Many garden paths are ordinary, designed simply to get you from one place in the garden to another. Grass paths, the simplest and least costly type of path to make, appear in gardens so routinely that they almost disappear. Occasionally, though, you’ll see a path that stands out.
The grass path below is an example. It is well maintained and nicely curved but what lifts it out of the ordinary is the white line that edges it. That line draws your eye along the curve and makes the path itself impossible to ignore.
Paths with plants dotted here and there also draw the eye, whether there are many plants …
or only a few.
At Hatfield House, a broad gravel path is lifted out of the ordinary by the pattern of stones that border it. At first glance the borders look identical but they are not, any more than the flowers on the left are identical to the grass on the right. The different pattern of stones, left and right, sets up a rhythm that makes the path dynamic and more interesting than if the borders were the same.
In another part of the garden, another path varies the ‘in and out’ rhythmic theme. This second path is narrow and is bordered by tall hedges that make it feel even narrower. Using grass to break up the stone not only repeats the green of the hedges but also makes the walkway more inviting and less austere. A subtle touch is the contrast between the straight lines of the stones and the hedge and the curved lip of the fountain and the arched hedge above it.
Perhaps the most unusual and most affecting path I’ve ever walked is the one at the Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede, England, designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe in honour of John Kennedy. A stone path leads through woods left in their natural state to a carved stone at the top of the hill. There, a path with an irregular edge similar to those above leads across a flat stretch of grass.
This path, so simply designed, is very much in keeping with the tone of the memorial itself. But the path that touched my heart was the one that visitors use as they climb the hill. Jellicoe designed the memorial with John Bunyan’s 17th century allegory Pilgrim’s Progress in mind, intending that people climbing the hill feel as if they are modern day pilgrims. Each detail of the climb has meaning. There are 50 steps, as there are 50 states. Each of the 60,000 granite stones, or setts, that make up the path is hand-cut, slightly different from every other. Cobblestones that widen or narrow for no apparent reason edge the path and because the setts were laid directly on the ground, the path ripples like an echo of the uneven surface beneath.
According to Tom Turner, the English landscape architect and garden historian, several lengths of the path were laid in a standard manner. When Jellicoe saw the work he asked the craftsman building the path to imagine that the stones were a crowd attending a football match. The stones were the front of the crowd, surging and falling back, only to surge again. With that in mind, the work began again.
Paths take you on journeys and you never know exactly where the journey will end. Or when.
Walking Timelines, the 3 km trail at my garden Glen Villa, I sometimes remember the sense of awe I felt at the Kennedy Memorial. I walked that path in May 2016 and described the experience in a blog post you can read here. Remembering how I felt at the time is one reason I continue to find this path the most affecting I’ve ever walked.
Is there a path that stands out for you?