WHAT WE ARE THINKING: Which is best, a book or a garden?

Article published on November 1, 2015.

If your reading group even vaguely resembles the two I belong to, you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time likening the books you read to others the group have read. Given the breadth of titles we collectively share that throws up some exotic ‘parents’ and ‘siblings’. But it’s quite surprising how accurate a picture you can give of a book to someone who hasn’t read it. And from there it’s one small step to deciding how good (or bad) it is by comparison.

And, of course, we do this in the rest of our cultural lives because, as a shorthand to explain to AN Other something they haven’t experienced there’s a fair chance we will light on something they have and thereby help them to appreciate what we’re trying to convey. It also means we can draw comparisons and make value judgments on which is the better of two or best of three or more books.

This struck me recently when I visited a clutch of gardens in the space of three days. As a keen National Truster, I’ve been to most of their properties in the south and have seldom been disappointed. But this time it was the non-Trust property that impressed most.

Wakehurst Place was my starting point, not least because it is built up to be a centrepiece –‘Kew in the Country’ as they would have you think of it. Indeed, it is the most visited of all the Trust’s sites but with space and more to swallow up the greying hordes (in which I include myself) it doesn’t feel as if you’ve been corralled. It was distinctly quieter, however, down at the Wetlands Conservation area than ‘up top’ near the more cultured Asian gardens and the main house. As always the gift shop and the cafes and restaurant felt like the hub of the site. There’s no doubt the Trust has sharpened up its act in the last ten years, anticipating refreshment and toileting needs while the shops don’t reek quite so much of pot pourri and twee tat.

I’d be interested to know the length of stay for the average visitor as I suspect, in keeping with our busy lifestyles, we perhaps whizz round and move on rather than staying for the day. This would be a disservice to Wakehurst as there is patently more to see and admire than can be achieved in even a long morning or afternoon visit. While I am sure some local members take the opportunity to explore at their leisure over a number of visits, I suspect the majority have ticked another NT box and moved on, as did I.

I actually thought Sissinghurst was the most visited NT site – fifteen minutes before opening time there were already more than a hundred people milling around. Plus, space is a consideration in these manicured ‘rooms’ – lovely green grass you’re not allowed to step on even though the paths aren’t wide. Even the Orchard has mown paths through the meadow grass encouraging you not to stray. For Vita Sackville West the perspective from the top of the tower must have made the laying out of the grounds easy to visualize and I couldn’t help but be envious of the peace and tranquility she must have had instead of the – ever so polite – crowds.

Two down and Sissinghurst edging ahead, if only because of the number of literary works and memoirs in the shop by and about the Nicolsons and Sackville Wests. At which point my eye spotted that Great Dixter was only ten miles away. I wasn’t keen on gardening when Christopher Lloyd was in his heyday but thought it worth a visit and so it was. A little ramshackle and in need of investment were my first reactions but the further in I went the more I was impressed. More sprawling than Sissinghurst but a similar approach to ‘rooms’ of themed plants. The coffee shop here was about as far as you could get from the front gate. A 50p cup of tea was produced by dunking the tea bag in and whisking it out before my very eyes. The gift area was cramped and badly organized although there were one or two unexpected items in the mix. Next to the outside tea tables was the garden centre which actually had plants from the gardens that I wanted instead of the formulaic offerings of National Trust sites. Better still, they hadn’t just thought of a number and doubled it when pricing their stock – seven strong healthy and exotic plants for less than £35 was a bargain to my wallet. Being at the far end of the garden meant further exploration was needed on the way back to the entrance where we changed our minds about the house and coughed up another couple of quid for the pleasure. Do it – if only to see the wooden furniture that Christopher Lloyd commissioned for the house, made to his own design. The downside was that there was much more of the house than we were allowed to see but it was still worth it.

I’ve lost track of where I found the following clipping but suffice to make my apologies to the originator and concur entirely with their assessment. If you haven’t been to any of these gardens then I would highly recommend them – but save Great Dixter until last. It’s the gem.

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD ranks with Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West as one of the major figures in 20th-century British gardening. He may never have had the mass popularity of television personality gardeners such as Percy Thrower and Alan Titchmarsh, but through his long career in writing, based so closely on his practical experience, and through his garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex, he was known and respected by gardeners throughout the world as the voice of serious gardening. If British gardening in the 20th century was a long love affair with the Jekyllean, heavily planted, labour-intensive, country garden, it was Christopher Lloyd who best chronicled and explored its riches.

Guy Pringle, October 2015

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