Bolsover: a Mannerist Masterpiece

detail of the Venus Fountain, photo by Edward Moss

If you’ve ever driven on the M1 between Nottingham  and Sheffield you can’t have missed the  large castle perched high on a steep promontory overlooking and commanding the wide valley below. This is  Bolsover Castle, visible for miles around, and enjoying one of  most magnificent settings of any historic building in Britain. Having said that it’s also quite likely you’ll have carried on driving and not turned off to investigate further. If that’s the case you’ve missed a treat, and doubly so since English Heritage completed their restoration and improvement works.

But Bolsover isn’t just any old  castle, indeed its only a castle in form and outward appearance. It’s actually an early 17thc mannerist  pleasure palace and a masterpiece of design. You can tell from that description that I quite liked it! [My photos, Nov 2017] unless otherwise stated] Read on to find out exactly why…

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More than just a knotty problem…

There are plenty of choices for plants that are a nuisance and  almost as many for those that are a damned nuisance or worse. Depending on your location and circumstances it could Brambles, Nettles, Docks, Ground Elder, Marestail, Hogweed …the list is almost endless. But to name a plant  that can stop you getting your house insured or that is powerful enough to break through tarmac or concrete doesn’t leave you much choice. It has to be Japanese Knotweed.

no it’s not asparagus!

But you can see why Knotweed – botanically Fallopia japonica – was a smash hit with gardeners when it was first introduced in the 19thc. It is an imposing plant, with sprays of beautiful white flowers, strong architectural form and lush foliage.  Of course what they didn’t know initially, although it didn’t take that long to find out the hard way,  is that is rampantly invasive and virtually impossible to eradicate. It’s no wonder its been declared a public nuisance and was proscribed from being planted in 1981.  Yet I’ve seen the same plant growing under controlled circumstances in historic gardens so just maybe, potentially, perhaps, it is remotely possible to have the best of both worlds.

Fallopia japonica .  Alex Hyde photography

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Repton and his business

HAPPY NEW YEAR!  If you hadn’t already realised 2018 is Repton Year, when we’re commemorating the life and work of the last great landscape designer of the eighteenth century.  Unlike the Festival for his ‘predecessor’ Capability Brown there is no great central nationally funded organization. Instead Celebrating Humphry Repton  will be a collaborative effort, which, even though although it can’t match the funding of CB300,  looks certain to match the enthusiasm and spread of interest nationally.  County Gardens Trusts and other groups will be arranging events around the country throughout the year to celebrate Repton’s work. You can find a list – continually being updated – at this dedicated webpage on  The Gardens Trust website.  If you would like to get involved or receive updates email The more people who join in, the better the celebration!

And of course the blog is going to play its small part.  Repton has already been the subject of two posts  way back in April 2104  [ A general one about his life and another on his work at Ashridge] but during the course of this year I’m going to look at aspects of Repton’s approach to garden and landscape design, in what I hope is a less conventional way so that I [and you the reader] don’t get Humphed-out by the end of the year and wish that he’d never been born!


But where to start?

The more I read the more complicated Repton becomes, until  I asked myself what’s the one thing that everyone knows about Repton? He made Red Books.  But the how and why he did isn’t quite so obvious.  It isn’t even clear why he became a landscape gardener in the first place.  So lets start there…. Continue reading

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2017 on the blog

My garden yesterday – a subtle difference to last year.

It’s now 4 years to the day that I started this blog and this is my 203rd post!  Readership  has continued to rise: about 46,000 hits this year compared with 37,000 last year, 25,000 in 2015 and about 7000 in 2014.  That means readership is now averaging over 120 a day, about 1000 a week and  around 4,000 a month.   There have been over 27,000 visitors, compared with 21500 last year,  10,200 in 2015 and under 3,000 in 2014.  Since the blog started there have been a grand total of 116,000 views from 62,000 visitors.

We’re in danger of being washed away rather than frozen out

In terms of popularity, once again somewhat to my surprise  Stumperies   [May 2015]  has topped the list which has attracted 1530 viewings.   Next comes Humphry Repton [April 2014] with 1076, presumably because everyone is waking up the forthcoming bicentenary.  After  him come several other old favourites with Harry Wheatcroft, The colour of Carrots,   A Pineapple & Mr Rose,  Paulownia,  Night Soil,  Beatrice Parsons, and Carters Seeds all receiving more than 800 hits.  You can see a fuller list below.

It looks quite serene now it’s not pouring with rain…

However, as I’ve said in previous years  some posts  have hardly been read at all. Why did the idea of spending Christmas with Shirley Hibberd attract only 38, Peas Perfect Peas only 37 and the series I wrote on Romance and Reason only 28 [the link takes you to the first of 3 and you can then click through to the others]?

So thank you to everyone who has been reading the posts, telling their friends and passing the blog on.  Please keep up the enthusiasm and the comments.

And now  to fill the seemingly endless days between Christmas and the New Year is just what you’ve all been waiting for – another end of year quiz to test your powers of recall from posts over the course of the year.  Answers at the end.

….and the wind isn’t blowing at 70kph

Good Luck and Happy New Year!

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Christmas in the Park…

Chiswick, December 2017

I had planned to do another of my slightly off-beat approaches to a Christmas post –  and was looking at  Shirley Hibberd’s monograph on Ivy for inspiration – when into my inbox came a post from a fascinating botanical blog run by Manchester Museum’s Herbarium.

