Parks or Gardens? by Alison Levey.

March 14, 2012

in Articles, General Interest

We (Charles Hawes and I) have been puzzled for years about why people rave about Rousham. In fact so puzzled that we’ve been back more than once to try and work it out. Pleasant enough – apart from the miserable rose garden, grotty green stagnant pool, shredded hostas and a statue of a horse being eaten alive. I don’t think these are the things which people generally admire, so we remained puzzled.

Then Alison sent me this and a light dawned. She is drawing a valuable and illuminating distinction here and I and very grateful for her insight.

Anne Wareham, editor

Rousham 1 copyright Anne Wareham

Visiting Rousham to puzzle it out

Alison Levey

I visited Rousham recently, as well as Croombe Park and Painswick Rococo Gardens.  I mention all three as in my mind they have some similarities.  Before you all shriek in horror and point out the great differences between them I will quickly get to my point.  I see them as similar because I did not regard any of them as gardens when I visited them, but rather as parks.

What I expect from a park is far different from what I might expect from a garden when I visit. I will go on to explain.

Of course, the key to this is what is a garden and what is a park?  This sent me reaching for my dictionary to see if that could help me with the distinction in my mind.  So according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online a park is:

  • a large area of land with grass and trees surrounded by fences or walls, which is specially arranged so that people can walk in it for pleasure or children can play in it
  • an area of land around a large house in the countryside

and a garden is:

  • a piece of land next to and belonging to a house, where flowers and other plants are grown, and often containing an area of grass
  • a public park with flowers, plants and places to sit
Rousham 2 copyright Anne Wareham

Still puzzling..

Which is rather a narrow view implying that that gardens has to contain flowers; which I would argue this is rather culturally specific view and somewhat short sighted.  Yet I definitely regarded all three of the gardens mentioned above as parks and after some thought I know why.  It is because they are largely green expanses of lawn with ornamentation and areas of specific gardened interest.  They contain garden areas which I would look at as individual gardens that together make up the whole.

I know that in such parks I behave differently than I do in a garden.  If I go to a garden I admit, I want to look at different plants (yes, some with flowers) and I want to gauge the overall effect.  In a park I am more laid back, I am enjoying the scenery and what is within it.  It is a different viewpoint, I suppose I see it as a different perspective, I suppose I experience the ‘bigger picture’.

Rousham 3 copyright Anne Wareham


Did I like Rousham?  Yes I did, I had a lovely wander around there and enjoyed the different areas within the park immensely.  I visited it as it had been highly recommended as an inspirational garden.  In particular I had been told that what makes Rousham special was its use of dark and light and how you move from one to the other and indeed this was the case.  I am not sure I would have noticed this if I had not been told, but it is certainly a feature of Rousham that works well.

There were things I liked a lot about Rousham.  It was all rather understated, this important historical William Kent garden does not shout about itself, it lets you find it and find your way around it.  The fact remains I did not regard myself as having a lovely afternoon wandering around a garden, I had a superb walk around a very beautiful park.  I would say the same for Painswick Gardens Rococo and Coombe Park, though I would say they were a little more faded, a little more a hint of what they used to be.

Of course in the use of the word ‘park’ I am making some distinction from public parks, well I think I am as even as I write this I am not sure that that is so.  Parks, arboretums, gardens all have their differences but maybe I am getting just too hung up on the words.

Rousham 9 copyright Anne Wareham

Definitions are just words in a book/internet page, their meaning is as true as the person who reads them and agrees with them.  I return to something I think is important in this debate and that is what matters most: the author’s intention or the audiences’ reading.

As ever I reach the same conclusion, it is the audience that has supremacy in their reading for no matter what the author does, even if they stick labels on everything, they cannot control how their work is interpreted.

Alison Levey

Alison’s blog and see also Tranquillity, trees and school trips by Alison

Alison Levey portrait copyright Alison Levey

Rousham 4 copyright Anne Wareham

Ummm - the garden bit..








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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy Crouch January 19, 2014 at 7:11 pm

I have been reasonably happy with the traditional definition of a garden as a space that is surrounded to exclude hoofed grazers and containing plants and objects for the use and delight of the owners. I think it derives from gyrden which has the same root as girth, garth, gird,girdle and guard – a sense of being surrounded and protected.

A garden does not have to have flowers. I also think a park should by definition have a sense of open space, even if surrounded to keep cars out and toddlers in.

Regardless of above definition, if a large or small place for the use and delight of people has a boring or dismal air, it has failed in its purpose.


Paul Steer March 15, 2012 at 7:53 pm

You know it may be because of parks that I now love gardens…. I was lucky enough to grow up in a town with many parks. Swansea, now a city has many and varied park spaces. My favourite was not far from where I lived, it was intimate and called Cwmdonkin. We spent many happy days there. I did not know the names of plants or understand anything about gardens but it had a profound effect on me. The parkland trees including magnolia, became an inspiration, I used to love drawing them. We could be snobbish about the distinction, but I think that would be unwise. Long live parks.


Noel Kingsbury March 15, 2012 at 7:56 am

I’m glad you’ve broken the spell on Rousham. I never really understood why people got so excited about it. Its pleasant enough – yes as a park. And the ‘garden’ bit is grim and cliched to my recollection. And from what i recall the snotty owners don’t allow children into the garden, which i think is appalling. Especially since is this is a PARK!!


Maggie Biss March 14, 2012 at 9:11 pm

I have photos of the Rousham ‘garden’ but I can’t download them here – we loved both the present day ‘park’ and the ‘garden’, although they may be low maintenance and understated and we are non-professionals.
But.your photo entitled ‘Ummm – the garden bit’ is just totally unfair and makes me really quite angry, the garden area deserves a better review..
How do I put my photo on?


annewareham March 14, 2012 at 11:36 pm

Sorry to make you angry, Maggie, but the garden round the house really was grim last summer, and that was not my only photo like that.


Felicity Waters March 14, 2012 at 10:10 am

Nice article!
I am always confronted with this issue when I come to this website. It is great to get some discussion around typologies.

May I add to your observation? Another difference between a park and a garden is the maintenance budget.

Mown grass is the cheapest planting type to maintain per square meter. Flower beds are the most costly per square meter.

Given gardens are smaller than parks (usually) the location of the different planting types makes economic sense? Perhaps every park would secretly like to be a garden.


Alison March 14, 2012 at 11:26 am

Hi Felicity – thanks for your comment.

Your comments about cheap and easy to maintain planting are very true. I was recently involved in a community garden project that involved revamping an area owned by a council. A big concern was that we did not remove the grass as they needed to be able to just run a mower over it every now and again. It was understandable on one level, but also very constraining.


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