A Nation of Magpies

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the English are a nation of magpies.  We seem to have an innate ability to pick and choose the best bits of various cultures and make them our own.  You only have to look at the range of cuisines we enjoy on a regular basis to see what I mean.

In horticultural terms we have tracked down and collected plants from around the world for centuries to the point where our native flora isn’t always obvious.  However, I have also learnt this week that this ‘stealing’ also relates to our garden design history.  I have started an online learning course through the University of  Oxford Continuing Education Department.  It is a short 10 week course which looks at landscape history in England from Elizabethan times to the present.

It is quite an intense course.  You never know with distance learning courses what to expect.  I did my degree with Open University this way and it was a long slog but lots of interaction with other students on-line and way before blogs and twitter.  Last year I tried the RHS level 2 via distance learning and it was awful there seemed to be no interest from other students to interact and I really missed this.  This new course so far has already been a steep learning curve and participation in on-line discussions is a key part of it which is great.  There are students from the UK, S Africa, USA and Europe which makes for an interesting group.

The recreated Kenilworth Garden courtesy of GardenVisit

The recreated Kenilworth Garden courtesy of GardenVisit

This week we are looking at the background to formal gardens.  Starting with the recreation of Kenilworth garden and in particular whether it is possible to recreate a garden based  purely  on information in a letter.  Then we explored the canals and bosquets (wooded glade) of Versailles and the parterres of Badminton.  Moving swiftly on to Wilton House and ending the week with the work of London and Wise who seem to have the monopoly on garden design in the early 17th century.

I have learnt that the prevalent style at the start of the 17th century was Baroque.  However being English, and hence my opening comments, we  created English Baroque which took: canals, topiary, grid like orchards from the Dutch; elaborate parterres and tree-lined avenues from the French and fantastical rockwork, cascades, grottoes and water tricks from the Italian.  I have still quite a bit of reading to do on this section and lots of online plans and illustrations to peer at trying, such as the one of Versailles at the top of the post.  Oh and I have also learnt that there are three different types of parterre and the English replaced the much-loved coloured gravel of the continental gardens with smooth and beaten grass – no surprises there!

Next week we are moving on to look more specifically at the gardens of William and Mary period so no doubt the parterres and canals will be much in evidence.  I just hope I can keep up but I suspect the blog might suffer for a bit while I do.

15 Comments on “A Nation of Magpies

  1. We did some garden history on the Design course I did for the Open College of the Arts; like the OU but for the Arts (does what it says on the tin!). Anyway, I found the historical perspective fascinating. As for the distance learning bit, it wasn’t. Some tutors took actual classes & i was able to go to one in Richmond upon Thames. The interaction was an important part of the whole thing.

    Good luck anyway!

  2. Wot a great idea to do this course!
    I read history for my degree years ago. A career in banking in the city intervenened, But when I retrained I found that section of the horticulture course and then years later the garden design course very interesting.
    And somehow for me it put where we are now in gardens and garden design in perspective.
    Never done long distance learning tho. Respect!

  3. Hey, good for you. That course sounded really good. You’ll have to come to Hampton Court (the London one, not your one). William and Mary were into exotics, which were a huge status symbol in those days. And of course the Privy Garden is an interesting example of a Baroque garden.

  4. The course sounds very interesting. Being able to “pick and choose the best bits of various cultures and make them our own” is a good quality to have.

  5. Helen this is fascinating…perhaps some day I will do a course about history and gardening…but until then I will savor these bits you can share between your studying….enjoy yourself!!

  6. Interesting that your experience of the RHS course was not good. My sis did an OU course and got a group of local students together over coffee. They became study buddies and are now doing an MA together. It certainly makes a difference. I looked at various online courses but have decided to wait until Sept when I can enrol for a daytime gardening course at Capel Manor. Good luck with your studies!

  7. The course sounds very intensive – you are a glutton for punishment! You only started a few days ago and already you are blogging about it. I wish I had your energy. Well done.

  8. What a fascinating course – I’m sure (well, the evidence is all there) that you’ll get an awful lot out of it. It’s such a chance, but you do seem to have hit on a great one… enjoy the rest of it!

  9. I also think that the English have picked something almost everywhere but they always keep a strong identity. Your pot-puorri-like culture represent a unique blend.
    It sounds like a great course, very interesting, you could share some tips and tricks on your blog so you study and keep us posted at the same time! 🙂

  10. At first glance Kenilworth reminded me of Villa Augustus in the Netherlands. Something to do with the layout and the buildings. Garden history is endlessly fascinating.
    It takes times and dedication to do one of these courses. Hope you enjoy it. (and tell us some more about it)

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