Go it alone? by Rory Stuart

September 12, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

It’s an odd way to approach something which should be such a total, immersive, absorbing experience: to go round a garden with a guide or with the proud owner wittering at you. (sorry, Rory – would love to have you wittering at me anywhere…)

Why not take a book, some music, prepare to linger?.. But if you are in a group, with a guide – what do you want from the guide and when?

Here’s Rory Stuart, of ‘What are gardens for?’  and his thoughts on the problem.

Anne Wareham, editor

Visitors gossiping at Veddw.. RSA event. Copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Visitors gossiping at Veddw..

Rory Stuart:

The prospect of visiting favourite gardens in the company of a group of enthusiasts is always enticing, particularly if the group does not know the gardens already. And to be paid for it! What more could one ask? So when it was suggested that I guide some groups of foreigners around a few of the great gardens near Rome, it was impossible to resist.

Before we entered, we discussed the history of the garden; once inside, my flock followed patiently as we moved from one beauty to the next – following the route that I had previously chosen, and looking at the things I considered of merit. Sometimes there was the need to interpret a programme of meanings, at the Villa Lante for example; Renaissance garden makers often liked to build their gardens around a coherent set of symbols. Sometimes, as at Bomarzo, it was necessary for us all to guess what the creator had been intending.

Bomarzo copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Bomarzo copyright Charles Hawes

After guiding groups a few times, I began to feel dissatisfied with what I was doing. Some visitors were not interested in the history of the garden, or in its classical references; some were continually asking the names of plants; some wished to show how much they already knew; others could not hear well, or they were talking to their friends, so that the coherence of the group began to dissolve. And thus I began to realise how individual is the pleasure that any garden gives us: we are all in search of different things.

Villa Lante copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Villa Lante copyright Charles Hawes

Once inside the garden our group would sometimes block the path as it gathered round; other visitors were justifiably irritated when they found it impossible to follow their chosen route around the garden. But the real drawback, as I came to realise, was that the first time visitor was not being allowed to experience the place as he or she wished; they were rather having my experience of the garden imposed on them. They could not choose which path to follow, which angle to view the house from, nor how much time to spend in a particular part of the garden. They could not give themselves up to the spirit of the place.

Bomarzo copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Bomarzo copyright Charles Hawes.

The point of a guided tour is, of course, the selection of gardens that has been made. The visitors don’t waste time on the second rate or on having to find things for themselves. This takes away some of the magic of discovering a new garden. When independent garden-crawlers have had to make a long search, maybe have had to talk their way in when they find the place closed, they may then be rewarded by having the garden to themselves. The obverse of this romantic picture is either that you never find the garden, or that it is obdurately closed, or that it turns out not to have been worth the trouble of searching it out. But on a well-organised tour, time is not wasted, and the maximum number of pleasures are crammed into the week or ten days available.

Bomarzo copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Bomarzo copyright Charles Hawes

Is there any way of combining the efficient use of time typical of a good garden tour with the sense of individual discovery that leads to the richest garden experience? Perhaps there is. What I propose to do from now on is to talk about the garden and its history before entering, as in the past, but in addition to point out some of the aesthetic characteristics of the garden that seem to me most interesting. Then the visitors will be invited to enter the garden individually, to explore it at their own pace (within certain limits that the timetable of the tour imposes), and following their own paths. I will, of course, be in the garden to talk to anyone who wants to ask questions, or share comments and impressions.

What have others found in their experience of garden tours? Is there another way of avoiding the herding of the punters, allowing them an individual experience of the gardens we visit? Should one only talk about the garden and its history AFTER the visit? I just do not know.

Rory Stuart 

Author of “What are Gardens for?” and  ‘Gardens of the World: The Great Traditions’

Rory Stuart portrait copyright Rory Stuart

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Jane Stevens September 16, 2013 at 10:02 am

Absolutely to last comment. I would be very irritated by being in large group asking annoying questions. I like a leaflet about history, space, time and the chance to ask a couple of questions at the end. I bring my preconceptions but like to have them overturned, not only by the guide but by what I see and feel as well as what someone else can tell me. It’s a difficult balance. I have been to gardens where the owner or guide can hardly bear to speak about it and looks at you as though you’re mad when you ask a question. That can be upsetting and colour the garden too. Chanticleer has done that to me a couple of times, and I know locals are maddened by the lack of the sort of information some of them want. Curates eggs all round. But an interesting piece opening up some real questions about the use and consumption of gardens.

annewareham September 16, 2013 at 10:57 am

Yes – I do believe in the leaflet (and plan of the garden) – we provide those as part of the entrance deal. Needs to be brief as it’s hard to sit and read a lot and visit the garden.

I eagerly anticipate the day when all will have smart phones which will identify plants from a quick scan.
Tech already helps – people bring me photos of plants to identify instead of my having to wander the garden with them trying to re-find it.

O – and many people now have read up on the garden on the website, so come informed that way.

Chris Spencer September 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm

And of course, if your audience wanders off, you as a guide have not captivated them, of course, a garden is to be explored, however, if you have a group who have opted for a guided tour, you must guide, with passion, it is after all, THEATRE !

Abbie Jury September 15, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Absolutely, Chris!

Chris Spencer September 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm

It is apparent to me that a guide needs to be able to engage his or her audience, this requires skill & technique. Not all individuals in a group respond to the same approach, just like children in a classroom or adults on a training course. To guide well, yet not become overbearing, you must be able to understand your audience, you must be visual and quickly identify who & who is not understanding you, you must then apply technique accordingly.
This will ensure that each member of the group leaves having enjoyed the visit as much as everybody else, surely the key parameter of a successful guide ?

