The Grotto of the Deluge marks the division between primitive life and the beginning of civilization.

The Way to Go, or Not to Go

 

One of the decisions I have to make when groups visit Glen Villa is which way to go. Shall I to lead the group around the garden this way or that?

In some gardens the choice is made for you. There is a set route that the garden maker or garden owner wants you to take. Or that the government authority in charge has dictated.

This is the case at Villa Lante, the Renaissance garden built for Cardinal Gamberaia and now owned by the government of Italy. The Cardinal’s garden used water to show how nature, untamed and chaotic, is ‘civilized’ by art and the power of man. To follow the story, visitors entered the garden at the top of a hill, where water poured  out over rough tufa walls.

 

The Grotto of the Deluge marks the division between primitive life and the beginning of civilization.
This area is called the Grotto of the Deluge. It is meant to mark the division between primitive life and the beginning of civilization.

 

As they moved down the hill, they witnessed a gradual transformation, with art increasingly dominating nature.

 

Each hand-carved scroll on the sides of the rill is slightly different, modifying the sound of the water as it descends.
Hand-carved, each scroll on the rill is slightly different, and that difference modifies the sound of the water as it descends.

 

The transformation reached its climax at the lowest level, where water rested, calmly contained within a large square basin surrounded by a formal broderie design.

 

The town of Viterbo lies just outside the garden walls.
The town of Viterbo lies just outside the garden walls.

 

Today the direction is reversed. Visitors enter at the bottom of the garden, distorting the Cardinal’s metaphor by presenting it backwards.

The same bottom to top problem exists at Villa d’Este in Tivoli. In the 1500s, visitors entering at the bottom of the garden spied the palace high above them. The sight was meant to overwhelm, and it did.

 

There is no straight path to the top of the hill. A visitor might follow one path on a first visit, another on a second.
No path leads straight to the top of the hill. A visitor might follow one path on a first visit, another on a second.

 

Today’s visitors enter at the top, looking down from the seat of power instead of up to it.

 

 

This terrace is one of many that visitors encounter as they make their way through the garden.
This terrace is one of many that visitors encounter as they make their way through the garden.

 

 

Few gardens today are designed to convey messages through topography. (I can’t think of any. Can you?) But the way visitors move through a garden still matters, because the route we take affects how we experience the space.

A few years ago I visited the Morikami Japanese Garden in southern Florida. My companion had been to the garden once before and, because she hadn’t found the experience particularly meaningful, wasn’t eager to return. The second visit changed her mind — and all because we went round the garden the ‘right’ way.

A pond lies at the centre of the garden, and visitors are meant to walk around it counterclockwise. This is also the case at Stourhead, an18th century English landscape garden in Wiltshire. Circling the lake the ‘right’ way presents views to their best advantage, the way the garden’s creator, Henry Hoare, intended.

 

Hoare created the lake by damming a stream. His classical buildings provide focal points as well as telling a story.
Hoare created the lake by damming a stream. His classical buildings provide focal points as well as telling a story.

 

 

Views aren’t the only reason why a visitor may be encouraged, or forced, to take one path rather than another. Consider Mt. Cuba, a garden located near Wilmington, Delaware, where native plants are the raison d’être. Showing wildflowers to their best advantage does not depend on the path you follow. But because Mt Cuba is open to the public, visitors’ steps are directed along clearly defined routes.

 

 

Visitors need to be directed around the garden to protect sensitive plants and sensitive areas.
Controlling where visitors walk protects sensitive plants and sensitive areas.

 

 

The lushly romantic garden of Ninfa was designed for wandering, and it’s easy to  imagine the original owners lingering here or there to smell a rose or listen to a murmuring stream. The experience is different for visitors today. Groups are frogmarched through the garden on a predetermined route and at a predetermined pace that dampens even a whisper of romance.

 

Ninfa has been described as the most romantic garden in the world.
Ninfa has been described as the most romantic garden in the world.

 

 

The experience at Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman’s garden on the shingle beach in Kent, is different again. A private garden, it nonetheless feels public — it fronts onto a public road and no fences separate the garden from its surroundings. Visitors can wander as the please, circling the house one way or the other, exploring each vignette and finding whatever meaning they choose.

 

 

The setting is bleak, windy and inspirational.
The setting is bleak, windy and inspirational.

 

Where you enter the garden can make a difference to the experience. In the Walled Garden at Scampston Hall, visitors are encouraged to walk around three sides of the garden before entering the first of nine garden rooms, the Piet Oudolf designed Drifts of Grass.

 

Nine distinct garden 'rooms' divide 4.5 acres enclosed within 18th century bricks walls at this Yorkshire garden.
Nine distinct garden ‘rooms’ divide 4.5 acres enclosed within 18th century bricks walls at this Yorkshire garden.

 

 

Natural features in the landscape or elements deliberately placed can shape a garden journey. Water rills, hedges, walls and gates: all can dictate the way a visitor must go. Simple flower beds can do the same. In a private garden in New York state, a winding path edged by plants gently directs visitors towards an open area.

 

 

Mown grass makes a comfortable path through this garen.
Mown grass makes a comfortable path through this garden.

 

 

People can move through the garden at Glen Villa in any number of ways. They can walk south towards the Lower Garden …

 

 

Magnolias are in full bloom now in the Lower Garden.
Magnolias are in full bloom now in the Lower Garden.

 

 

… or north, towards the Aqueduct.

 

 

This photo is from last summer. Plants here now are barely above ground.
This photo is from last summer. Plants here now are barely above ground.

 

If they enter by the pond they see one view.

 

This pond exists because of a dam built about 150 years ago.
This pond exists because of a dam built about 150 years ago.

