I recently had a very welcome visitor – Pat Webster of Site and Insight and garden maker of Glen Villa.

Arne Maynard’s garden, Allt-y-bela is only half an hour away from Veddw, in Monmouthshire, and is basically only open to Bed and Breakfast guests (or people attending events) so Pat booked in for B&B and obtained permission for us to accompany her to see the garden.

Then Pat, sadly, returned to Canada. But we wrote to each other about our visit and it seemed obvious, with Pat’s happy agreement, to publish our correspondence here, because it raises some interesting points. Here it is.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes

 

 

 

 

 

Pat:

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

Pat, garden visiting.

I’ve been thinking about our visit to Allt-y-bela. I was really looking forward to it — I’d heard about the place from friends who stayed there and I’d read about it in Arne’s book. The photos I’d seen were intriguing and made the prospect of a visit even more appealing. And having seen the photos I was prepared for the colour of the house.

Allt-y-bela on thinkinardens Copyright Anne Wareham

The colour in this picture doesn’t quite capture it.

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Patterson Webster

Maybe Pat got it better?

It was a shock even so. How to describe the colour? Mustard doesn’t do it, unless you imagine a combination of French’s mustard (the stuff North Americans put on hot dogs) combined with a dab of Dijon and a large dollop of cheap orange marmalade. I suppose you could call it ginger.

But whatever you call it, the colour shouted ‘look at me’ in a voice that made me want to close my eyes and my ears. When I heard that the colour had faded over time, I actually did close my eyes, if only for a moment. It must have been blindingly strong when it first went on.

So, is that a good thing? It’s a show-off colour, for sure, but as Charles pointed out, it made a great backdrop for the plants around it. Shades of green were beautifully delineated, as were the shapes of the topiary. At first I thought there were too many of those, too deliberately arranged, too perfectly balanced. But after getting over the initial shock, I began to like what I saw, colour included. The final touch was the cat – a Bengal tiger? – who toned in so perfectly with the façade that he surely was chosen for that reason alone.

Allt-y-bela cat on thinkingardens. Copyright Patterson Webster

A very fine cat indeed.

 

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

Since I stayed overnight at the B&B, I had time to wander around the garden after you left. I sat in the shade on the hillside looking down on the house and out beyond onto the countryside, giving time for the quiet to seep in. Or the almost quiet. Birds were making the predictable noises and the chickens in their cage near my chair were clucking loudly as they strutted around. To me they sounded annoyed, as if they wished I wasn’t there.

Which is somehow the way the garden as a whole made me feel. And this, despite admiring so much of what I saw. I liked the sweep of the canalized stream. The stone work was fine and the curves of stone on the terraced hill above it created very satisfying lines. I liked the staging of the plants along the stream, the way they moved from apparent wildness where the water entered the garden to studied informality beside the terraces to shrubby wildness again. I liked the espaliered trees (hornbeams?) that created a cozy courtyard in front of the old hall house.

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

 

Allt-y-bela Beech Spiral on thinkingardens. Copyright Patterson Webster

 

The beech spiral with the urn in the centre was a nice variation from the more formal topiary shapes. Yet the garden didn’t welcome me. I felt unnecessary, unwanted.

Looking at my photos, I’m struck by how well maintained the garden was. There were no weeds and not one of the many topiaries needed pruning. The lawns were mown in contrasting strips, nicely paralleled, and the vegetable garden was neatly in order.

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

 

I like a more easy-going air but I don’t think it was tidiness that put me off. It certainly wasn’t the weather – we couldn’t have asked for a nicer day. Nor can I criticize it as a B&B. My room was spacious, everything worked the way it was meant to, breakfast was to cooked to order and everyone I spoke to was helpful and kind.

So why my reaction to the garden? Was it the deliberateness of it all? Every bit of it was studied, with repetition and variation as a theme. The beach spiral mirrored the spiral staircase inside. Topiary pruned in layers matched the windows on the floors inside the house. The meadow plantings had just the right amount of shocking discord to offset the other softly colour coordinated plants. Empty flower pots were stacked artlessly, with one or two on their side to suggest the arrangement happened by accident. (Do you think it did?)

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

One design element puzzled me, a cruciform layout. I noticed it first in small cuttings of boxwood near the old granary, then saw it in the edge of a border, then in the arrangements of boxwood balls at the rear of the house. (I remember you asking if I thought the boxwood should be trimmed straight. I remember saying no, I liked them as they were. And looking at my photos, I stick by that. The round shapes are cheery, like soft downy green cushions leaning back against the ginger walls of the house.)

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

I found those repeated cruciform shapes rather peculiar. What did the shape suggest? Did it mirror some architectural feature, perhaps the moldings on the windows? Did it suggest something more abstract or was it simply an element the designer liked?

Asking these questions jolted me out of enjoyment into analysis. And analysis erased the pleasure of the moment. Which, I’ve concluded, is part of the reason the garden left me cold.

