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“It is magnificent. It is what God would have done if he had the money.”
I don’t know whose garden Noel Coward was describing when he penned those words, but you can bet that the garden was in England.
Magnificent gardens are a commonplace there, so numerous that even someone like me who loves visiting gardens can tire of them. So many pretty flowers, such neat borders, all so perfectly edged. So many grand vistas, so many stone terraces, so monotonously predictable.
Would Ascott be a garden of this sort? It has been a National Trust property since 1947, and in almost 70 years a lot can happen to a garden, good and bad. But a Rothschild still lives at Ascott, in a house that dates back to the early 1600s and the reign of James I. Knowing that the garden had been created by several generations of the Rothschild family, I expected that money would not be an issue. But would money translate into godly magnificence?
The gardens at Ascott were laid out by the eminent horticulturalist Sir Harry Veitch around 1902 for Leopold de Rothschild, who gave the gardens as a wedding present to his wife. Suitably, a sundial sends a loving message in tightly clipped yew: “Light and shade by turn, but love always”.
Many aspects of the garden are what you’d expect to find in a grand English garden built in this period — stone terraces à la Gertrude Jekyll, sweeping lawns, flowering shrubs. Along with splendid old trees, clipped hedges and topiary dominate the property. One hedge rises in impressive layers to form a barrier in tones of green.
There is, of course, the obligatory long herbaceous border. Here it is called The Madeira Walk although I don’t know why. It was predictably attractive when I saw it in late May although it failed to elicit the excitement I normally feel when seeing flowers massed in abundance.
Oddly, the feature that did excite me had nothing to do with flowers. (In fact, the planting in this circular garden room was less than stellar.) Instead it was a large bronze statue of Venus, by the American sculptor Thomas Waldo Story.
Readers who know my taste in art may find this surprising. I was surprised myself. Normally I would barely glance at a statue of a scantily clad woman attended by cherubs, or else I would look at it and make a facetious comment or two. But the fine workmanship and the over-the-top, no-holds-barred exuberance of this statue stopped me in my tracks.
As did other aspects of the garden. I loved the elephant tromping along the side of a hedge.
I loved the square window cut into the barrier hedge, and the tiny dome that perched there, a miniature version of the larger dome in the foreground.
I loved the tippy topiary in the Dutch garden …
… and the embracing trees that threatened to form a heart in mid-air.
I was less excited by the slate sculpture by Richard Long.
The Ascott Circle is located in an section of the garden that is full of circles, between the hedges that surround the Venus statue, the clipped yew sundial and the Titanic barrier hedge. A metal plate set flush with the ground both identifies the artist and helps a viewer understand his intent.
A circle is real and symbolic.
A stone is real and symbolic.
Raw material: the land is made of stone or parts thereof.
Cosmic variety: every stone is different like fingerprints or snowflakes.
A circle of stones: from simplicity to complexity.
I like contemporary art, provocative art, art that appeals to the mind as well as the eye. I admire Richard Long and the land-based art he created over many years. Yet as much as I wanted to admire this particular circle of stones, I couldn’t. It felt out of place and heavily jarring in the setting.
I read the text several times and tried to keep it in mind as I searched for a connection between the artwork and the site. I was hoping for something specific rather than cosmic. Yes, the shape echoed other circular forms nearby, but that seemed a trivial connection and I could find no other.
Not so at the newest addition to the garden. The Lynn Garden, designed by the Belgian father and son team of Jacques and Peter Wirtz, celebrates the marriage of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild to Lynn Forester. As such, it immediately recalls the marriage a century earlier that is commemorated in the topiary sundial and establishes a sense of a continuing timeline and repeating events.
The garden is set on the north side of the house and is approached via a path bordered by undulating beech hedges that cast rollicking shadows on the lawn.
Entering the Lynn Garden, I saw an earthen mound surrounded by sweeps of ornamental grasses. More mounds appeared to the left and right, and circles encircling other circles, of water, hedges and trees.
Following a curving line of ornamental grass, I was mildly irritated to discover that I had to retrace my steps, but this retracing meant I saw the space again, from the opposite direction. Unlike many gardens where doing this reveals something unexpected, here there were no new views, no revelations. Rather there was a sense that I was going backwards in time as well as space. The mounds and ditches were unlike other parts of the garden yet they seemed to fit, as if in some more significant way they had grown out of the site itself.
It was only later, when I began to research the area, that I discovered that the nearby Chiltern Hills are dense with Iron Age hill forts. These large enclosures surrounded by circular ditches and banks were not always built on hills nor were they necessarily built for defence. They had a range of uses, as homes for communities, places of trade or sites for tribal ceremonies — like marriages perhaps. Reading the brief descriptions of Cholesbury Camp and Ivinghoe Beacon on the Chilterns website, I was struck by subtle connections between those ancient earthworks and the contemporary garden. The distinctive clumps of trees on Ivinghoe Beacon’s bare hilltop seemed linked to the trees on the Lynn Garden’s mounds, and the unobtrusive location of Cholesbury as a place of refuge in times of trouble seemed mirrored by the almost secret location of the Lynn Garden itself.
Whether these connections exist or arise only from my imagination is less important than the overall sense of satisfaction I derived from the Lynn Garden. This contemporary addition lifted a fine, if not extraordinary, English garden from one level to the next. Through its use of sculptural landform, water and topiary, it added a sense of sophistication and continuity that drew together disparate parts of the garden into a continuum. Individual jewels become linked into a single horticultural necklace.
Is Ascott magnificent? Flowers were not at their peak when I visited but the views over the Chiltern hills were as splendid as anyone could wish, And whose doing was that?