Posts Tagged ‘Garden visits’

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.


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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Wotton was the first on my list of Evelyn-related places to visit this year, and last weekend I spent my birthday there.  The house is now a hotel and conference centre owned by the Principal Hayley group.

ImageIn Evelyn’s time the house was timber-framed, with a main block flanked by two wings projecting to the north enclosing a u-shaped court. The garden lay to the south, and this is where John Evelyn first experimented with Italian-style design from the 1640’s onwards. There he created a parterre with a central fountain and viewing terraces to either side.

Portico, grotto and mound

To the rear the natural hillside was terraced and fronted by a classical portico and grotto. The grotto was adorned with statues, of which only the Venus now remains.

Interior of grotto

The walls of the niches were encrusted with corals and shells that glittered behind gushing fountain-jets.  All of this was achieved thanks to a system of ingenious conduits that diverted the flow of the natural streams that run through the grounds.

The mound was planted with beech trees which have since vanished, along with apparently all other vestiges of the seventeenth century planting.


There is some uncertainty about the date of the statues of the four seasons that flank the central access stairway. They would certainly fit in with Evelyn’s theme here, derived from Epicurean philosophy, of the powers of nature (represented principally by Venus).  At any rate, all four seasons apart from Winter are now headless, which is rather sad.

I have to say that the evidence of these and other broken statues, fountains and benches and the detritus of wedding revels leave one feeling that this rare survival of seventeenth century garden design is not being properly cherished by the current owners.

Careful archaeological investigation might be able to recover the plan of the parterre. That area as well as the former orchard and kitchen garden to the east of the house are now just grassed over. If the neglected water features were  repaired, and the garden replanted in period style, the result would be truly stunning.  It would also, of course, attract many visitors.

Doorway to room where John Evelyn was probably born

The house itself has been much altered since the seventeenth century. Refaced in brick and extended in Victorian Gothic style, when it passed out of the family’s hands all its original furnishings and fittings went too.There remain a few beautiful Jacobean and Elizabethan doors, and interesting nooks and crannies.   However, all the old heart of the house is reserved for corporate training and conference events, as well as  wedding parties. Hotel guests stay in a modern accommodation wing, where the rooms are, frankly, bland and overpriced. It was next to impossible even to get to see any of the older rooms, as they were nearly all declared to be either in use or off-limits. Here, nevertheless, is a glimpse of the room where John Evelyn may have been born –  or could it be the one next to it?!

Room where John Evelyn may have been born

The best part of my brief time at Wotton was the midsummer dawn chorus, the like of which I’ve honestly never heard before in my life. Thanks no doubt to the lush woods behind the mound and the many trees and streams in the garden, the  variety, volume and sheer virtuosity of the birdsong was breath-taking. Looking out then from the first floor window onto the mound in the half-light, it seemed like one of those numinous fairy-hills in which legends tell that Arthur sleeps – except in this case, it must surely be the local equivalent of Venus…

The mound from the west


All photos by the author except for the Evelyn sketch scanned by Jacqueline Banerjee, from http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/homes/33c.html For more information on the garden, see Small A. & Small C., John Evelyn and the Garden of Epicurus, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 60 (1997) pp. 194-214. For the basic historical facts on the house, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wotton_House,_Surrey and for details of the architectural features, see here http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1189814.

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Braving cold and squelchy weather and choppy waters on the Thames ferry, garden history enthusiasts packed the hall at the Linnaean Society and afterwards at the Master Shipwright’s house in Deptford yesterday to hear some enthralling talks on John Evelyn’s Sayes Court garden and discuss ideas for its restoration.

Eminent speakers included such experts as Gillian Darley, author of Evelyn biography “Living for ingenuity”, Frances Harris, who curated the Evelyn archive at the British Library and has written “Transformations of Love”, a fascinating account of Evelyn’s life and spiritual friendship with Margaret Godolphin; Professor Michael Hunter from Birkbeck College; Jan Woudstra from Sheffield University, Jonathan Lovie from the Garden History Society, and a recorded slide talk by Mark Laird of Harvard.

To mention just a few of the things that were discussed:  Gillian Darley introduced the day with an enjoyable overview of “Evelyn’s villa on the Thames”. Given Evelyn’s scientific interests and pioneering writings on the importance of clean air and earth, a disembodied but eloquent Mark Laird suggested that Sayes Court could be the home of an institute dedicated to exploring sustainable solutions to the social and ecological problems of modern urban life.   Jan Woudstra talked about the planting, and brought home to me just how densely Evelyn planted his grove – with five hundred odd trees there, he calculates they would only be about four or five feet apart.  Add to that the underplanting of bushes such as hazel, various fruits, and other greens, and this meant that after they grew to about three and a half metres high, they’d need to be thinned or else start to die off.  He described the garden as one primarily for horticultural experimentation rather than “showing off”.  He then raised the question of where exactly Evelyn had built the greenhouse that we know he had in later years.

