoons for height and impact. Blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry bushes went in, together with a miniature mulberry tree.

A first harvest

img_1301-e1522155466640.jpgWe have harvested salads, herbs, courgettes, peas, beans and berries, and had an ever-changing carpet of colours and textures to look at from the kitchen. It’s a work in progress: we still lack the final touch of brick edging, and the plan to make a mini pond in the terracotta pot is on hold. Strawberries, which were raided by birds and invaded everything with runners, have been banished. But the rainbow chard blazed away all winter, while salad leaves, spinach, kale and sprouting broccoli are holding up despite pests and weather.

Planting for rhythm and texture

According to the design principles for a potager, the main points to consider are rhythm, line, colour and texture. Repeat planting and the use of accent plants should maintain a rhythm through the plot, and lead the eye to focal points. Within a formal structure, crops can be grown in drifts, dotted through the plot, and used as edging. As well as creating a sense of drama through the contrasting colours and textures of edible plants, the idea is to include ornamental plants for further contrast, as companion plants, and to encourage pollination by attracting insects. I haven’t used my feverfew to treat headaches yet, but the plant’s long-lasting clusters of yellow and white blooms and delicate foliage made a pleasing contrast to the beans that grew up behind them. This year’s challenge is to experiment with more varieties, both productive and ornamental – if I can find the space.