Looking up the lime avenue

Thanks to Professor Tom Williamson, of the University of East Anglia, I have recently  improved my understanding of the layout and purpose of Chipley’s gardens.

It could easily be argued that I should have found the time to properly research 18th-century landscapes, but I must admit the elitism and, frankly, snobbery that I have encountered surrounding many aspects of garden history put me off.

This is where Prof. Williamson comes in. In the church-shaped main hall of the Garden Museum, in Lambeth, a group of garden historians, art historians and other specialists gave a series of lectures on the topics of Taste, Wilderness, Park, Picturesque, and Pleasure. The museum had recently acquired an important painting (important in that world at least: an eighteenth-century painting of the landscape garden at Painshill), and gathered the friends of the museum for a lecture and discussion on themes inspired by the painting. 

I’m a friend of the museum, and, acutely aware of the yawning gap in my knowledge of the history of English gardens and landscapes, I decided to attend.

But this was not an event for the amateur, until Williamson rose to speak.As intimated by the themes of the lectures, the landscapes I associate with Austen’s novels are the realm of the rich, and the posh, or the rich and the trying to be posh. Even writing that short description makes me cringe. Any discussion of class in our lovely country is a minefield of snobbery, misunderstanding, and anger/fear. Putting the landscape in context is tricky, and negotiating the strong themes of social snobbery that often inspired the landscape is trickier.

The theme of social climbing is as important now as it was to the toxic Humphry Repton. What proportion of the many articles written about Kate Middleton and her family did not refer to, or snipe about, her origins? In much the same manner the 18th century was joyously socially mobile. Frankly I think we always have been. Tradesmen and traders became wealthy and adopted the style associated with the nobility, and people like Repton made money from selling that taste, in the form of landscaped gardens and parks.

Gardens that we create show those around us who we are and what we like, and we are judged by those choices. I suspect it is a fundamental part of human nature to attempt to place ourselves, and those around us, into groups, differentiating ourselves through our choices. Even more fundamentally, until very recently, gardens were the playground of the wealthy and powerful elite with time to demonstrably spend designing and enjoying them. In the 18th century, I believe that most people gardened for food; pleasure was for those with the cash to enjoy themselves rather than just survive.

Do you see how political this all gets when you start to think about it?

Williamson cut through all such concerns, and spoke about the English Park. His enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. The first point he made was that the park was not an 18th-century invention, and in fact parks had been part of the English landscape, albeit fewer of them, for centuries. He has found medieval parks, and parks were also listed in the Domesday book.

I was gripped.

According to Williamson, parks were private enclosed areas of wood and pasture, mainly to keep deer and game in. Not forgetting that deer was an important source of status and food in England. Parks functioned partly as hunting grounds and partly as venison farms, an elite and controlled food that you could not buy and sell.

By the 13th century, he revealed, most parks were not associated with houses or palaces, although some would have lodges for hunting trips. This idea that parks were standalone features was entirely new to me. I have often puzzled as to why a large, grand house was only built at Chipley Park long after the park existed. A Queen Anne house was built here in the early 1680s, the ruins of it lie underneath the lawn in front of the house. The house we live in pre-existed the Queen Anne structure, but was re-facaded in the Queen Anne manner, leaving the original parts of the house difficult to identify.

Along with the grand new house, grand new garden features were built. I had previously assumed that all the features I have identified here were built at that time. Not so. Enclosed parks and wooded areas for deer and game hunting must have pre-existed the ‘park upgrade’ in the early 1680s. As do, I suspect, the old fish ponds to the right of the area that is now lake. There is an ancient yew tree growing by the lake, and springs feed the lake, clearly identifiable in cold winters by the areas of water that never freezes over. Before the 18th century, most parks used the existing landscape features to create a managed one. So fish lakes (or stews) would be dug where springs and water existed. Game woods would be a managed version of the pre-existing woodland.

So perhaps Chipley Park was a larder. It is a leap, but the ridiculously healthy population of rabbits that live in the park with us and regularly devastate my plants could have come from another feature of parks, the warren. 16th- and 17th-century parks also had areas farmed for arable crops.

The 17th century heralded the arrival of the Avenue too, a date that correlates pretty well with the establishment of our lime avenue. The lime trees (Tilia x europaea) were provided and written about by the philosopher John Locke in 1683/84. The mature trees still stand, and it is my intention to replant the avenue for when the old trees finally die off.

That landscape Williamson described is one I find easier to understand: parks as a managed source of food. In the 18th century Williamson identified an aesthetic colonisation of the park, with specific and detached areas of gardens to walk to and enjoy. And it is at this point that features such as the maze, and the wilderness, are constructed. The wilderness is perversely not a wild area at all but a highly managed area for walking in and enjoying, often with statues in central areas called ‘cabinets’. 

The area at Chipley described to us as the ‘bowling green’ ( alongside the walled garden) could in fact be a wilderness area for walking in. Such areas were characterised by having very high hedges, often of yew, and often focused on a beautiful view. Our 20-foot yew hedge has a gap which frames an idyllic view to Langford Budville, the hills and church.

In trying to fashion a future for our gardens at Chipley Park, I’m not sure if an understanding of the history of them helps or hinders. I would like to think that excruciating considerations of taste and class do not mean much to me, but the fact I find them excruciating hints that they do. 

Further reading: Polite Landscapes: Garden and Society in 18th Century England.Professor Tom Williamson, UEA.

%d bloggers like this: