The restoration and conservation of historic gardens is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The importance of preserving our heritage has long been recognised as applying to bricks and mortar, but it was not until the Garden History Society was formed in the 1960s that the outdoor bits started to be taken as seriously. Many of the great country-house gardens are the fruit of collaboration between specialist garden designers and architects.
Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens, the leading architect of her day, are the best known of such partnerships and Hestercombe is one of the finest examples of their joint work. Lutyens's hard features - paths, walls, fountains, steps and pergolas - are perfectly offset by Jekyll's sensitive plantings, worked out in the most meticulous detail as blends of colour, height and habit of growth.
Gardens are harder to conserve than houses. A building can straightforwardly - if often expensively - be returned to the condition envisaged by its architect, and then should need only normal maintenance to keep it up to scratch. A garden, though, demands constant attention, for plants are always in a state of change. Unwilling to confine themselves to the space arbitrarily allotted them, they grow rampant; then they die back and may get infested with disease. A commitment to restore a historic garden is valueless without an equal commitment to maintain it.
Which takes us back to Hestercombe. For the past 24 years the garden has been in the tender care of Somerset County Council, which uses it as the headquarters of its fire brigade. I say 'tender' care deliberately, for over the years the council has been generous in providing funds for the restoration of the garden, which suffered when the house was by used by the military in the Second World War. Miss Jekyll's detailed planting plans from 1904 to 1908 have survived and have been faithfully re-created, while the Lutyens brick and stone features - including the marvellous orangery - have been repaired.
The partnership is seen at its best in the main garden in front of the house, where Lutyens designed a formal, geometric layout of lawns, beds and paths. The borders around it are on two levels, edged with grey stone. In them Jekyll placed red poppies and kniphofias (red-hot pokers) for dramatic colour, softened by lavender, eryngium, stachys and other greyish plants and grasses to blend with the grey walls behind them. The beds in the centre are edged with deep rows of fat-leaved bergenias, one of her favourite foliage plants.
A few months ago the blow fell. The council decided that Hestercombe was no longer a suitable base for its firefighters, whose future might anyway be affected by the proposed reorganisation of local authorities. It announced a plan to sell the property, with no guarantee that a new owner would be willing or able to pay for the garden's upkeep.
Local residents immediately took up the cause. An organisation called Friends of Hestercombe Garden was established and a meeting sought with the council. In May a public meeting was held.
Michele Pine, co-ordinator of the group, says the council has proved sympathetic and co-operative. A joint working party has been established to decide how the garden's future can be secured when the house is sold. One possibility is to sell the house alone, leaving the garden in the hands of the council, which would seek to cover the costs of running it through better promotion and introducing features such as a shop and cafe.
That there is scope for increasing revenue is shown by the results of an initiative taken by the Friends. Because the council cannot afford staff to collect the pounds 2 admission charge, visitors are asked to place it in an 'honesty box' by the entrance. Some weekends this summer, volunteers have acted as gate stewards and the takings have roughly doubled, suggesting that not all garden-lovers are as honest as you might hope.
Splitting the garden from the house - a former Queen Anne mansion that fell victim to insensitive embellishment in the 1870s - might make the house easier to sell for use as offices, because not many companies would want to be saddled with garden maintenance. The snag is that the impending reorganisation of local government could see Somerset County Council merged into a larger body less interested in keeping it. That is why the formation of a trust to run the garden is being considered as a further option.
Because the alarm was sounded early enough, there seems a good chance that Hestercombe will be saved. 'We're very pleased with the progress we've made so far,' Michele Pine reports, 'but there are still possible snags ahead.'
The National Trust is in a different position from a county council, in that the maintenance of historic houses and gardens is its chief purpose. The most difficult question it had to settle about Barrington Court, some 15 miles south-east of Hestercombe, was not whether the gardens should be restored but exactly what they should be restored to.