Frances Harris thinks it was most probably adjoining the manor house. In my recent poring over the 1692 Gascoyne map (see my previous post) I noticed an extension at the back (north) end of the house, fronting onto the walled private/fountain garden, which we agreed in later conversation was the most likely candidate.  A greenhouse at that time was not what we mean by the term today (a glasshouse). It was more like a cross between an orangery and a gallery, somewhere to stroll in company, while admiring the exotic plants.

In her talk Frances showed some wonderful images she’s unearthed from the BL Evelyn archive, including a lovely sketch of the inside of his “elaboratorie” by Evelyn himself, as well as pages of intriguing mottoes drawn from classical literature, which once hung around the house and the garden. These seemed to be meant to help inspire a contemplative state of mind in the reader. Probably originally painted on wood, and mostly in Latin; I think something similar would be great to include a literary and artistic aspect in the potential restoration.

After milling around in the Queen’s wake for some time near the newly re-opened Cutty Sark at Greenwich, we made our slightly bedraggled way to Sayes Court Park, and then on to the Master Shipwright’s, where Tim Richardson of the GHS, garden columnist and writer, summed up the day’s talks and opened a discussion on possible directions for the restoration of the garden.

An exciting and thought-provoking day, and very well-attended thanks to the hard work of the organizers in the GHS, LPGT, and Deptford is…

When I first aired my idea of restoring Sayes Court garden three years ago, very few people seemed to be really aware of the importance of the place, and I could hardly foresee the tide of enthusiastic support that now seems to be rising in favour of the proposal.  This looks like it really might  become – to borrow a nice phrase originally describing the garden of John Beale, with whom Evelyn corresponded,  “no phantastical utopia, but a real place”.

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Plaque mentioning Evelyn

Scots pine reputed to have been planted by Evelyn

Sayes Court was not the only garden that John Evelyn had a hand in. His advice was sought on garden design by numerous landowners, including his friend Philip Packer, who lived at Groombridge Place in Kent.

Fortunately, the gardens at Groombridge Place escaped both the ravages of the landscape movement, and the neglect that has afflicted Sayes Court. The original seventeenth century layout that Evelyn was consulted on is still visible, and although most of the actual planting has altered, there are still fascinating remnants of it here and there. This is a good place to visit to get a general feel for how Sayes Court might have been, and, feeling in need of a little inspiration, last Sunday I spent a very enjoyable afternoon there drinking in the atmosphere and taking photos.

House and gateway, Groombridge

As you approach the house, to the right of the bridge over the moat you see a soaring Scots pine, said to be the remaining one of a pair that Evelyn planted in the 1670s. Although the house itself is sadly not open to the public, the outside looks not too dissimilar to what we know from the few surviving depictions of Sayes Court – two main storeys, and classical columns in the porch. Perhaps it is a little grander, but not much – both places started off as mediaeval manor houses, after all.

Main axis looking south, Groombridge

The paths, walls, gateways and main divisions or rooms of the garden are still much as they were originally set out in the seventeenth century. The central axis pathway is called “The Apostle Walk”, because it is bordered on each side by twelve yews clipped into drum shapes, believed to have survived from the 1674 planting.

"Twelve Apostles" yew tree avenue

Another seventeenth century feature which Groombridge Place had in common with Sayes Court was a banqueting house in which the Packers and their guests would have enjoyed light refreshments, more like picnics than what we would call a banquet today, of cakes, fruit ,wine, or tea, still an exotic luxury then. This building, subsequently altered and enlarged into a cottage, leads onto a raised grass walk described in the guidebook as a bowling alley, although it seems rather narrow, and its position leads me to wonder if it might not originally have been a raised terrace perhaps for viewing a parterre below, as at Sayes Court?

The narrow canal that crosses the garden is also part of the original design, although the colourfully-planted “Knot Garden” was only laid out in 1994. I do suspect that (proper!) archaeological investigation might find very interesting evidence for the earlier planting layout in this area and in the adjacent “Draughtsman’s Lawn”, named after Peter Greenaway’s entrancing film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, filmed here in 1982. A more recently-filmed version of “Pride and Prejudice” allows a tantalising view inside the house itself.

19th century plan of 17th century Groombridge Place

On the wall in the visitors’ restaurant, and rather awkwardly situated to photo (my apologies for the poor quality shot) there is a picture of a nineteenth century plan that purports to show the gardens as they would have appeared in the seventeenth century. What this is based on, I don’t know – was there an earlier painting or drawing available to the artist? If anyone reading this can enlighten me about it, I’d be very grateful.

300 year old apple tree, Groombridge Place

There are three ancient apple trees in the “White rose garden” that remain from the orchard that existed there in the seventeenth century. The one in the photo still apparently produces fruit, despite its great age and the mistletoe growing on it! I wonder what variety it is?

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