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Posts Tagged ‘Albury Park’

steps to upper terrace and exedra

steps to upper terrace and exedra

Going up the steps to the upper terrace, above the subterranean “baths” that I mentioned in my last post, you face the most dramatic survival from Evelyn’s design for Albury Park – the pool, the exedra and the mysterious, beckoning tunnel beneath the hill.

exedra, tunnel, pool

exedra, tunnel, pool

Here we met the estimable Paul Verity, who has heroically cared for the place virtually single-handed (before the first world war there were something like forty gardeners!) for decades. He was most patient and helpful in answering our questions, and gave us many fascinating insights into the recent history of the garden.

pool and fountain, looking south

pool and fountain, looking south

It seems that the leaky old pool lay empty for years, and has only recently been relined to make it water-tight and the fountain brought back to life – further enhancing the sense of presence that is perhaps at its most potent here, with the ancient overhanging trees seeming to clasp the whole area in their embrace.

oak guarding the exedra

oak tree over exedra

Passing by the vacant niches  (were they once filled with statuary? ) one arrives at the dark tunnel-mouth at the centre of the semi-circle, and the focal point of the garden.

view inside the tunnel

view inside the tunnel

I had been looking forward with great anticipation to entering the tunnel, expecting it to be open, as I gather it was up until recently. But sadly, due apparently to roosting bats and crumbling structure, we were confronted by a locked grille, through which we could see just a tiny pinprick of light at the far end.

After strolling to the eastern end of the upper terrace, we turned to look back along its entire impressive length.

upper terrace looking west

upper terrace looking west

Evelyn’s plan shows steps at each end of the upper terrace descending to the lower level, where there are now ramps. It’s also noticeable how the numerous apsidal niches shown in the terrace walls on the plan are absent in reality. With no signs in the brickwork to suggest they were ever built, this is a cautionary example of how a garden as actually created can differ from the original design.

descent to lower terrace

ramp down to lower terrace looking west

We descended the ramp and walked west along the lower terrace, back towards the side door through which we’d first entered. Finally we bid a reluctant farewell to this, the best-preserved of John Evelyn’s gardens, beside a majestic cedar of Lebanon that stands sentinel just inside the gate.

Cedar of Lebanon

Cedar of Lebanon

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Albury terraces looking east

Albury terraces looking east

Continuing from my last post, this is the view along the lower terrace at Albury Park that meets the modern visitor entering the garden from a door in the west wall. The first impression is of the great length of the terraces, with clipped hedges lining the retaining wall of the upper one to the left, and a towering row of yew trees flanking the edge of the lower one.

These yews though impressive are decidedly overgrown, casting the walk into shadow. They must be centuries old – could they actually date back to John Evelyn’s design? A row of yew-shaped trees is certainly shown in this position on his sketch plan, which has miraculously survived, although its numbered key to the different features is now missing. In order to try to get an idea of how the garden was approached in the seventeenth century, we headed down towards the river at this point rather than continuing along the terrace.

Ditch dividing upper and lower garden

Ditch dividing upper and lower garden

We passed on our left a  long water-filled ditch that now divides the upper and lower halves of the garden. On Evelyn’s design (see above) there is a wall apparently in its place, but who knows whether it was actually built? Perhaps a ditch was thought sufficient. The river itself is charming, with beautifully clear water. In Evelyn’s design its flow was  straightened into a wide canal, of which there seems to be little remaining sign. The original route entering the garden across the river from Albury Park mansion is unfortunately closed, since the house is now separately owned.

the river

the river

Overlooking the river towards the eastern end of the garden is an avenue of lime trees, again very overgrown – the two rows planted so close to each other that they  have created a cool tunnel beneath them.

avenue, evening

avenue, evening

Walking back towards the central axis of the garden, the lime avenue is lovely in the evening light. Looking on Evelyn’s plan, he has a large oval area with a round basin/pool in the middle of the lower garden. It must have been built, because it features on the early eighteenth century map.

view towards the house

view south towards the house

Nothing  is visible today, as this photo looking towards the river and house shows – but archaeology might reveal something.

Albury apples

Albury apples

Apple trees are now growing along the strip of ground between the ditch and the lower terrace, where Evelyn’s plan shows a layout of similar densely-planted small trees. Did he also plant fruit trees here? If only we still had the key to his plan! In the centre of the lower terrace is an odd feature sometimes described as a Roman bath, but which may have been rebuilt and altered since Evelyn’s time. His design looks like he may have intended to adapt the classically-inspired feature that was already there in the 1640’s. Nowadays it is empty apart from niches in the brick walls, but perhaps it once had running water inside?

Entrance to bath house

“Roman Baths” entrance

Next time I’ll conclude my account of Albury with the fountain pool, the exedra and tunnel, and a stroll along the impressive terraces, the features of the garden that have changed least since Evelyn’s day.

