Another review from the excellent writer, critic and plantsman Tristan Gregory, my most reliable garden reviewer. (yes, that is a heavy hint, laced with rebuke, everyone else..)
A visit to Abbotsbury – voted HHA/Christie’s Garden of the Year 2012, which inevitably raises my cynical suspicions – but it didn’t do badly in Tristan’s view..
Anne Wareham, editor
Your visit will begin and end as all visits to an organised commercial garden must with the transit through the commercial stockade which in this particular case will leave you feeling considerably poorer, as entry is not the cheapest, nor is the tea and cake, and the guidebook is another £2 on top of that.
On the way out you must also buy the plant which within its 2 litre pot is the distilled essence of what you have just seen and the box of fudge or whatever for the friend/relative you should probably have brought with you but in your heart of hearts you know would have been too noisy or slow to bear.
One point of note for the economisers is leave your car in the garden’s free car park for your trip to Chesil Beach and walk the 250m or another £4 will vanish.
One point of caution is that the plant growing along the veranda of the Colonial Restaurant is the generally poisonous Phytolacca acinosa which will have shiny black berries at a convenient plucking height for small children; this must be discouraged lest your day be spoiled and theirs be ended.
Once you are in, then the map will advise you to go right to explore the Victorian Garden and West Lawn together with some other bits and bobs, but don’t bother. There was an air of dinge about this bit and though not invited the Little Man found bindweed and dreary plantings of General Filling Stuff (GFS). So grumpy did he become that when tropical bird song was heard he decided it was a “sound effect for the punters” and decried it. He was wrong – there really is an aviary with said birds by the Sunken Lawn and as he was in company he then felt silly and sloped off for the rest of the visit.
When you visit turn left and onto the main path to the proper Abbotsbury and head towards the plants because they are the essence of this place. Some are used to place you in the Mediterranean and others in the tropics. I’m not going to go through the points on the guide and say this was lovely and that worked really well as opposed to the other which looked a little tired as this is a dull and useless waste of words when what is being described is something as ephemeral as a garden.
What I am going to say is that the plants are well chosen, tended and associated and while the general impression is of care and quality there are certain points as you look around and circulate that achieve that rarest and greatest feat in art and that is the transportation of the viewer to the point in the world that inspired and informed the creator. It is worth saying that it is not the newer designed elements that achieve this. Some of the more conscious attempts at statements of artistic intent have not worked and seem clumsy by comparison with the plantings. One example is Pavilion Corner which needs to look good from two directions but in fact succeeds in only one, and another is the truly terrible Sculpture Trail.
Once I’d “got it” my next pre-occupation was how it was done, for no other reason than I’d like to do it myself.
One of the themes was the use of the natural slopes to layer the larger specimens like the Rhododendrons and bamboos and build a bigger and more immersive picture than would be possible on the flat. Then there is the knowledge of the plants requirements. The most memorable for me being the use of the mossy northern face of a Holm Oak as a perfect climbing frame for Mitraria coccinea; a lovely scrambling Chilean thing related to Streptocarpus. I have tried this plant back in the days when we thought snow was a thing of the past and -6 was actually cold but I did not give it what it wanted and it never rewarded me with anything worthwhile.
The herbaceous plantings are, with a few exceptions, are also a great success. Sensitive associations give the impression of wild and natural though if you are able to find a weed amongst them you have a better eye for them than me. I have no doubt that many find the borders with more Mediterranean themes a little sparse and I would instinctively have increased their density but then again would that be the correct way to display and to cultivate this group?
Finally there is the the garden staff’s passion for the plants and this plantsman’s spirit is most clearly demonstrated by the remains of a large conifer which has toppled into one of the nice tidy ponds. The canopy has been fished out but the trunk remains and has had planting pockets for ferns hacked out of it. Not all these touches are so obvious and there are some that you will miss, like the succulent planted in the cut end of a Cordyline stem. Incidentally Puya do not grow and flower outside in the ground without a lot of help, even by the sea in Dorset. They are also another of my failures.
However, I was enthralled by Abbotsbury and truth be told a little envious of the advantages to the plantsman offered by the site. Even though it has its faults it offers the visitor far more than a catalogue of improbable species. In this garden there is craft and knowledge on show, passion certainly and probably even some love and the result is a place where the plantsmanship outshines the draughtsmanship.
The last question left is whether or not this is a great garden and personal bias aside I must say no.
When I visited Powis Castle I found a place that was not without its faults but at its core was an equivalent level of plantsmanship and craft but also a more compelling design that celebrated and encompassed its history and geography. Abbotsbury revels in a unique climate but hides away in the folds of land and the story of its creation is a thing for the guidebook.
Greatness in a garden certainly makes technical demands but the product must also reflect back something of its creators and finally accept and celebrate its setting and the natural character of the land. The achievement of all three is a rare thing. But then greatness is. Isn’t it?