The garden made by Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes in the Welsh Borders has been described by Anne as a modern romantic garden. I struggle with this description which conjures up for me visions of 1980’s music and Adam Ant. In this review I try to come up with an alternative interpretation which the makers may or may not recognise.
There is no doubt that the project itself is the stuff of romance – a garden made from nothing, by a woman driven to do it and a man prepared not only to permit (indulge?) such a lunatic idea but even to engage fully with it. However, the garden itself, in my view, engages a different tradition and one which might have more properly been called a Tory garden in the eighteenth century.
Tim Richardson, in his magisterial work on 18th century gardening, pits the Whig pleasure gardening against the Tory ‘working’ gardens. The former attempt to embody the principles of civilised and classical life and virtues, while the latter focus more on the connection to the land and its produce and productivity.
This is the connection which comes out most strongly at the Veddw. The garden reflects and incorporates its past and its topography. Most of us, faced with the slopes of the bowl of land behind the house would have brought in the diggers and constructed terraces. Here the slopes remain inviolate. Whether this started as a financial or a design constraint is immaterial – the result is a garden which is of its land. At one side of the bowl lies the box parterre in the shape of the 1841 tithe map, presided over by a bench reflecting the various spellings of the name Veddw over the centuries in this borderland. At the other side of the bowl the gate into the wood describes the local population in the late nineteenth century and the semicircle garden has along its edge small gravestones also recording the mix of English and Welsh in this border country. In the middle, the cornfield garden reflects an arable history.
At the front of the house is of course a front garden: symmetrical with cross paths, though hardly with pastel cottage garden planting. The exuberance of euphorbia ‘Fireglow’ sees to that. Beyond it lies a meadow managed for wild flowers and low fertility and again reflecting the workaday history of this place. The latest feature is a partial rebuild of a ruined cottage at the edge of the bowl at the back of the house; a tiny place which gives real food for thought on the tough lives lived here not so long ago.
What is great about this garden is not just that it reflects back at us the history of its people. What lifts it into being a serious work is how it takes these themes and gives them a twist, and at the same time twists the language of gardening. The tithe map parterre for example provides two such twists. First it plays with scale. How big were these fields in their past reality? How big is the parterre? In a photograph, or seen across the bowl of the land from the other side it is easy to get confused and lose your sense of scale – a powerful feeling.
Second, the parterre is a well known gardening language dating back over hundreds of years. Historic examples exist at places like Hampton Court, sometimes on a large scale. Clipped box, severe and geometric, often an architectural response to the house. Here the parterre is not in the least architectural and its filling is not gravel or anything else tidy and clipped. Instead it is grasses of various kinds making a much rougher pattern than any standard parterre could ever do. Like any good work of art, therefore, this works at various levels: a reflection of history, a twist on perspective, and a development of an existing style. All of this should make the viewer stop and think. Sometimes even with familiarity, it makes me gasp.
So far, this review has made no mention of one of the garden’s biggest features, the reflecting pool. Enclosed in high yew hedges, facing a set of overlapping hedges cut into rolling hills or waves, this is the still heart of the garden. Here is the antithesis of the workaday and where the paradise is found. Unlike a mediaeval enclosed garden, however, this one plays with scale too. The traditional enclosed garden is trellised, with small flowers and many benches. This brings the sky into the paradise and like the parterre can confuse the eye. How large are those hedges – are they really hills or only in miniature, small against the trees behind? The garden here seems to say that the workaday is necessary and fundamentally only the surround to this heart where peace can be found and the reflections multiply. Not so much a gasp as a sigh.
The major features of the garden are now maturing – after twenty years of work – and are coming into their own. They are fabulous both singly and together and now require control and editing as the seasons and years pass. What remains is to make sure that the minor themes give the right amount of support and changes of tone. It is perhaps here that some work remains to be done. Getting minor accents right can be as challenging as the major, particularly in getting their degree of incident right. The area in front of the garage is a case in point. It performs no major role, but also needs to lead into them, foreshadowing as it were. The urns and ground elder currently occupying this space do not do this.
It is inevitable that not everything in a garden will work perfectly. Unlike a painting, this is a work of art that changes every day as light, seasons and growth interact sometimes in surprising ways. The Veddw comes pretty close though. It plays with history, with garden design, with space and light in challenging, surprising and witty ways. Long may it grow.