Institutional Gardens – are they all awful?

by AnneWareham on January 22, 2013

Post image for Institutional Gardens – are they all awful?

Postscript to this piece

We just revisited Plas Brondanw (May 2014) and found it transformed. The changes have been sorted and the renovations as successful now as they could be. Wish they would lose the labels and the inappropriate roses but otherwise it’s now a must-visit again. AW.

Dyffryn Garden,(above) described as ‘spectacular’ and “one of Wales’s most beautiful gardens”  has just been taken over by the National Trust, so that “now the council has restored the site to its current wonderful condition the National Trust can take this beautiful location to a higher level.” I wonder if we should be rejoicing or merely thinking ‘out of the frying pan…’ In honour of the occasion I am offering the following:

View over Plas Brondanw copyright Charles Hawes (Veddw)

Institutional Gardens – are they all awful?

Plas Brondanw used to be one of the most satisfying, delightful gardens in Britain. It was originally the private garden of the architect and garden maker Clough  Williams-Ellis, of Portmeirion fame and it is about 100 years old. I visited it many years ago on a never to be forgotten trip, driving up through seemingly endless narrow winding roads beneath spectacular Snowdonian scenery to find an exquisite garden with an honesty box.

It was simple. Beautiful mountain views revealed tellingly from the garden by skilled garden design; delightful topiary; buildings and ironwork highlighted with the classic Clough Williams-Ellis touches of gold and blue paintwork; restraint and quiet pleasure everywhere. A pool with a ridiculous fountain of a child fireman which should have been embarrassing but really was – no other word for it – cute. Few flowers – this was never a flower garden, that was not the Williams-Ellis style. I don’t admire gardens readily but this was one of my all time greats. Fireman in pool at Plas Brondanw copyright Charles Hawes (Veddw)

Now it has a gift shop and a café, a container looking as if it has arrived fresh from a ship from China and a large propane gas container as a new focal point. Roses have appeared, predictably called “Portmerion” and “Clough  Williams-Ellis,” and other flowery plants have snuck in remorselessly. Plant labels have appeared and spread like weeds. The spirit of the personal, private garden has been driven out along with the honesty box.

I was reminded of this price which a garden can pay for survival again recently when I visited Aberglasney, at the other end of Wales. Again, there were those dreaded plant labels. I examined these in detail to discover a dandelion labelled ‘Narcissus’, and ‘Muscari’ looking remarkably like a fern. But the thing that struck me most was the soulless feel of the place. The facilities were excellent, and the basic design has, after all, been principally dug up by archaeologists. But the planting was mostly uninspired, with much bare soil, and an amazing tidiness which felt relentlessly overdone. Seeing staff trim grass edges next to the immaculate gravel paths with religious care and then gather up some of the clippings by hand was rather frighteningly impressive to this rather sloppy gardener. It is no doubt what the visitors expect. Or are expected to expect.

There are other things you might find besides ugly bare stemmed roses, visitor centres and shops when a garden has been transmuted into an attraction. The walled garden which once again has to have vegetables and flowers for cutting, even where there is no longer any sensible use for these commodities. A newly obligatory and unhistorical annual or perennial meadow and the also obligatory and unhistorical William Pye water feature. Roped off areas.

Plas Brondanw 2012 copyright Charles Hawes (Veddw)

Totally neglected and forgotten areas. Sometimes ‘keep off the grass’ signs, though I haven’t the faintest idea why. Do some of these gardens get so many visitors they wear the turf out? Vases and garden urns with decidedly odd mixtures of plants stuffed in and looking miserable. Sometimes the plastic, commercial feel results, as at Plas Brondanw, from a shortage of funds. Sometimes it arises from the reverse. Dyffryn Gardens received over six million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1997 and has recently been taken over by the National Trust. It has all the same features that Aberglasney boasts. Their dandelion was labelled ‘Iris “Katherine Hodkin”( reticulata)’ – last year.

Dyffryn Garden, National Trust garden copyright Anne Wareham

It also has some dreadfully  poor planting Roses at Dyffryn S2 copyright Anne Wareham     and some good planting (just to keep you on your toes and to remind you just what is possible),

Dyffryn Garden borders copyright Anne Wareham (Veddw)

large areas of replanting, algae in the pools, vegetables and cut flowers and a glasshouse for no-one, and an amazingly posh visitor centre. (I wonder where the millions went…?)

New expensive glasshouse at Dyffryn Garden  2012 copyright Anne Wareham

I suspect that the institutional quality, the sense of ‘tourist attraction’ as opposed to garden is possibly also less to do with what is there so much as what isn’t. There may be a certain sensitivity, idiosyncrasy and flair missing.

