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
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
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’.
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.
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.