The Elizabethan house was the first large property to come into the possession of the trust, being bequeathed to it in 1907. The trust leased it to Colonel Arthur Lyle (of the Tate & Lyle sugar family), who engaged the architect J E Forbes to restore the house and design a garden. Forbes asked Gertrude Jekyll to prepare detailed planting schemes. By 1917, when she began, she was already 74; she lived until 1932.
She never actually visited the house, preparing her designs at home in Surrey from Forbes's drawings and from analysis of soil samples that Mrs Lyle sent her in biscuit tins. Her eyesight was by then very poor but experience had taught her to judge a soil's possibilities from its texture.
She and Forbes designed nine separate garden 'rooms' to surround the house. In the event only three of them were created, because the Lyles and their advisers thought that elaborate gardens close to the house would detract from its architecture. But all the original plans for the gardens have survived.
Although the National Trust owned the property it did not have full responsibility for its maintenance until 1991 when Andrew Lyle, the colonel's grandson, relinquished the lease. The structure of the three Jekyll gardens has stayed intact, but the planting has been altered over the years. These are among the few Jekyll gardens owned by the trust, so there was little doubt that her schemes should be largely restored.
Her most loyal devotees would have liked all the Jekyll gardens to be made, even those the Lyles never got around to. That was ruled out for reasons partly of cost and partly of historical accuracy: garden conservation means restoring things as they were, not as they were planned.
The most difficult decision about the three that were built concerned Jekyll's rose and peony garden, planned around a statue of a dancing faun. Here she had borders, edged with stachys, where dark shrubs were used as a background to pale roses such as 'Dundee Rambler' and 'Reine Olga de Wartbourg'. It was not until 1928 that the Lyles planted this, and even then they did not use all the roses that Jekyll had specified.
In the Fifties the roses had to be replaced by modern varieties because of disease. And in 1986, with rose sickness diagnosed in the soil, this second planting was dug up and the borders were made into a white garden. It features mainly white flowers - nicotiana, ageratums and petunias - and shrubs such as the fluffy white Smilacina racemosa, along with silver foliage plants. The trust will keep it this way, although white was never much associated with Gertrude Jekyll, more with Vita Sackville-West a few years later.
Jim Marshall, one of the National Trust's garden advisers, explains that the historical significance of any garden does not depend solely on its original designer, but also on changes wrought by the family who had to live with it. 'It is a family garden that happened to be designed to some extent by Gertrude Jekyll,' he says.
Her admirers are relieved that her other two gardens, the lily garden and the iris and rose garden, will be restored as she intended. The lily garden will be done first, with its graduated schemes of hot-coloured flowers set off by darker shrubs, in raised beds round the lily pond. Red and yellow antirrhinums, kniphofias, lobelias, penstemons and rudbeckias are placed in front of viburnums of different varieties, each combination carefully chosen for the most dramatic impact. The garden historian Richard Bisgrove has written that this planting represents 'the peak of subtlety in the relationship between foreground flowers and background shrubs' in her work.
The rose and iris garden again had borders planted with shrubs with varying shades of green leaves: choisya, ceanothus and fuchsia. Among them were irises, phlox, purple sage and marigolds. The central beds were exclusively for roses, including 'Zephirine Drouhin', 'Blanche Double de Coubert' and 'Sunburst', but these were removed in the Fifties. They will be put back, using the originally specified varieties where they are still available.
Gertrude Jekyll is sometimes unfairly thought of as merely the inventor of the herbaceous border. When the trust has finished its work at Barrington Court, and assuming the Friends of Hestercombe Garden achieve their object, visitors to Somerset will be able to appreciate her full range as a mistress of colour, texture and shape.
Hestercombe House Gardens, Cheddon Fitzpaine, Taunton. Open Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat and Sun in summer 2-5. Admission pounds 2.
Barrington Court Garden, Barrington. Open daily in summer except Fri, 11-5.30. House open Weds only. Admission pounds 3.10.
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