 

If they enter through the fields they see another.

 

Buttercups cover the fields in June.
Buttercups cover the fields in June.

 

 

I like having a choice, in my own garden and in someone else’s. But having a choice can be confusing. I know my way around Glen Villa. I know I will see everything I want to see, with or without directions, or a map, or arrows pointing this way or that. But for others, a map or arrows may be essential.

What about you? Do you like to be directed around a garden or do you prefer to wander?

  • Pam/Digging

    I almost never look at a map, preferring to wander at will — away from the crowd if possible. And even better, I then like to wander the opposite way, so as to see the garden from both directions. As you point out, it can be a totally different experience to see a garden from the opposite way. Pam/Digging: penick.net

    • siteandinsight

      I’m with you, Pam. I try to retrace my steps to see things frontwards and backwards. It doubles the time, but who complains about that?

  • I have been lead down the garden path! I have followed the yellow brick road! I prefer, however, to follow my instincts and discover the secrets of the garden. That being said, some gardens tell a story and would be best not to skip the pages! Summer is here Victoria!

    • siteandinsight

      I’m not sure whether to take the yellow road or the gravel path. If it is summer, I’ll take either.

  • Lisa

    Such an interesting post – I normally like to just wander around a garden, rather than be led, but your descriptions of historic gardens that were designed for a specific path gave me pause to consider.

    Here in Asheville, NC, the entrance to Biltmore Estate was carefully designed by Olmstead as an experience coming into where the house and gardens were laid out, and it’s still like that, as you’ve probably experienced. Magic.

    But most gardens that I’ve visited aren’t directional, so that’s another thought!

    • siteandinsight

      It’s been a few years since I visited Biltmore but I remember the entrance very well. I’d love to see it again in the spring.

      And it’s nice to know that I made you think!

  • Anne Wareham

    I understand the garden at Castle Drogo (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/castle-drogo) was intended to be experienced one way only – the route symbolising the journey from birth to death. I have a book about it somewhere. (tell me how to find a book in this house!) But the way into the garden is now completely different. Part of the result being that you walk up a slope to enter the rose garden and get a miserable view of the rose bottoms (stalky and bare). The fact that no-one seems to mind that tells us all we need to know about garden visitors?

    At Veddw I get repeated requests to lead groups round the garden and I know we differ on this. (different gardens..) To me it destroys the point of discovery, enjoying at your own pace and if preferred, alone, and taking the garden in without trying to listen to someone. Ironically of course, if YOU visit you get just such a terrible tour with me! (but the freedom to return alone later!) xxxx

    • siteandinsight

      Castle Drogo has been on my list for a long time but somehow I’ve always avoided it. The name, I think… sounds depressing. I didn’t know about the directional story, so thanks for that. It reminded me of Geoffrey Jellicoe’s design for Sutton Place, also meant allegorically as a life journey, but I don’t know if the path is one-way, no return.

      On Open Garden Days, I let people wander on their own with a map. But like you, generally I prefer the excitement of discovery. Going around any garden with the garden maker adds value for me — as long as the person doesn’t fill every bit of air space. Which you never did.

      I’m still hoping to return in September.

      • Anne Wareham

        I’m not sure Drogo is worth much of a detour.. I have my fingers all crossed for September – it’s very awkward but will be worth it if it works! Xxxxx

        • siteandinsight

          Awkward?

          • Anne Wareham

            O! Sorry – joke – keeping all my fingers crossed!!!! xxx

      • Anne Wareham

        O – and entrances are important too – I remember thinking what a loss it was coming into Rosemary Verey’s garden by a side gate when she had always entered it from the house. And our change of entrance was transforming…..

        • siteandinsight

          Yes, how get into a garden matters enormously. The long tree-lined drive at Villa Gamberaia is one of my favourite entries.

          • Anne Wareham

            Another post really, entrances. We should discuss both on thinkingardens sometime.. Xx

  • Abbie Jury

    There is a whole lot of parallel research related to supermarket and shopping mall design and the natural instinct of humans to turn left on entry – or is it to turn right? I forget. There are reasons why in most supermarkets, you enter on the left and basically go round clockwise. You mentioned Ninfa – interestingly when we were unleashed there with the place to ourselves and no time restraints, our instinct was to keep left and explore from that direction whereas the usual route goes in the opposite direction. Somebody came to find us and headed us in the “right” direction.

    I don’t think any of this matters in a smaller garden where it is easy to understand the space. In a large garden, it matters quite a bit but it comes down to the skills of the garden creator in establishing a coherent flow. Even so, some visitors still crave the security of a map.

    The greatest compliment paid by visitors is when they head around the garden, come out for a cup of tea and then declare they are returning to go round in the opposite direction. It is a technique we have learned to use ourselves when out visiting some gardens. You see so much more if you go both ways!

    • siteandinsight

      Thanks for this clue, Abbie. I’ll have to look up the research. Running through specific places in my mind, I think I turn left in museums and don’t follow any particular pattern in gardens. Perhaps this is because one space is enclosed, the other isn’t.

      I agree, in smaller gardens you easily understand the space. When you visit a large garden, knowing it will probably be your one and only visit, a map helps you to know you’ve seen it all, or at least have walked through every space. Maps can be confusing, too, making you spend more time looking at the map than at the garden.

      I always try to go around a garden in different directions. Again, more important in larger than in smaller gardens. The effect of entering a space from one point rather than another can make a big difference in what you see.

  • Jason

    I love that second picture. There’s something particularly satisfying about moving water.

    • siteandinsight

      Villa Lante is truly an exceptional garden. The hydraulics are remarkable, particularly considering they were built in the 1500s and are still working!