Hidcote Manor garden

On our way back from Stratford yesterday we called in at Hidcote Manor Garden, regarded as one of England’s great gardens. It was the lifelong passion of  self-taught gardener Lawrence Johnston who created his ‘garden of rooms’ in the Arts and Crafts style.  being so close to Stratford (though over the border in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds) we were able to get there for opening time and experienced a usually busy garden in peace and tranquillity.

Lawrence Johnston was an American who came to England to study at Cambridge University.  His mother had bought Hidcote in 1907 and Johnston spent 41 years creating what would become one of England’s most influential 20th-century gardens. He became interested in making a garden out of the fields surrounding the house.

It’s a beautiful garden to wander in, with new vistas opening up constantly as you move from one outdoor ‘room’ to another through archways in high yew hedges and along winding paths.  The small chapel building in the courtyard at the entrance (above) was never consecrated: the wisteria must be spectacular in the spring.

The Old Garden was probably the first of Johnston’s plantings and is dominated by the cedar of Lebanon (above).

Johnston designed Hidcote as a series of outdoor ‘rooms’, which combine masses of colour with traditional garden crafts such as topiary. Each room has its own distinct atmosphere and character.  The hedges that divide the rooms were designed to compensate for the plot’s exposed aspect. Johnston planted hedges of holly, beech, hornbeam and yew for shelter and structure.

Another key feature of Johnston’s scheme is the Red Borders (below) which incorporates all kinds of red and orange flowers, as well as purple foliage for contrast.

The Beech Walk (below) was planted by Johnston to protect the garden from the damaging north-westerly winds.  It is now a fully-mature cathedral nave of beech trees.

There’s an orchard, as well as an extensive kitchen garden (with a huge pumpkin patch).

Two pigs are employed in the kitchen garden, preparing ground by turning over the soil, digging out roots and grubs.This one is as happy as the proverbial…

The gardens are so extensive that can be difficult working out whether you’ve seen everything.   There’s a garden of Japanese maples, an alpine terrace, a garden with a circular bathing pool, and a series of gardens that follow the winding course of a stream.  There’s a ‘wild garden’ called The Wilderness and The Long Walk – an extended grassy walk bordered by hedges, with twin gazebos at one end and superb views across the surrounding Cotswold countryside at the other.  And if you have a snack at the outdoor cafe tables, you’ll find the sparrows are very attentive!

In 1948, Johnston gave his garden to the National Trust. For the next few decades, the National Trust struggled to maintain the original Arts and Crafts style of the garden on limited funds. Several of the garden rooms became somewhat overgrown, and some of Johnston’s original plant specimens had to be replaced. Recently, following a major donation, the Trust has been able to begin to return the gardens to their original state, and Hidcote has become one of the most popular destinations on garden tours and tours of the Cotswolds.

Postscript June 2011

BBC 4 showed a documentary telling the story of Hidcote – the most influential English garden of the 20th century – and Lawrence Johnston, the enigmatic genius behind it. Hidcote was the first garden ever taken on by the National Trust, who spent 3.5 million pounds in a major programme of restoration. This included researching Johnston’s original vision, which in turn uncovered the compelling story of how Johnston created such an iconic garden.

Until recently, little was known about the secretive and self-taught Johnston. The documentary told how, in 1907, Johnston’s mother bought Hidcote Manor and Johnston began a programme of 40 years’ work on its gardens. Here, beginning tentatively before 1914, and more confidently after after being wounded in the First World War, Johnston combined a feeling for structure (creating a surprising series of discrete spaces) with a love of plants and a willingness to experiment with novel plant-combinations. An enthusiastic plant collector, he sponsored or undertook several expeditions in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America to bring back rare specimens.

In 1924 Johnston bought Serre de la Madone, near Menton, on the Mediterranean coast of France; and from then on would spend most of the year at Menton and a few summer months at Hidcote. At Serre de la Madone he turned terraces of vines and olives into a garden notable for its design and rare plantings of sub-tropical plants.

He kept few, if any, records on Hidcote’s construction, but current head gardener Glyn Jones made it a personal mission to discover as much about the man as possible to reveal how, in the early 20th century, Johnston set about creating a garden that has inspired designers all over the world.

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