In an English Country Garden
Published in Revista Travesias magazine, 2005.
One of the finest preserved Tudor/Elizabethan mansions in Britain, Montacute is the genuine article. Set on the edge of the Quantock hills just outside of Yeovil in east Somerset, this is England as she is meant to be seen.
The grounds seem so extensive, with so many outbuildings, that it’s an effort to remember that this ‘pile’ was not built as a visitor centre. The information board outside the shop/reception building, lists three walks of around an hour each. It’s not unfeasibly large – the gardens are twenty-five acres, plus extensive grounds and an adjoining park.
Montacute House was built at the end of the sixteenth century for Sir Edward Phelps: lawyer, Speaker for the House of Commons, and Master of the Rolls who represented the prosecution in Guy Fawkes’ trial. The inviting, honey-coloured edifice was constructed of the unique local Ham Hill limestone and has many Renaissance features including a permanent loan of Elizabethan and Jacobean paintings from the National Portrait Gallery. The entire Montacute village is built of the same friendly stone.
As an architectural style, the country house gained pace in the relative wealth and stability of the Tudor age. Here is true English grandeur, but now it is for the masses, since the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings purchased the house in 1931 and passed it to the National Trust.
St Michael’s tower, on a hill overlooking the grounds, was built by the family as a folly; a piece of whimsy and a show of wealth which it is possible to visit.
The earliest English gardens that we know of were Roman. After the Saxons, they became prominent again in the Middle Ages. The house, while exquisite, reflects the Tudor belief in order and rank in nature and society, and this is continued in the gardens; in the Cedar Lawn, Pollarded yews line up like soldiers at inspection, and the extensive box-hedged yews are made to form the huge walls of these famous knot gardens; I prefer them free-range. Ivy in the orangery is likewise oddly corralled into mini hedges.
Listening to a national radio station on my drive here, the presenter was asking where the day’s forecast sun actually was; well, this region receives the longest hours of sunshine in the land. Here you will find a fig tree fixed to the wall of an outbuilding, bearing small figs, and a pear tree likewise wired to the house.
The roofs of the two banqueting houses perched on the corners of the East Court garden, are exquisite; Elizabethan architecture is as utterly different from anything else – as other, as that century is utterly gone. And yet they are here, in our century, firmly rooted through time – as though to say “I have my relationship to time sorted – how about you?”
Bats appear at dusk. Watch out for bluebells, primroses and violets in spring.Woodpeckers, too.
Montacute caters well for its one hundred thousand visitors annually, with two outdoor picnic areas and a covered seated barn, a tea house and a separate restaurant.
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If you drive to Glastonbury from the north (Bristol, Bath, or M4 motorway), go through Wells rather than Shepton Mallet. The film-set view of mystical St Michael’s Tower on Glastonbury Tor, rising through the mists of Avalon – yes, they are real – is stupefying.
Site of the first Christian church in England, burial place of Arthur and Guinevere and hiding place of the holy grail, Glastonbury is home to earth magic written large: the Michael and Mary ley-lines are said to meet here, before encircling Glastonbury Tor behind.
Chalice Well’s gardens are centred around the Well itself and some interesting water features, known here as Flow Forms. Great care and attention has gone into installing the Sevenfold Metamorphic Cascade, including dedicated college research and development. It apparently enhances the subtle energies of the water, to convey life-giving information. Whatever you believe, you can certainly rest and recuperate your energies here.
Walking up here from the town centre (less than a mile), I passed several houses bearing the paraphernalia of the fiercely eclectic spirituality found here; think California with damp mists. They will tell you, while nodding a lot, that Glastonbury is the planet’s Heart Chakra (energy centre), and that the Grail of the Last Supper, or Chalice, is buried beneath this hill.
Designed to maximise the enrichment factor rather than to any traditional garden pattern, the Meadow area features a small labyrinth cut into the grass. There is some interesting seating here, with excellent Tor views. There is a genuine tranquillity here, which the nearby road does not noticeably invade.
The paths are inlaid with ammonite fossils, and the Vesica Piscis motif abounds in wrought ironwork on gates. The Christian symbol of Roman times, it comprises two interlocking circles with an arrow through the centre. Wide herbaceous borders are alive with colour in spring and summer.
At the Chalice Well itself, an ordinary-looking middle-aged man was standing with arms out and eyes closed, intoning prayers or mantras with several large, ornate candles and tea-lights burning. On returning, I can say I did feel the force – yes, there is something special here, something intangible as mist.
Many events are celebrated here as public events, mostly ancient Celtic holidays such as Spring Equinox (March 21) and Beltane (May 1). There are no local trains, but buses run regularly from Bristol, changing in Wells, and Bath (32 miles approx).
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Prior Park is an eighteenth century landscape garden in a small dramatically-sloping valley two miles South of Bath city centre. The landscape garden movement of the 18th century featured houses with gardens reaching right up to the doors of the house. According to Humphrey Repton, 1752-1818, who was the first to use the term landscape garden, “the act can only be advanced and perfected by the united powers of the landscape painter and the practical gardener.”
In the autumn glow of the garden here, it looks like both have been at work; and just as the garden looks onto amazing city views, there is something endearingly intimate about the closed-in nature of this twenty-eight acre site (just over eleven hectares).
In 1734 Ralph Allen, entrepreneur and philanthropist, commissioned John Wood the Elder (Architect of most of Bath’s interesting buildings and mystic) to build the grand Prior Park mansion, now a college.
The garden saw several transformations. At first it was a formal French affair, with triangular lawn and parterre flower beds. In the 1750s, however, a revolution occurred – lines and paths were more curvaceous, and parterres were superseded by grass. Trees came in clusters rather than in straight lines, and three rounded lakes replaced the earlier rectangular ponds. The garden became spacious, a park linking the house to the outside world rather than a refuge from it.
This natural style, begun by William Kent with advice from poet Alexander Pope, evolved into the Landscape Garden under Kent’s pupil and son-in-law, Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Brown, whose curious nickname came from his habit of telling prospective clients that their gardens showed “great capabilities”, had a massive effect on the course of English gardening and architectural style. His diligently orchestrated vistas included a Gothic temple, a grotto, and an open grass “cabinet” area, which are all set to be restored. The garden was acquired by the National Trust in a state of neglect in 1993, and they are applying ecological, archaeological and historical surveys with great care and sensitivity.
The Wilderness Area, suggested by Alexander Pope, is currently being revived. The 150 metre Serpentine Lake through the middle is designed to reflect the mansion and the Sham Bridge in its surface.
The views here are carefully stage-managed; a grove of young yew trees delays the impact until it is at its point of maximum impact. The vista of the Palladian bridge straddling the lake, with Bath down below and Lansdown Hill beyond, is stunning. Likewise, at the bottom end a line of carefully-planted trees shields the equally-stunning view back towards the house.
Shrubbery has been thoughtfully planted at staggered heights at the sides of the paths, leading down through woods – mostly yews and laurels – to the bridge.
The ornate Palladian bridge dates from 1755, and is one of only four in the world. It was built in imitation of that of Wilton House in nearby Wiltshire, built in 1737 by Henry Herbert after Italian Palladio. An impressive piece of stonework, it provides shelter from the elements. While recent graffiti have been erased, older ones are still carved into the stone; the oldest dates from 1794.
It was lovely when I visited in Autumn, but they say it’s best seen March to May, when the wild garlic begins.
You might want to plan how you get here, as it’s nearly impossible to park within a mile of the garden. Local buses number two and four go from Dorchester Street by Bath train station.