The main reason, though, was the overwhelming sense of showmanship. This was a garden more to be looked at than lived in. It was self-conscious, not awkwardly like an ingenue but like an actress on a Broadway stage who is aware of her appeal and who turns this and that to be seen from all sides. That made my role easy to define – I was the admiring observer.

I keep asking myself if I would have liked Allt-y-bela more had the owners been present. Almost certainly I would have – being with an owner who is also the maker of a garden establishes a personal relationship that adds immensely to the experience. Perhaps with them around the garden would have captured my heart. But it never did.

One final point. Do you remember when we first arrived, how you commented on the well-staged ‘naturalness’ of the stream? That comment sticks in my mind. There’s a tension at Allt-y-bela between the apparent and the actual or real. As a stage set, it came close to perfection but I found myself longing for authenticity, even if that ‘real’ note was a wrong one.

I found one, of course –  the wooden picnic table on the lawn near the canalized stream. I can easily imagine ordinary people sitting there to eat their lunch from a paper bag. That table was real. And it felt wrong. So while I was longing for a wrong note, contrary individual that I am, once I found it I wanted to switch it out for something more elegant.

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

What about you, Anne? Where does Allt-y-bela sit with you now?

 

________________________________

Anne:

It’s a happy memory, for sure. A treat to be there with you. It’s so good to garden visit with someone who doesn’t admire the unadmirable.

I love your detailed description, which I could never manage. But several things stay for me, amongst them the stream. Streams have soggy edges, which encourage rough coarse plants to grow – docks, nettles, rushes, coarse grass, and the effect is usually rather — rough. Allt-y-bela’s stream looks as if it has been lifted straight out of a Chelsea show garden, with immaculately placed and chosen plants sitting prettily at the edge waiting for actors dressed up as Ratty and Mole to appear to remind us that this is the Wind in the Willows garden. The plants are cleverly placed, just in the way that nature will never oblige. And, as you suggest, the whole garden is as stage managed as this.

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

I find that fascinating. And I am just as fascinated about why I mind at all – or, actually, do I? It makes it a very different garden, very particular and we have few enough of those. And, as you say, the blobs, land sculpting and planting are all placed exactly as you’d wish, with a matching cat.

The next thing then is the peopling of the garden. I regretted that it had had its history bled out of it; that it was impossible to imagine any other time of its life than now. For me, with an eager appetite for that elusive brush with those other past lives, that glimpse which makes your hair stand on end a little, that felt a shame. Previous inhabitants had been well and truly cleaned out.

But I didn’t want the owners. Mind you, I particularly feel those owners don’t want me – being such close neighbours in garden terms who have never even managed a real ‘hello’. And I am aware that that must have informed my responses to the garden. I felt uncomfortable, being there. But I am curious that you wished for them and felt that they would have made a positive difference.

It’s an interesting question. I do know that I have met many people who have been badly disappointed by The Laskett. But those who have met Sir Roy Strong there tend to like it. He is a critical difference, clearly. A garden ornament, you might say. And you think Arne Maynard would have been too? What does that mean, as an aspect of a garden? Should the owner always be present – and welcoming? The 21st century house’s equivalent of the 18th century hermit in his hovel? A critical addition to the ambiance? An interpreter?

I’m not sure that I ever want the owner of the garden added, unless they are really interesting people, or a friend (which is different) in which case they would still distract me from the garden. But if it were possible I would sneak off for a look on my own. We made a garden visit last year which was made dreadful by our being shown round, so that we were unable to take in anything really because of the relentless need to respond to the conversation and the owner’s preoccupations. And we never did get left alone. (But we went round Veddw with you. Shame on us?)

I think I was looking for a kind of edge, asking about the rounded boxwood. Just something to imagine differently and play with.

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

A visit to Allt y bela on a sunny afternoon is definitely a pleasure. But we wonder why we have a little niggling discontent? What ideal garden is it failing to be? Well, maybe just a perfect one. It looks perfect and we discover that means it isn’t. You thought it ought to be like the traditional Turkish carpet, with a mistake included to show that the maker is not trying to outstrip God?

But I don’t think it was the wrong note that you needed to bring it to life. The imperfection is its lack of life. As we agreed, it doesn’t feel lived in. It’s a stage set. So we wouldn’t want it, not as it is. That was a good question – ‘would you want this garden?’ by the way. To tuck in with ‘what would you blow up?’ as ways in to better understanding when garden visiting.

That’s what we’re after too – understanding. Why didn’t it simply delight us?

An interesting thing. The meadow looks brand new.

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

Allt-y-bela on thinkingardens. Copyright Anne Wareham

I think the land has been sculpted with an earth mover and the meadow newly sown on the result. It doesn’t look like ours, which is, shame on me for mentioning it, about two hundred years old. Which reminds me of the cleaned out previous occupants. This is a place which has all been rebuilt, cleaned up and newly made. Maybe what’s missing is that, paradoxically, it hasn’t had time or opportunity to mature. To weather a bit and settle down. To relax.

Anne

Pat Webster  website  

and with thanks for several photographs courtesy of Pat.

Pat Webster portrait

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