Since 2014 its been hosting an Advent Botany series looking at the obvious and not-so-obvious  stories of plants and their relationship to Christmas, [my favourite so far has been about elfs] and of course there was one about Ivy based around Hibberd’s book.

What was I to do?  The answer came a few days later when I took a class who’ve been looking at early 18th gardens this term  to Chiswick House.

The Orangery at Chiswick, December 2017

It wasn’t the answer I had expected, and certainly not one I’d hoped for but it was one that I think would have had Lord and Lady Burlington turning in their graves. So read on to find out more about the perils of having Christmas in the park in the age of austerity…

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Park Hill from Tate to Today

Last week’s post told the first part of the story of Park Hill, a Victorian estate in Streatham in what is now south London.  In 1873 the house was put up for sale after the death of its builder William Leaf, although there was little interest, and it was not until in 1880 it was finally sold.

Sir Henry Tate
by Thomas Brock, Tate Gallery

The new owner was Henry Tate, sugar magnate and the man behind the foundation of the Tate Gallery.

Tate was a self-made man from Lancashire and still largely based there when he bought Park Hill, but it was to become home to him, his family and his growing art collection until his death in 1899.

the terrace and summer house

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William Leaf & Park Hill Streatham

from the 1875 sales particulars. British Library

A few weeks ago I wrote about the work of late Georgian society architect John Buonarotti Papworth. One of his commissions was for a house for the unknown but immensely wealthy businessman, philanthropist, art collector and garden enthusiast William Leaf.  Later the estate was bought by another, but much better known, immensely wealthy businessman, philanthropist, art collector  and garden enthusiast Henry Tate.

Amazingly the estate has escaped  the common fates of Victorian suburban villas, even grand ones:  demolition to make way for street after street of cheaper housing.   The escape has not been total but the core of the property still survives reasonably intact, which is even more amazing since the estate is only 6 miles from central London.

from the 1875 sales particulars. British Library

Read on to discover the story of Park Hill, Streatham… Continue reading

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Vulnerability Brown

On Wednesday I was in Birmingham for the annual  Historic Landscapes Assembly organised by The Gardens Trust.   It marked the launch of a significant report they had commissioned about Capability  Brown,  so although I don’t normally cover current events here I thought I’d use my 200th post  to spread the word.

I can hear the collective groan going up – yes we know the man was a genius but we’ve just  had a whole year of him and are beginning to get a bit B… off.  But the report wasn’t about him but the conservation challenges and opportunities facing many of his designed  landscapes, which are currently being collectively considered  for possible World Heritage Status.

First the good news: Langley Park in Bucks, restored with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

This report was written by Dr Sarah Rutherford and Sarah Couch , both experienced landscape historians with expertise in the conservation of historic landscapes and in the planning issues they face.  Much of the text of this post is taken directly from their work, and you’ll find the link to the whole document at the end.

But why is the report necessary? Surely we know that Brown’s surviving sites are precious and need to be looked after like any other great work of art?  If that’s the case why are there as many as 6  Brown parks, as well as a whole string of buildings in landscapes associated with him, on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register?.

And the not so good news:  Clandon Park in Surrey, is on the Heritage at Risk Register                    Photo Historic England Archives

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Belsay: “A self-contained Eden”

Belsay Hall, Historic England

Belsay is an extraordinary match made in heaven, or rather in the green rolling hills of Northumberland.  The estate is most famous for its stunning but stark Grecian revival mansion finished just 200 years ago in 1817, but tucked away in the grounds there is also a once important but now semi-ruined mediaeval castle that was enlarged and ‘domesticated’ in the early 17th century.

Belsay Castle, Historic England

But best of all the two buildings are linked by an extraordinary  garden created in the 19th within the the quarry from which the stone for the new hall was cut.

The Quarry Garden, English Heritage

Belsay was owned by the same family – the Middletons –  from the 13thc up until ownership passed to English Heritage in 1984. Although its buildings are now empty and echoing Belsay still maintains the same special quality that led Christopher Hussey, the architectural and garden writer, to describe it in 1940 as  “a self-contained Eden”. It is definitely  one of the architectural and horticultural  highlights of not just North East England but the whole country. Continue reading

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Ella and Florence Du Cane & their own gardens in Essex

“Spring in the Wild Garden” based on a painting by Ella  Du Cane of her  garden at Beacon Hill from J.Coutts, A Complete Book of Gardening, 1930

Last week’s post was about Ella and Florence du Cane two adventurous aristocratic young women who, in pre-war Edwardian England, wrote and illustrated garden-related travel books.  

Despite their popularity before 1914,  by 1918 the story was different. There were far fewer travel books published – and none at all for the sisters – but there may well have been other factors at work.   The family estate, Braxted, had to be sold to pay their brother’s debts, so after her war service Florence returned to live with their mother at Mountains, the former dower house. She also took seriously to horticulture, not only taking over the running of Mountains but making a career of garden design. Meanwhile,  although some of Ella’s  paintings continued to be  used to illustrate books she spent most of her time at nearby Beacon Hill House, painting and creating a new garden around what was  once a small, but soon enlarged, cottage.

Extract from OS 25″ series: Essex n XLVI.13 
showing both Mountains and Beacon Hill House                                                                                       Revised: 1920 Published: 1923. National Library of Scotland


Both gardens were soon being recognized as interesting and significant and were reported on by Christopher Hussey in Country Life, almost in tandem, in 1925.  All the photos come from the articles on  14 March & 2nd May respectively and have the original captions unless otherwise stated.

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