GARDENING / Et in Arcadia, garden design: Michael Leapman on the continuing battle between formal and 'natural'

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A SAND-DUNE dotted with wild flowers, its grass kept short by rabbits, won the major award for garden design at this year's Chelsea show. It provoked my colleague Anna Pavord to ask in the Independent: 'Is rabbit-grazed turf what gardeners seek above all else in their gardens? Are we panting for brackish pools? . . . Rise up gardeners and prepare to defend your petunias.'

Along with other critics of the judges' choice, she was firing the latest shot in a skirmish that has been under way for centuries. The virtues of nature as opposed to artifice are at the root of most quarrels about how gardens should look.

Capability Brown's devastation of countless formal gardens in the 18th century, to replace them with his 'natural' landscapes, was hotly disputed. Spats between William Robinson and Reginald Blomfield in the 19th century were conducted with a ferocity out of keeping with the placid nature of their subject.

When one of the current hits of the London theatre season has garden design as a theme, it is clear that the issue is still on the boil. Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, at the National Theatre, is set in 1809 in a country house whose garden is being done over in Repton's manner, to the consternation of its owner, Lady Croom.

Comparing the garden as it was with the plans for its redesign, she observes: 'Where there is the familiar pastoral refinement of an Englishman's garden, here is an eruption of gloomy forest and towering crag, of ruins where there was never a house, of water dashing against rocks where there was neither spring nor a stone I could not throw the length of a cricket pitch. My hyacinth dell has become a haunt for hobgoblins, my Chinese bridge . . . is usurped by a fallen obelisk overgrown with briars.'

While not many of us have gardens that run to Chinese bridges or bogus ruins, the question of how much of a helping hand we should give to nature is implicit in everything we do in our own little patches, from the broad design down to what we plant and where.

Do we want startling scarlets and yellows or soft pinks and lilacs? Untidy climbers doing their thing or bedding plants in regimental rows? What do we feel about statues, fountains and paving?

Our answers are affected by the prevailing fashion, but today the signals are confused. While the natural style of the Chelsea prize-winner has its devotees, when it comes to restoring historic gardens the earlier, formal layouts are returning to favour. Hampton Court Palace offers the most interesting and ambitious example. The long-overgrown Privy Garden leading to the river from the south front - designed by Wren for William III in the late 17th century - is being returned to its 1702 appearance.

Naturally, the plan has not been without controversy. One local campaigner protested vigorously that the redesign meant cutting down some historic yew trees. (Cuttings have been taken and they will be replaced by their direct descendants.) The garden historian Sir Roy Strong, in his television series Royal Gardens, made a powerful case for the larger Fountain Garden, to the east of the Palace, to be restored to its early 18th-

century appearance. Simon Thurley, the curator, explains: 'This cannot be done under any circumstances. The landscape has changed too much, the paths built over. Anyway, what we have there is a very important Victorian garden.'

In restoring the Privy Garden, Mr Thurley could have gone for Henry VIII's design, bristling with heraldic beasts on poles; the simpler 17th-century division into four identical lawns with statues; or its appearance later that century, when intricate patterns were cut into the grass to make parterres.

As we stood on the edge of the work in progress, he explained why he chose the 1702 version: 'This garden was designed to complement the Wren building. The Henry VIII design was a non-starter because we don't have the palace to go with it, and anyway most of the evidence for it has been swept away.'

The outline is the same today as in 1702. By stripping off the top 18in of soil, archaeologists have been able to locate the exact positions of the flower beds and planting holes. The foundations of the original steps have been uncovered beneath the grass of the banks. A contemporary painting by Leonard Knyff shows what the garden looked like in 1702. The Public Record office has detailed plant lists and accounts.

Mr Thurley is going to great lengths to ensure accuracy. Some of the more exotic bulbs listed no longer exist here and he is trying to get them propagated in Holland. The flower-beds were edged with low box hedges, and he is doing research into what kinds of box were most used in that period. The restoration should be complete by the spring of 1995.

At Greenwich, another royal park by the Thames, the plan is to go back even earlier to Le Notre, the French designer of the Versailles gardens and a master of the formal style. He laid out Greenwich Park for Charles II in the late 17th century - without ever visiting it; but the intervening 300 years have obliterated most of the design. Now his straight avenues are to be restored and his giant grass steps up the hill - too easily worn away by today's visitors - will be replaced by a stepped water feature in keeping with his geometric principles.

In other cases, though, 'natural' landscape gardens are being restored, as at Prior Park in Bath and, most ambitious of all, the vast acreage of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Dotted with classical temples, arches, grottoes and statuary, this is where Brown cut his teeth as a young landscape gardener. Hannah Jarvis, the academic author played by Felicity Kendal in Arcadia, would not have approved of Stowe. 'There's an engraving of Sidley Park in 1730 that makes you want to weep,' she says. 'Paradise in the age of reason. By 1760 everything had gone - the topiary, pools and terraces, fountains, an avenue of limes - the whole sublime geometry was ploughed under by Capability Brown.' She'd have hated the disorder of the nibbled grass and sand-dune at Chelsea, too.

(Photograph omitted)