This was demonstrated graphically at Tintinhull some years ago. Penelope Hobhouse had the lease there from the National Trust, and she managed to persuade them to allow her the freedom to do considerable remaking of Phyllis Reiss’s Arts and Crafts garden. The garden flourished with all the joy of a garden under sensitive, skilled and knowledgeable gardening. I was astonished to discover that almost immediately she left a chill fell over the garden and the spark died. I hardly expected it to be so obvious. It wasn’t as if the garden became neglected or really poor, it was just no longer so special.

Tintinhull border 2009 copyright Anne Wareham

It would have taken deep analysis to work out the components, though the brilliance of the vases of flowers had no doubt changed. There is no recipe for making a garden great or preserving its established greatness, except perhaps the skill of the garden maker. Garden makers, as opposed to designers or gardeners, are a neglected and unglamourised  part of the garden world. They are in short supply and their particular abilities are not well understood and certainly cannot be very well rewarded. So they are a rare breed, and an historic garden which continues to excite us will no doubt continue to be a rare treat.

It takes an individual touch, a heartfelt sympathy with your predecessor and an understanding of their aims and ambitions to begin with. And then the addition of freedom and confidence to remake and to continue to remake a garden. And a total disregard for fashion and what the public are supposed to want. And perhaps the critical extra ingredient. Maybe the problem with most tourist attraction gardens is that no-one responsible for them loves them?

Anne Wareham (I have never managed to get this published. Maybe badly written. Maybe broke some rules..)

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Abbie Jury January 22, 2013 at 8:22 pm

A post near and dear to our hearts. We have seen two local gardens similar in age and scale to ours go in to public ownership with huge funding from ratepayers (local taxes). To add insult to injury, the powers-that-be decided that public gardens must have free entry. So now we see tours come through where participants pay but get to visit the free public gardens – using public money to directly compete with us. Are those gardens better for their big budget? Not according to the visitors that come here. They lose the detail and personal touch that makes a private garden special. And paid gardeners and managers rarely succeed in capturing the vision of the garden maker.

AnneWareham January 22, 2013 at 10:11 pm

Exactly, Abbie and Charles.

Charles January 22, 2013 at 9:39 pm

I am relieved to see this piece published. I think it finally lets me off the hook from penning my own review of Plas Brondanw. But here is an abbreviataed version.

Brondanw was one of my favourite gardens, too, and I was shocked and really quite upset to see most of the changes that had taken place since my last visit about 5 years previously. What you are describing are the things that I found most concerning. I do feel that the spirit of the place has all but been destroyed. So far they have concentrated on the lower garden but the woodland garden on the other side of the road, is at risk of also losing its special character through a combination of tidying up and restoration.

In my view, the drive behind these changes is mainly that the management of the garden has decided that the garden has to begin to pay its way. Which means that they want to attract a lot more visitors and they want to get those visitors to spend some money whilst they are there. Of course this does not necessarily mean that a garden has to change its character, although the fact is that a busy garden can never have the same feel to it as a sparsely populated one. And of course if you are going to have lots more people walking over those steps and paths, someone is going to say that those slightly wonky steps or, perhaps, slightly dodgy walls have to be made safe.

There is nothing so deadly to the character of an elderly garden than to tidy it up. This is not an argument with the need to the renew the Yew topiary through hard cutting back. Although it could be. Topiary that has got out of shape could be managed into new shapes that remain sympathetic to the place, even if it differs from the original. Preoccupations with health and safety have a lot to answer for. I recall some very horrible railings that were installed in part of the underground parts of Dewstow gardens in Monmouthshire. And, of course, sticking labels on or by plants just draws visitor’s attention away from the way that the plants have been used, to what the plants are called.

No doubt there is a Business Plan for Plas and its success or otherwise will be judged by its balance sheet. It’s all very depressing.

I wasn’t brave enough to say any of this to the perfectly friendly new Head Gardener or the extremely helpful Trustee who paved the way for my last visit. I feel embarrassed. The garden has used several of my photographs for post cards for sale at the garden and paid me for the privilege. And I have done well by the garden in terms of articles illustrated in the past. But if those of us who once loved this garden don’t speak out, who will?

Jenny Woods January 22, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Well, as someone who worked in a particular tourst attraction garden – Lytes Cary Manor – I can certainly say I loved it (even if it had a few elements I would have liked to change if allowed!), but maybe that one was special?

…but for those that are not, I think of many council-run gardens/parks, it may be a question of budget being the limiting factor, rather than care of the staff?

AnneWareham January 22, 2013 at 10:16 pm

Lytes Cary is different – you know that, Jenny: smaller, intimate and looked after sensitively, at least when I was last there.

It’s not just budget, I don’t believe that. It may be outrageous to say so but we run Veddw on a tiny budget and I do believe we are doing better than most of these institutional gardens – for reasons I’ve stated in the article.

