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
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Property search
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

Bid Manager, London

£45000 - £60000 per annum: Charter Selection: Charter Selection are working wi...

Marketing Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Charter Selection: Charter Selection are working wi...

Senior IT Systems Engineer - Southampton - £28k - £34K + bens

£28000 - £34000 per annum + pension, flexitime, healthcare: Deerfoot IT Resour...

Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

£33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor