Excavation reveals 300-year-old palace garden: Oliver Gillie reports on the recreation of William III's baroque design at Hampton Court

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The Independent Online
THE ORIGINAL outline of a baroque garden built by Willam III at Hampton Court in south- west London has been discovered beneath eight inches of earth. The King's privy garden, as it was known, is being accurately recreated down to the last blade of grass.

William III built the garden between 1700 and 1702 to an intricate and exacting design. Small yew trees clipped in a conical shape and holly bushes trained to grow as neat globes on a long stalk were planted in a precisely repeating pattern. But this baroque precision went out of fashion and the garden slowly began to change after Lancelot 'Capability' Brown took over as master gardener at Hampton Court in 1764.

The Victorians had rediscovered nature and Capability Brown set about creating gardens in the new informal manner. He supervised the destruction of many classic gardens but decided not to adapt the privy garden to the modern style 'out of respect to myself and my profession'. Nevertheless, he abandoned the clipping of trees and this was enough to destroy William's baroque design, which eventually became a Victorian shrubbery with mature trees and flower beds.

Simon Thurley, curator of Historic Royal Palaces - the agency that runs Hampton Court - said: 'By 1793 the yews and hollies had grown so high that the south front of the palace was beginning to dissappear. Everything became hugely overgrown and by 1992 yews which should have been just 7 feet high had grown to 70 feet.'

After the fire in 1985, the southern apartments were completely restored to the style of William III, the last king to hold court at the palace. It became obvious that the Victorian garden was out of keeping with the house. 'The architecture and the garden belong together. We decided that the best thing to do was to bring them back into harmony,' said Mr Thurley.

A major archaeological and historical investigation of William III's garden then began. Excavation found not only the location of architectural features such as steps and statues but also the exact position of paths, lawns, and shrub beds where trenches had been cut in the native river gravel to accommodate good top soil.

Research turned up drawings of the garden and descriptions of the plants and the way they were cultivated. The garden was laid out in four quarters as a parterre a l'Angloise - a design cut into the turf and filled in with sand with a statue in the centre of each quarter.

'There were 30 yew and holly trees still growing in the garden in 1992, and we were able to tell by counting the rings that they were what was left of the original 300 trees planted in about 1701,' said Mr Thurley. 'Using this information together with the original plan we were able to deduce where the trees should go.'

Further information comes from contemporary account books and a book published in 1706 by Henry Wise, who was in charge of creating the garden, which describes how the plants should be arranged and shaped. But the Hampton Court gardeners need experience. So they have set up a trial parterre where they are training honeysuckles to grow up stakes and form a delicate ball of foliage and trimming box hedges four inches high by four inches across.

Old account books show that among other plants William grew roses, syringas, lavender, juniper and 'Stript Rhus', a variegated Coriaria myrtifolia, which can not be found in any garden in Europe. Tulips, white narcissus, crocus, hyacinths and bulbous iris, were used, but no mention has been found of colourful annuals or perennials.

'The privy garden will be quite different from any other garden anyone has seen. There will be nothing like it in this country,' said Mr Thurley. 'It will be full of evergreens and so look interesting all the year round, but it will probably have very little colour.'

(Photographs omitted)