Abbie Jury January 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Agree. And there is an element of those that can do (make their own gardens) and those that can’t manage somebody else’s garden instead.

AnneWareham January 23, 2013 at 9:43 am

Ah, but one costs money, the other pays it!

Desert Dweller / David C. January 23, 2013 at 1:27 am

That’s bad…for the UK. Looks about average or better than average for what I hear in Italy and what I see here in Not-so-New Mexico! Great post that all should read, to be motivated in what they can do in their area (if given some spare time). I must re-read this…

Is creating gardens that cannot be maintained by existing practices “unsustainable”, or is a worse “unsustainable” not taking care of the gardens one already has?

The 3rd photo, of the fountain statuary, with a hose spurting water, almost had me choke on my coffee!

AnneWareham January 23, 2013 at 9:41 am

It is an important question, isn’t it? What caused the choking?

Peter H January 23, 2013 at 10:01 am

I don’t think any of the £6 million went on our EverEdge lawn edging 🙁

We are blessed in our little part of the world with an array of beautiful gardens from the small(ish) Dorothy Clive Garden to the huge Hawkstone Park Follies and everything in between.

You are dead right to suggest that budget isn’t everything, so often it is the smaller, privately owned, gardens that are the most enjoyable whereas the more ‘spectacular’, institutional gardens can sometimes leave a visitor slightly numb to their surroundings.

I’m certainly no expert on planting (so far my own ‘garden’ consists of one small pot of cacti) but even I can be moved by a garden that has that something special, whatever that is.

AnneWareham January 23, 2013 at 10:07 am

I’m not sure the 6 million went on anything useful…. I think non gardeners are the best garden visitors – they are less preoccupied by plants and able to respond to the whole vision and meaning. Where there is one……

Paul Steer January 23, 2013 at 10:23 am

I visited Plas Brodanw in Oct last year for the first time, having read about it in ‘Discovering Welsh Gardens’ and being encouraged to do so by Charles. What I found was a fading ghost of a garden. The garden needs to be brought back to life, the bones are still there, along with the vistas. I suppose it ceased to be Clough Willams-Ellis’s garden when he died, and as the memory of him fades so does the garden. I must be honest the tea shop was welcome, and the staff were very friendly, but you could see that this is where the money has been spent. This garden has a very special atmosphere, and I believe that would be compromised if it became as popular as Portmeirion. I think restricted visiting is preferable in order to truly appreciate this gem. Perhaps there is someone out there with vision who can save it whether publicly or privately funded.

AnneWareham January 23, 2013 at 10:30 am

Trouble is, Paul – who has the vision? The kind of thing they are doing is seen as the way to go.

The unique quality of Plas was discernible for many years after Clough William-Ellis, in the honesty box days..

Michael Brown January 23, 2013 at 1:09 pm

As somebody who maintains a garden that is open and relies on visitors for support to keep it open I can see several sides to the argument:
To remain open the garden must be paid for.
There are lots of nasty things like insurance and wages that also have to be paid for.
Most horticultural colleges don’t teach much in the way of practical gardening any more – i know from experience – there is a funding problem.
Gardener’s wages are very low, so the good gardeners move on.
Few councils retain well-trained gardening staff or they are under-manned.
Lots of sites rely on unqualified or inexperienced volunteers to keep running.

There are lots of factors to conspire against running a garden to high standards. I am not sure how this can be changed during the current economic climate. It is very sad and I am sure standards wil only become worse.

John January 25, 2013 at 10:02 pm

There are, I think, a number of factors at play here.

As Charles has highlighted, budgets matter. Once a garden ceases to be a personal project and becomes institutional, that institution must pay its way and the financial driver outweighs the more personal approach which is that a garden must always develop in the hope that the bank manager will be lenient!

A second factor is the institutional mentality. The National Trust exists primarily to preserve. And in general it seems to do so on the basis of freezing in time whatever it acquires. I doubt that the original owners of Powis Castle didn’t redecorate and refresh the interiors every so often. But, if anything, the NT researches what the place looked like in 18whenever and restores it to that. The same mentality is applied to gardens. Hence, for example, the waste of that vast lawned area in front of the aforementioned Powis Castle. Time stands still.

Anne mentions Dyffryn. Here we have a garden that, hitherto, the paying public have been unable to view as it was intended to be viewed. At least the opening of the house to the public will afford that opportunity. But then again, the gardens have been “restored” rather than “developed”.

It is all too easy to rest on laurels as the institutions often do. But to parallel that, does there not come a point where the owner of a private garden starts to sit back a bit? Playing Devil’s advocate, were it not for box blight necessitating some drastic action, would I have found the garden at Veddw any different in 2013 from its appearance in 2012? Would it, perhaps, have become frozen in time and, in a sense, institutionalised?