The English abroad: the legacy of British gardens on the Italian Riviera

The Italians have been no slouches in creating steep, cliffside gardens with spectacular drops to cool, glistening blue-green water

I don't have many free hours for gardening at this time of year because mostly I am occupied with gawping at Corsica and the Côte D'Azur on the Tour de France. Wowzers. I am sorely tempted to a Mediterranean holiday by all this giddying about on bicycles by the sea, though I'd happily forego the aching legs and sore bum of the long-distance cyclist. Give me a nice tree to sit under, and a book.

There are plenty of nice trees to park yourself under in Kirsty McLeod's The Best Gardens in Italy: A Traveller's Guide (Frances Lincoln, £20), which came out in paperback recently; it is now much better shaped for travel than it was in luscious-but-gigantic hardback. In particular, there are plenty of trees beside lovely Mediterranean views: the Italians have been no slouches in creating steep, cliffside gardens with spectacular drops to cool, glistening blue-green water.

Energetic Italian gardenmakers, yes, but also Englishmen and women, and a fair number of those 19th-century sort of indeterminate Europeans: Habsburgs, Austro-Hungarians, Holy Roman Postmasters. The most famous gardening Englishman in Italy must be Thomas Hanbury, who in the 1860s created La Mortola in Liguria, not too far from Monaco. He was the dude who purchased Wisley for the RHS, but his Italian cliff-top outpost is a far cry from Wisley's utterly Surrey setting. La Mortola is a sort of fantasy, with cactuses and palm trees and winding paths and huge terracotta pots - even what McLeod describes as a datura "copse". Wow, a whole mini-wood of hallucinogenic trumpet flowers. No slouch.

Hanbury intended his garden to be botanic in concept, and worked closely with his brother Daniel, a pharmacologist intrigued by the number of plants used in medical drugs. But "Never go against nature" was Hanbury's refrain, so there are also plenty of stands of pine, wild tufts of cistus, the rock rose, and a whole section devoted to succulents, all of which tolerate the salty, moist sea air.

Elsewhere along this glittering Italian coast there are more traces of England. Villa Boccanegra, a short drive from La Mortola, was owned and designed by Ellen Willmott, a contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll and a fantastically flighty heiress whose violin was a Stradivarius - she lived the rest of her life by the same luxurious principle.

Willmott worked with ferocious intensity to make a garden in this unpromising spot; unpromising, that is, apart from the million-dollar views across the Med. Water tanks were created and war waged against the intrusive Italian railway - what were they thinking, wanting to run a set of rails along this beautiful coastline? Flowers were specially bred to honour her (see below), and agaves, yuccas, aloes, cannas and mimosas were planted on a grandiose scale.

McLeod's seductive book finally invites the reader to ponder the difference between English and Italian gardening ways. Having just finished Tim Parks's Italian Ways (Harvill Secker, £16.99), devoted to thinking about the Italians via their railways, I begin wondering if it would be possible to do the same via gardening. The English make winding paths of descent through groves of trees; the Italians carve dramatic staircases straight up the hillside. The English spend thousands on plants, the Italians preferred to allocate their lira to stylish statuary. Highly symmetrical box and cedars line the Italian paths; wiggly old olive trees grow haphazard over the English ones. A bit of mildly nationalistic pondering - what better way to while away my hours under a tree by the sea.

La Mortola is open to the public daily in summer; Villa Boccanegra is bookable for group visits only. gardensinitaly.net

Miss hits: What's in a name?

Scabiosa caucasica "Miss Willmott"

 

Tiny white 'pincushions' on long, wavering stems, looking like tiny floating clouds on a hot day. £6.99, rhsplants.co.uk

Ceratostigma willmottianum 'Forest Blue'

The brightest sky blue you'll ever find in a garden, with the additional admirable quality of blooming until November. £5.99, rhsplants.co.uk

Potentilla 'Miss Willmott'

Enamel-vivid flowers in raspberry pinks, on long stems from a dome of green.

£4.30, claireaustin-hardyplants.co.uk

Erygnium giganteum 'Miss Willmott's Ghost'

Tall white sea holly with the air of bleached bones, a 'ghost' appearing in the arid days of August

£4.99, rhsplants.co.uk

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £38,000

£16000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Sales Advisor - OTE 18k-23k

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of Ford's leading Parts Who...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to learn ...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders