I have wanted to visit Sezincote for some time now, I think I was drawn in by the Mogul influences of the house. I have always had a fascination with the Raj having watched The Raj Quartet (written in the 1960s and 1970s) many years ago and read in-depth A Passage to India (1924) when studying for a degree in literature. I used to be intrigued by the idea of the Raj living in India thinking it must have been magical but in more recent years, having studied post-colonial literature, I find myself questioning my assumptions. Edmund Said in his book ‘Orientalism’ (1978) challenges the Western perception of the East which had conveniently been rounded up under the heading of ‘Orientalism’ or ‘Oriental Studies’ ignoring the range and diversity of eastern society and culture. He questions whether the West really understands the culture of Islam and cultures that had been labelled ‘Oriental’. In thinking about Sezincote since my visit last week I have found myself reminded of some of the conflicting ideas and thoughts that the above books gave me. Anyway, that aside I was interested to see how this strange Indian style building fitted into the very English Cotswold landscape.
The house is located on the side of one of the Cotswold hills with stunning views out across the landscape. Interestingly its Mogul exterior did not jar as much as I thought it would nor did it look Disneyish. The Orangery was one of the longest I have seen sweeping round from the house and giving a sense of enclosure to the formal garden adjacent to the house. This sense of enclosure is increased as the land rises steeply at the end of the water garden and the planting here is mainly trees and shrubs. The Indian feel was increased in 1965 when Lady Kenilworth, with the help of Graham Thomas added the South Garden which is based on the traditional “Paradise Garden” which was popular with Babur, the first Mogul Emperor.
The majority of the garden is set in The Thornery which runs down the valley. If you have ever visited Heligan, Trebah, Cothele in Cornwall you will immediately recognise a similar style albeit it on a much smaller scale. I wondered if the water, which started in a pool at the top of the valley and trickled down through various waterways and smaller pools, came from a natural source as there was no sign, that I could see, of a river or stream nearby. I suppose it is an obvious approach to take with a valley garden although I have to admit to being a little uninspired by this approach as I have seen it done so many times in Cornwall. However, Sezincote’s Indian influences ran into the valley garden and this lifted it from ordinary to something a little different.
The water garden starts in a pool with a temple to Surya, the Hindu sun god. From here a stream trickles down the hill-side amongst lush planting of hostas, Macleaya macrocarpa, hydrangea, rodgersia and other stream side planting. The path twists and turns, crossing the stream over little slab bridges. The highlight, for me, was when the stream goes under the Indian Bridge. The bridge is named thus as it is adorned with Brahmin Bulls. To follow the stream you have to traverse it under the bridge by way of stepping stone, some of which were a little wobbly. There is also a stone seat here with wonderful views out and down the garden. But what makes the view especially good is that you are looking into the snake pond. The pond has a small island in the middle on which there is a column topped off with a number of snakes heads which are almost at eye level as you come under the bridge – not great if you don’t like snakes but very eye-catching. When I visited the island was a mass of Primula florindae and looked stunning, for me the best view of the garden.
The path takes you further down the valley, again kriss crossing the stream and with a similar style planting. Unlike the Cornish gardens I have mentioned before there isn’t that sense of largeness of scale, the area around you is very open and you become aware that you aren’t really in a valley but walking down the side of a hill. More pools increasing in side great you as you reach the bottom of the slope and the planting continues with lots of seasonal interest, including specimen trees and shrubs.
I think that I have been pre-conditioned to associate the Mogul tradition particularly of this era connected with the Raj to mystery. I have watched many a Sherlock Holmes film or even the Secret Garden where the middle east is treated as something dark, dangerous, mysterious, exciting and I think sub-consciously I wanted to feel something like that in this garden. Having said that I think this is unfair of me after all it isn’t a theme park. The guide book explains how the architecture of the house and orangery is a “mixture of Hindu and Muslim details which makes Sezincote a unique example of the architecture of Akbar”. Akbar was one of the best known Mogul Emperors in the late 16th century who mixed Islamic and Hindu elements in his architecture to try to integrate his culturally diverse country. An interesting approach that is still relevant now some five centuries later.
The gardens were very pleasant, beautifully maintained with some interesting features. I don’t think the house and gardens are a pastiche of India. In fact I think they are very sympathetic to the culture and architecture particularly of the Moguls. It would be very easy to include everything slightly Indian in nature and create something not far off a theme park but this isn’t the case. The only objects that I felt were a little over the top and I suspect a more recent addition were the fibre glass baby elephants at the far end of the South Garden. However, the property is owned and lived in by a family with children as was evident from the various outside games, swings and see-saw doted around so why not have two baby elephants.
Water plays a key part in the structure and atmosphere of this garden and this again refers to its Eastern inspiration. Water was very important to the Moguls which is hardly surprising when you consider how important water is to day-to-day life in central Asia and India and it reminds you how much we take it for granted. If you were to see a water garden such as the one in the South Garden in a garden in the East it would symbolise wealth and opulence.
I found this garden initially not that interesting as it reminded me so much of Cornish gardens I have visited. However, reading the guide-book and understand the connections, history and influences on its creation and how unusual it was when it was created in the early 19th century I find myself becoming more and more a fan. From a purely horticultural point of view we visited in mid August on a warm day in a very dry and hot season and the garden was looking wonderful unlike many other gardens.
Oh and if the house looks vaguely familiar it is because it reminds you of Brighton Pavillion. The Prince Regent visited Sezincote in 1807 and was so impressed he decided to proceed with his own plans to have an Indian exterior to the Pavillion he was building.