Review of Veddw House Garden by Noel Kingsbury

by wildelycreative on February 3, 2011

 

The following review of Veddw was taken from Gardens Illustrated, November 2006.

Listening to the praise of visitors is always pleasant for garden owners who open their gardens to the public. Not so for Anne Wareham, who says she is ‘tired of hearing people tell me how lovely the garden is’. Anne is actually more interested in finding out about what visitors would like to see improved; for her, the garden is a dialogue between herself and those of her garden visitors who rise to the challenge. Actively encouraging criticism, in the true meaning of the word – discussion, evaluation and interpretation,- is a large part of what Veddw garden is about.

Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes have been making a garden in the wooded hills of the Wye valley since 1987, and opening to the public since 1994. During this time their attempts at dialogue have resulted in many a discussion – mostly with other garden professionals such as designers, photographers, writers; and yes, Anne and Charles do make changes in their garden as a result: ‘Sometimes quite expensive ones’ says Anne, ‘We’ve moved a water feature, removed some steps and burnt a holly hedge’.

This is a garden which is very ambitious; it is intellectual and experimental, occasionally provocative, but for the most part beautiful and relaxing. Much of the inspiration lies in the landscape around it and its history – local history being something of a passion for Anne.

Part of the garden lies in a little valley on the slope above the house, the rest lies below it. All in all, Anne and Charles garden two acres, and have an additional two acres of woodland. A gate into the wood is one of the most delightful spots here and a board inscribed with a number of quotations from nineteenth-century writers about the area and its (then rather poor) inhabitants adds inspiration. The first criticism perhaps that, surprisingly, given the focus on landscape history, some opportunities to relate to the surroundings have been lost. At the top of the garden is a line of beech, the sculptured bases of the trunks recording their past as a hedge – yet this is partly concealed by new yew hedging and rabbit fencing, rather than made a feature of.

The overall impression of Veddw garden is of a series of enclosures – you are never far from a hedge. It is a complex garden, packed full of ideas, both practical and intellectual, but you only have to lift your head and you are at once aware of the garden’s nestling in an amphitheatre of trees – the effect is immensely restful. The best place to experience this is the pool garden, where a rectangle of black water is enclosed by tall yew hedges, and accompanied by a cement seat. Seen from the other side of the pool its curved outline together with its reflection form the shape of a fish. Sitting on the seat, the rest of the garden is invisible and you feel embraced by the lush green of the woods. The area is breathtaking in its simplicity and discipline, a place to return to after the buzz felt in much of the rest of the garden.

The pool garden lies at the heart of a number of small garden rooms enclosed by geometric yew hedging – to one side there is a wild garden of escaped garden perennials, bulbs and wildflowers, to the other an informal parterre. Below there is a long crescent-shaped border around a lawn, and above, the cool of the woods. The parterre is intriguing. It lacks any of the order one expects when faced with low box hedging. In fact it is a representation of the 1848 tithe map of the Veddw area, with ‘fields’ represented by ornamental grasses and ‘hedges’ by the box. It is an interesting idea, but does not work.

Nowhere is high up enough to read it as a map, and many of the grasses used are too large to be read as crops.

(The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.  Sylvia Beresford Todd. – editor)

The wild garden and the crescent border are a contrast to the ordered feeling of the hedged areas, but both have a curiously unsatisfying feel to them. The planting is not nearly complex enough to evoke a natural habitat, or structured enough to be successful as a border. In addition, the brave decision (or maybe a pragmatic one?) to let rosebay willowherb rip, makes the border look uncared for – but perhaps this is our problem – this is after all a splendidly colourful and structural plant.

Walking to the area below the house, there is a feeling that this is a less self-consciously experimental area. There is no shortage of bold touches, it is just that they are simpler, and less intellectual. There is a short stretch of deer fencing made of black-painted wooden uprights set at irregular heights, which acts as a foreground to a view into a neighbouring field – simple, innovative and very dramatic.
Nearby is a large block of the notoriously invasive grass Elymus arenarius, highly effective as a chunk of grey foliage, but kept in check through the simple expedient of mowing around it.

There is more grey foliage in what was once the vegetable garden, where Cynara cardunculus stands behind contrasting Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’.

This is an area of strong contrast in shape and colour, repeated to great effect. Further on is a wonderfully species-rich wildflower meadow, with the addition of North American Camassia leichtlinii, creamy and significently taller than the grasses and wildflowers – a superb balance of simplicity and complexity.

Back towards the house is the ‘front garden’, where what started out as cottage-style planting has been refined down over the years to a limited range of perennials, repeated in a matrix of variegated ground elder; again there is a great sense of rhythm and balance here.Veddw garden is incredibly ambitious. For a start, many will find it extraordinary that it is maintained by the part-time efforts of only two individuals. The range of innovation and experimentation is enormous – the trade off, however, is that the ideas developed do not always work, or are clearly taking a long time to refine, and limited resources do not always allow for the most effective rendition of an idea. These factors are, however, a small price to pay for the experimentation that gardening needs and that this garden does bravely and supremely well.

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Expert View

Garden writer Noel Kingsbury visited Veddw House with editor Juliet Roberts and English Heritage landscape architect Deborah Evans. Here are some of their pluses and minuses.

What worked.

  • The stark simplicity of the Pool garden is dramatically effective.Traditional style hedging with non-classical geometry works well in the area above the house.The most effective areas are the simplest, such as an elymus bed, blue hosta/nectaroscordum siculum bed and a stretch of black deer fencing on the garden’s northeast boundary.
  • The planting in the area below the house has lovely colour and foliage compositions, structure and a sense of harmony.The ‘ex’ vegetable garden’s dramatic planting has real impact.The meadow and avenue is an harmonious composition.
  • The engagement of the green of the yew hedge panels with the forest behind creates a fantastic sense of unity with the landscape.

What didn’t work

  • The parterre tithe map cannot be appreciated from above.
  • Looking from the top of the tithe map area the wavy hedging jars with the straight lines of the central area’s hedges.
  • A bank of wilder planting isn’t ‘wild’ enough to be read as a wild garden or ‘tame’ enough to be read as a border.
  • There is an absence of structure in some of the borders with the species mix too uneven to give the border context.
  • Opportunities to relate to the surrounding landscape are sometimes missed, as with some wonderful beeches, which are obscured by a yew hedge and rabbit fencing.

Solutions

  • Hone down the more complex areas by identifying simpler themes and making the most of them. good ideas are let down by small technical failures – uneven ground, scalped grass, chipped brickwork, uneven steps etc.
  • More continuity could be gained through repetition of features and planting – important in a garden of disparate elements.

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