Restoring historic buildings to the nobility of decay

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The Independent Online

Continuing our occasional series of People With Very Unusual Jobs Indeed. No 75: A Landscape Architect who creates Lost Gardens

"People flock round places like the Lost Gardens of Heligan," says Piers Wellington, "and they marvel at the way an abandoned garden has been restored, and brought back to life. But they would marvel even more if they could see what it was like before. And talking to these visitors, I have found an ever-present regret that they weren't given the chance to see the gardens in their lost state. They know intellectually that the greenhouses used to be derelict, the orangery broken down, the stable yard cobbles broken to bits, but these are all things they would like to have seen for themselves. Without that, it is hard to make sense of the rescue operation."

Wellington stands at the window of his Dorsetshire country house and looks out over his garden, six acres of tumbledown wilderness. The trees are draped with old man's beard. There is a potting shed falling down. The old tennis court has a permanently fallen down net, like a fishing net hung out to dry and forgotten. Yet this is not how he found the garden when he moved in.

"Oh, no," he says. "When we bought the place and moved in, the garden was immaculate, and running like clockwork. It was all very sweet and nice and predictable. But I wanted to recapture the romance and wild poetry of a lost garden, so I let it all go to rack and ruin. It was like The Secret Garden in reverse. I found the Garden of Eden and turned it back into a jungle. It was immensely satisfying. And I found that it answered an urge in many people, because I started getting requests and commissions from friends of mine who also wanted their gardens taken back to a state of nature."

Piers Wellington has now become an expert in installing tumbledown conservatories and forgotten summerhouses. In his hands, gardens which were once sunny, symmetrical and boring have regained the romantic allure that only abandonment can bring. Abandonment usually takes a long time. Piers Wellington's art is to make abandonment an instant process.

"Within three months I can turn an orderly oasis into a paradise of neglect," he says. "I can create Brideshead Revisited out of Brideshead, and Brideshead Abandoned out of Brideshead Revisited. I can build a new folly and have it fall down almost immediately. I can bring the officials of the National Trust to the verge of heart attack and back again."

He is absolutely right. For, of course, what Piers Wellington does is directly counter to the beliefs of the National Trust. The National Trust tries to arrest the process of decay; it puts things into a strait-jacket; it applies lipstick and make-up to something not living.

"The National Trust is an undertaker," says Piers. "It makes a corpse look pretty. Paradoxically, I bring a place back to life through the gift of neglect. There is nothing quite so redolent of romance and the Gothic as an ancient estate which has fallen on poor times, where the owl hoots and where the Virginia creeper comes in the open bedroom window unchecked."

Somewhere, a long time ago, Piers read a book about bomb damage to churches in the Second World War, and was struck by a remark of the author to the effect that many churches which had been banal in their lifetime had gained a nobility in their wrecked state which they had never had before.

"I think that is profoundly true," says Piers. "Given the choice between the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Found Gardens of Heligan, I would go for the Lost every time. For what Tim Smit has done at Heligan is not so much to restore the grounds as to have ruined the Lost Gardens. Every time you restore a garden, you lose an ancient kingdom. And I am the only person in Britain who is helping to create new lost gardens. To put it another way, I stand for the JRR Tolkien school of gardening. And I think the tide may be turning in my favour."

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