Christine Dakin September 13, 2013 at 4:19 pm

We no longer have group visits but when we did I would give a brief introductory talk about how we began the nursery, who does what jobs and our general ethos. Then another little talk in the propagating tunnel, then let everyone loose to wander around on their own or in sub groups. We were always available to answer questions and help with the names of plants. There is a terrible feeling though of repeating oneself endlessly and knowing that a lot of visitors a lot of the time just don’t hear what you’re saying. Maybe that’s partly why we gave up.

annewareham September 13, 2013 at 11:21 am

It begins to be clear that the nature of the group may be critical. The range of types of tour we get at Veddw is staggering, after all. Some just want a shop. Some seem to have never seen a garden before. Some want to sit and gossip amongst themselves. Some are plant preoccupied and some very serious (and rewarding).

For some of the first types a tour (with anecdotes and humour) would provide additional entertainment. It’s why I do offer the option of a guided tour: for a hopefully totally deterrent fee.. I hate doing them.

But/and there is a difference between proud owner and knowledgeable and perhaps even critical and illuminating guide. Before and after, I’d vote in the latter case. Stephen Anderton always used to ask – which bit of the garden would you blow up?

Abbie Jury September 13, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Hahaha! I have this arrangement with Mark. Eight and under and the group is his (he is quietly spoken and reserved). More than eight and they are mine. He never leads anything other than a personal one-on-one tour with Notable Garden Visitor as a result because there are never less than eight. But he is in awe of my ability to emerge at the end of the tour with pretty much the same number I started an hour earlier.

I have yet to meet a critical and illuminating guide. Informative, yes, but critical and illuminating, no. So I can not comment on that experience.

Abbie Jury September 13, 2013 at 10:38 am

When visiting a garden, I like to do it with some background information and preferably in the company of my discriminating partner, not a tour. But I am always surprised at the positive response when we offer guided tours of our own garden. It is the stories, people respond to – the anecdotes, the detail, our gardening philosophy and giving the garden context, The only trouble is that I am bored to death with telling the same stories. I have told Mark we need more stories, dredge history, make them up if necessary. He just suggests we employ actors to play us and go into hiding.

Charles Hawes September 13, 2013 at 9:34 am

Being taken round a garden is a nightmare. You have to spend half the time making sure that you are keeping up or avoiding bumping into someone. Or worse, getting involved in banal conversation. Far better to have the space to yourself and then discuss it afterwards over a glass of wine. Yes, a mini talk beforehand is useful. And a BRIEF written leaflet helps.

Helen Gazeley September 13, 2013 at 9:26 am

The same problem exists when visiting art galleries and similar. I recently went on a tour of the Houses of Parliament. The tour leader rather exasperatedly told us it was like herding cats, as we all disappeared around the room to look at paintings etc that attracted us.

I think a tour works better when it concentrates on a particular theme or type of feature, as it then takes you to those spots and builds on the subject. One where you’re just taken around the garden often covers too little of too much and can leave a feeling that something’s been missed.

Pat Webster September 12, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Nothing matches the pleasure and depth of experience that comes with personal discovery.When visitors come to Glen Villa, I try to inform them about what they will see, give them some context about why things are as they are, then sit back and let them discover the property on their own. On a recent tour I led to England, I used the approach you describe. On the bus, I gave as much context and practical information as I thought the group could absorb and answered questions then and on site. The best part, though, was after the visit when, once again on the bus, everyone shared reactions, questions, opinions.

Marie McLeish, My Garden Coach September 12, 2013 at 8:29 pm

I am already looking forward to next years piece when you tell us how the evolved approach has worked on not as the case may be! My preference is to experience a garden, but I do like to bounce ideas and have a natter about what I see. I think your approach will be a winner. Good luck with it!

Rory Stuart September 14, 2013 at 6:34 am

Maybe Anne will report back. I hope to have the pleasure of showing her some of these gardens before too long. We shall be a very small (and very critical) group!

annewareham September 15, 2013 at 3:54 pm

(very critical, Rory..Xx )

Kylie O'Brien September 12, 2013 at 5:31 pm

I love guides tours – but can’t take in more than three or four facts/ideas at a time. So a talk before hand, brief recap on arrival, then time on my own to discover/experience the garden. Then back with the guide to ask names of plants, growing conditions or to explain design concepts etc. Finally opinions as to success or otherwise of the garden with the whole group: that’d be my perfect tour.

Vanessa Cook September 12, 2013 at 5:24 pm

I never guide visiting groups,have discovered all the same problems you encountered. Now I give an introduction to the history and ethos and them let them loose. I am always around so questions can be answered, plants identified and often I find questions have nothing to do with the garden but about watering or family dog or house brickwork which would be uninteresting to others in the group. Some people are happy just to sit and take in the atmosphere so it would be impossible to please everyone

James Golden September 12, 2013 at 1:44 pm

I agree with your revised approach. Tell them about the garden, set them off on their own to explore, and be available. I’ve always preferred the sense of discovering a new garden alone. Years ago, I stumbled onto the Infinity Terrace in Ravello, never having heard of it. What a terrace! What a view! What a drop! I was permanently changed by the place, left it not even knowing what it was, and it still lingers in my memory, though I’ve learned its background sense them. Likewise I’ve visited Chanticleer, the great garden outside Philadelphia many times. On the first visit, I was almost in a panic trying to absorb the visual delights. Now I’ve made several visits and I’ve read about the garden’s history. Now long for a guided tour and depth of information, but such tours don’t seem to be easily available. As you say, I suppose no single approach to garden visiting will meet the needs and expectations of everyone. But I know what I want.

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