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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