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Two Sundays back, I took the rare opportunity to visit the wonderful garden that John Evelyn created at Albury Park in Surrey. Normally closed to the public,  thankfully  it opens twice a year under the National Gardens Scheme. The contrast in setting between Sayes Court and Albury Park could hardly be greater. At Albury Park, the garden is set into a south-facing hillside overlooking a richly-wooded valley through which the river Tillingbourne flows. It is sheltered, with a perfect aspect for fruit trees, and a good natural supply of water. After the pollution and clamour of Deptford it was  such a delight to breathe in the sweet, clean air at Albury, and I’m sure Evelyn must have appreciated it, too.

Albury in 1645

Albury in 1645

Even before he began to redesign the garden, he was well-acquainted with Albury Park, which lies only about five miles from his family home at Wotton. Evelyn’s early mentor in matters of artistic taste, Lord Arundel, had laid out an Italianate garden at Albury in the 1630’s, and to judge by this engraving of it in 1645 by Wenceslaus Hollar, it already included long terraces with vines growing on them, some kind of classical-looking ruin, and a broad expanse of water – all features interestingly similar to those Evelyn later claimed as his own designs. After the earl’s death in 1652, unsure where to settle, Evelyn actually tried to buy Albury Park. But the heir, Henry Howard, decided to keep it, and in 1656 Howard, with Evelyn’s guidance, began making big changes to the garden.

Albury Park in 1701

The plan on the left, redrawn by Charles Walmsley from a map of 1701, shows how the garden looked some thirty years after Evelyn’s work was completed there. The River has been channelled into a broad canal, and the garden behind it is laid out in a symmetrical design up the gently ascending slope of the hill, around a clear central axis. A narrow linear feature divides the lower half of the garden from the upper half, in which we see a row of four rectangular plots with grape vines (?) growing in them, backing onto two long terraces. In the centre of the retaining wall at the back of the lower terrace there is an entrance into a subterranean room, possibly rebuilt since Evelyn’s day, modelled on ancient Roman baths.  Set  into the upper terrace is a semi-circular recess around a large pool. An avenue of trees is shown behind the recess, following what we know to be the route of the tunnel that Evelyn had cut into the hill under Silver Wood.

We know from Evelyn’s diary that the alcoved recess (technically called an exedra) and the tunnel into which it led, were evocations of the Grotto of Posilippo, with its long tunnel through the promontory between Naples and Pozzuoli, visited by him in 1645. Tradition then held this to have been accomplished in just one night by Virgil, the famous Roman poet whom mediaeval legend had recast as something of a magician. His tomb was also believed to lie close by.

Exedra and pool

Exedra and pool

Despite the bold layout of Albury Park’s quarter-mile long terraces and canal, which could be viewed as a statement of human ability to reshape nature, at the highest point and heart of the garden was the exedra; a place to sit, converse and reflect on such melancholic themes as the relative impermanence of human life and works, in contrast perhaps to the perpetually-renewed spring that flowed from the fountain at the pool’s edge. To describe Albury simply as a “formal garden” is, in my view,  to ignore its subtle but powerful romantic undercurrent.

In my next post, I’ll present an illustrated walk-through, with some observations on how the garden changed over time.

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Main Sources:

Chambers, Douglas, 1981, “The Tomb in the landscape: John Evelyn’s Garden at Albury”, The Journal of Garden History.

Walmsley, R. Charles, 1976, The Risbridger Story,  (including a plan of the John Evelyn Gardens) (privately printed pamphlet).

Darley, Gillian, 2006, “John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity”, Yale University Press.

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Evelyn's plan of an artificial echo

I  gave a little talk two weekends back about the history of Sayes Court to a group of people who had gathered to air alternative, grass-root visions for the redevelopment of Convoys Wharf, including the restoration of John Evelyn’s seventeenth century garden

In it I tried to summarize Evelyn’s influence on some other contemporary gardens – though by no means all of the ones he had a hand in.  This is something I have already begun to explore here under the category “echoes of Evelyn”, starting with Groombridge Place.  When next spring comes, I’ll hopefully get the chance to get out and visit a few of these gardens, and post about them here in more depth

For now, though, here’s a snippet to whet the appetite!


1653 view of Wotton -click to enlarge

Evelyn directly influenced the design of numerous important seventeenth century gardens, beginning with his family’s ancestral home at Wotton.

Albury Park Terrace

Today the best visible example of his work, inspired in particular by the huge terraces of Palestrina outside Rome, is Albury Park in Surrey, where from 1662 he redesigned the Italianate garden for Henry Howard, to include a Yew Walk and fine terraces a quarter of a mile long, with a tunnel through the hill under Silver Wood. 

Howard also received his advice in 1663/4 on the design of a riverside public “spring garden” in Norwich, with many walks, a bowling green, pond, and of course, a “wilderness”.

Euston Hall

Evelyn also took an active role at Euston Hall in Suffolk, where in 1671 he designed a garden with a canal, straight rides and long avenues of elms and limes, and at Groombridge Place in Kent, where the central avenue of clipped yews has survived as well as most of the basic seventeenth century layout.  He also advised many other leading garden-owners of his day.

Groombridge Place

Sayes Court was, however, his greatest horticultural achievement, where he demonstrated the benefits of tree planting as prescribed in his best-known book “Sylva”, and experimented with innovative designs, plants, and  techniques such as growing on hotbeds and in greenhouses.

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