FIONA’S SUMMER BLOG
Well, summer is here at last, with sunshine on the herbaceous borders after all the chilly rain we have had, which while needed, is usually less conducive for garden
As members of the Trust and visitors to this site may already know, I am a great supporter of the varied public parks and gardens which so many of our towns and villages are lucky enough to have. It was therefore great to hear about the importance which the Garden History Society also attaches to them at their July AGM at the Garden Museum in Lambeth. Jonathan Lovie, the Principal Conservation Officer and Policy Advisor to the GHS’s Conservation Team, who is also involved with the National Trust Council, emphasised the crucial role and contribution of County Gardens Trust research and planning activities regionally, especially given the ’choppy waters’ in which the NT, English Heritage and other similar organisations currently operate. Jonathan stressed the need to be vigilant about the increasing risks to public parks, even where they are registered designed landscapes. This was good to hear given the recent support which the Berkshire Gardens Trust has given to those seeking to ensure that Reading’s relatively recently Heritage Lottery funded The Forbury and Caversham Court gardens did not suffer from possible Council cuts (see full article in our Spring/ Summer 2012 Newsletter). The results of any cuts would have been to the own’s etriment and a missed opportunity for those who live, work and visit, including those enjoying the delights of the river and its banks.
I was very aware of Jonathan’s words and the pressure on such areas, when I went on a guided tour of Brighton’s public parks gardens and open spaces with the Birkbeck Garden History Group (BGHG) in mid-July. The tour was led by Virginia Hinze, previously the Landscape Architect for English Heritage’s South East Region and a staunch supporter of the garden history world, especially within Sussex. I was not aware that Brighton had such a good horticultural reputation, nor that it has the national collection of elms, survivors of the 1970s Dutch Elm disease disaster which affected so many in this country. Virginia described Brighton’s Green Mile as “a linear series of designed spaces that form a physical and temporal progression in Brighton’s history”. Dating from the early 17th century, they are now virtually all publicly accessible, with the hope that Preston Park Manor’s walled garden, at the northern extent of our trip, will ultimately become a community garden or allotments.
Just to the north of the Pavilion, the Victoria or Valley Gardens act as a green ribbon and corridor between the busy north-south main road. Originally subscription gardens for the surrounding middle-class houses, they were opened to the public from the late 19th century. There has been some recent re-planting commensurate with the ‘tiered bedding’ introduced by the Parks Superintendent Captain Bertie MacLaren in the 1920s which enlivens what would otherwise have just become another grassy urban landscape fringed by a line of trees, alongside which motorists would pass without another glance, of which MacLaren would not have approved!. Through the addition of grasses as yet another texture, the contemporary planting also has a ‘prairie’ feel, especially when the sun shines.
We then traversed The Level. This final section of ‘the green mile’ area remains an important open space for the playing of games, with the later addition of playground areas, including a skate park, among formal floral beds. There are plans to move the skate park to the remaining open area adjacent to an asphalt football pitch, a move which the majority of the locals who use the area want though others are less keen; illustrative of the sorts of tensions which all local authorities face in the management and development of their open spaces. Stone-flags support the slightly higher perimeter, encircled by fine elms, in the northern part. North again from the Level is Park Crescent, a horseshoe of villas built by Amon Henry Wilds on the site of Brighton’s first public cricket ground (donated by the Prince of Wales in 1791).
Our tour concluded with a traverse of Preston Park, formerly part of the Stanford Estate and purchased as “the People’s Park” in the 1880s. Today the park has two cafes, the prettier of which is in the form of a rotunda designed by MacLaren in 1929 and almost surrounded by his extensive, surviving rose garden of 1929 now planted with David Austin roses. The park incorporates old estate hedgerows, which include some ‘champion trees’, as well as what is called the tile house, with a pleasing patterned tile-clad walls and built in the 1920s as an exhibition piece to show a firm’s wares (currently a keep fit club’s centre).
We ended with the magnificent and dramatic 1936 rockery designed by MacLaren, who had trained with James Backhouse, one of the leading rock-garden specialists of the period. It was a complete surprise, especially given its modern setting above the London to Brighton road. It uses stratified rock on its very steep upper levels which give way to gentle moraine slopes and grassy meadows dotted with rocks. Windy paths, a rustic bridge across a steep cascade and a stepping-stone crossing in the meadows area add to the surprises of what Virginia refers to as “… a huge palette of plants from true alpines to hardy herbaceous and shrubs, conifers … and “kaleidoscopic patterns of colours and forms … “. Sadly, it was raining extremely hard by this point, so sadly no photos were possible. Many thanks to Virginia for an excellent tour and ccompanying notes as well as BGHG’s committee for arranging it.