There are times in life when you find yourself transported back to an earlier experience either by a smell, sight or sound. Today was one of those days.
Bryan’s Ground in Herefordshire, right on the Welsh border, is the garden of the creators of Hortus. It nestles in the rolling countryside just above Presteigne overlooking water meadows towards, I believe, the Welsh Black Mountains. In my last post I wrote about the ‘gardens as art’ debate and how for me to be Art I need to experience an emotional or intellectual response to something be it paintings, sculpture, literature or indeed gardens. Bizarrely two days later that is exactly what has happened. I even experienced a quickening of my heart beat at one point when going round a corner to be presented with another sumptuous planting. The peace, serenity, awe and connection to nature I experienced took me right back to being a teenager when I used to walk our dog in the peaceful beech woods near my home.
The house was built back in 1912, at the end of the Arts and Crafts movement and this is very apparent in its style, it is believed that the architects, a local firm, were also responsible for some of the landscaping. As with many of the other great gardens being developed around this time, such as Hidcote and Sissinghurst, the garden was developed in a series of rooms, one leading from another. Generally my experience is that I really don’t like this style of garden, I find them oppressive with their high clipped hedges but at Bryan’s Ground you don’t experience lots of hedges, they are more unobtrusive. I am also not a fan of topiary especially on mass, for me it just appears dead, there is no movement.I did experience this in one part of the garden – the Green Theatre Stage but then I suppose if its to be used as a stage you wouldn’t want anything to distract your attention.
There were only two other visitors when I arrived and I went in the opposite direction to them so I got to enjoy the feeling of having the garden to myself. I had that rare experience, for me, of wanting to just sit and soak in the atmosphere. What really struck me was the juxtapositioning of controlled and wild. A couple of the garden rooms had box parterres with plants billowing out from the centre; the contrast between the neat box and the exuberance of the fennel and day lilies, in the case of the sunken pond garden, made me think of contrast between man-made and nature.
There are 3 square garden rooms where the majority of the herbaceous planting is. Now some of my gardening friends would have been very dismissive about this planting. Not because of the quality of the plants or their combination but because there was much dead heading required, weeds apparent both in the borders and paths, and plants billowing out of control over the paths to the point where you occasionally had to step over them. Personally, this was what made the garden for me. This was not a neglected garden far from it but given its size (3 acres of formal garden) and the unremitting dry weather we have had for about 6 weeks it is hardly surprising that everything is not just so. But then I found myself thinking why should it be. Why should all the plants be tied back off the paths, why does it matter that there are seed heads everywhere? Would the garden look so much better if it was gardened by a group of gardeners with every weed removed as soon as it showed itself. I think not. I believe that this would destroy the sole of this garden where its creators have achieved a wonderful mix of control and exuberance. It is a real garden, its owners’ garden not a garden that exists to amuse the public on a daily basis.
Due to an element of disarray in this part of the garden there is a certain sensuality about it. I expect that if I had visited a month ago when the roses were just coming out and other herbaceous plants were coming into bloom I would have described it as romantic but now with the overpowering scent of many roses in the air there is a certain wantonness about the place. It was certainly a heady mix. It is clear that there is an artist’s eye behind the creation of this garden. You can see it in the way the colours of flowers blend but especially in the clever use of vistas and focal points.
Just like a good artist does when they lead your eye into a drawing or painting, the artist behind this garden leads you forward towards another view, another surprise. There is a clever play of light and dark; moving from areas of deep shade as in the George Walk (pic 2) to the brightness of the sunken garden (top pic). But this is not a garden devoted to horticulture or intelleculising things there is humour everywhere. Small collections of bits and pieces ranging from old tools, through strange metal curios, to a wonderful collection of gargoyles perched on top of a wall. Personally there were probably too many of these curios for me but they do provide an interesting juxtaposition of man made against nature again.
From the garden you move into the arboretum which is approximately 5 acres. This was started in 2000 (the owners having taken on the property in 1993). I have always found it hard to be enthusiastic about arboretums and generally avoid them apart from maybe to admire the autumn colour but this arboretum was different. Instead of neat grassland the trees were planted in a meadow. While I was having my cake and admiring the view later I picked up a back copy of Hortus from 2003 (I think) and was interested to read the editor’s piece where David Wheeler, one of the owners of Bryan’s Ground, describes visiting a garden where there was a heavy use of grasses and how fascinated he was with this. I think this is reflected in the arboretum and also to an extent in some of the formal garden. The grasses give movement to the arboretum and bring life to it. The air is full of the sound of crickets and bird song and butterflies flitted everywhere.
As with the formal garden there is a play between control and wild with paths cut through the meadow. There is also light and dark and a sense of destination, such as the close planting of trees in the photo below.
However, there were some things that for me didn’t quite work. As I have already mentioned the topiary in the green theatre but also the canal at the front of the house. This seemed to be a new addition, well the bricks looked newish. The canal runs from the house to the front of the property between square beds of Iris siberica each with an apple tree in it. The reason this jarred for me is possibly the brightness of the brick, which will obviously mellow with time but more likely because the canal doesn’t have straight edges as is the case with most canals, instead it wiggles. For me the curved edges bore no relationship to any thing else in this area so I couldn’t understand the reasoning behind it.
Before I visited this garden I had read an article in Gardens Illustrated which listed Bryan’s Ground as one of Britain’s top 10 dreamy gardens. I was sceptical as I know that it is rare for articles about gardens to be at all critical but this time their positive review was well justified. However, I wouldn’t use the adjective dreamy, for me the garden is sensual, evocative, dramatic (in places), and somewhere I will be going back to again next year without fail.