Death careering round the trees – a review of Hidcote by Tristan Gregory

July 3, 2013

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

– Paul Joseph Goebbels

I come to bury Hidcote, not to praise it? …

Photographs taken by the editor and Charles Hawes, on a separate trip two weeks after Tristan.

Anne Wareham, editor


Red Border, Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Red Border, Hidcote, June 2013 – we were able to walk down before they brought the barriers back

Tristan Gregory:

Last year I wrote a review of Bodnant Garden and looking back at it in the light of what I have seen today I feel a little more favourably towards the silly place.  True, it is still flawed to its core but it is well kept and implicit in this is the contract of mutual respect between visitor and gardener.  The visitor pays to enter and whilst there treats the place carefully and the gardeners ensure that everything is done to ensure that the design and intent is not compromised by their failure to keep it.

Not so Hidcote Manor.

I did not go expecting greatness and it is important that I admit that from the start.  I have never liked the idea of garden rooms but I have to say these ones did not offend me or bring on that monotony of claustrophobia that so many of Hidcote’s copies do.  I did find myself trying to peer out at the parkland through a gap in the hornbeam at one point and yes I did smile at the fact that the grass at the gate into the free world was worn bare by the scuffing and tramping of the herd longing to run free.  While it isn’t my cup of tea, the skill in the layout of the original design can only be praised and for what they’re worth I’ll add my appreciation to the heap.

Now to release the little man, the chap that sits on your shoulder directing you to failure, mess and mistake, turning your head this way and that to make sure you miss none of the faults and all of the skill. Normally he is like a shark sensing blood in water but at Hidcote he bumped into a dead whale, and looking at his notes he became quite frenzied.

June 25th 2 033 Dead trees at Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

Dead trees..

Dead Birch, Hidcote copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Dead birch…

First let us talk about the death.  Death is careering around the trees in this garden and no-one is doing anything about it. The magnolias are suffering really badly but there are birches stone dead and left standing and, of course, the Box.

Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

Box blight – heartbreaking.

Things die in gardens and gardeners either cure them or remove the bodies, so the gardeners need to get a grip.  Pruning is a good tip too and unless someone prunes the apple trees and allows some vigour to return to the blue Wisteria at the end of the long borders they will join the magnolias in the homage to William Kent.

Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

Gardeners stop for a chat at Hidcote.

The gardeners here don’t seem to grip weeds either.  I heard two of the gardeners talking about weeding and could only think how nice it would be to have so many staff that they can afford the time to talk at length about things they could just have got on with.

Truth to tell, when the photographer got there it had been well hoed, everywhere.

Truth to tell, when the photographer got there it had been well hoed, everywhere.

Then there is the planting.  There are nice plants in here, especially in the lower reaches. But it was the middle of June and there was very little colour and what’s more some of the planting was simply stupid – such as the Crambe cordifolia underneath a Cedar.  There was a rose there as well, a miserable floribuna stick, that has probably been withering away for years in the shade. And that is what struck me time and again; years of gardeners walking past and not stopping to think “time to sort this”.

Hidcote miserable rose copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

The floribunda under the cedar

On the subject of roses, some are going to briar which will of course happen but this briar had been pruned with the rest of the plant like a piece of inner city municipal bedding.  There was also a strange Hellebore/Ceanothus combination which suggests that somewhere in the garden good planting has come to mean filling the place up with whatever is available. I suppose this is why the unique character of the rooms is degrading as “good doers” are spread far and wide throughout the whole area.

I was aware that some money had been spent here. In the older looking bits of the garden I couldn’t see much as I doubt whether the hateful rockery with its ever so nasty, really nasty, orange stone chippings could have cost more than a couple of hundred pounds.

Rockery Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

It will weather. Won’t it?

Then of course I found the Plant House and Long Borders, with neighbouring vegetable barrens and all became clear.  That is the seven figure price of mediocrity that has flowed down-hill from this dreary well and into the rest of the old garden like so much embalming fluid.

Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

Vegetable barrens

The notes carry on in spidery black fury but I’ve said enough now.  Not everything is awful and some of the rooms are still nice enough but little rooms and hordes of tourists are not an ideal combination. Remember, it was created by a private man for himself and it is no longer a private space.

Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

Quite pretty. In absence of a wow factor anywhere.

People talk about the feeling of the place and it does have an atmosphere but it is one of melancholy. I do not doubt there was a great garden here once; I was pleased and surprised to find its echo but greatness must be handled with care, delicacy and empathy and not puddled around with clumsy commercialism and, yes, I think perhaps idleness.

To end – some memories:

A croquet set left out in the drizzle of a Monday morning in a tired lumpy lawn full of molehills.

The smell of the loos.

The buzz of the electric pumping system that runs the stream.

A stand of Cardiocrinums close to flowering but hedged by the nettles and mess of the bee meadow.

One of the Hidcote characteristics Tristan didn't mention: the Barrier.

One of the Hidcote characteristics Tristan didn’t mention: the Barrier.

Tristam Gregory

Tristan is Head Gardener at Kentchurch Court

Date: Mon, 17 Jun 2013

More pictures:

Entrance to Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

At the way in.

 Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

One cardoon out of three had survived.

 Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

Only way through..(another barrier)

Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens


Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens


Bathing Pool Hidcote copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens

Bathing Pool –  if you like swimming in the murk..

Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

 Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Murky of course, but…

Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

‘Mrs Winthrop’s cafe’ – Wouldn’t Mrs Winthrop have been thrilled?

Hidcote copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

and the loos are learning to talk…


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James Evans May 19, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Dear Tristan,

I’m one of the gardeners at Hidcote. (In fact I’m one of the two gardeners that the editor so kindly chose to show a picture of.) Like many garden teams, here at Hidcote we work extremely hard for very little pay. We do it because we are passionate about Hidcote. It’s a labour of love.

One of the things that makes the job so worth while is the incredible response that we get from our visitors. We get 160,000 visitors a year, and a large number of them take the time to come and tell us how beautiful it is. Being frequently thanked by people for the work that we do is a welcome salve for our aching backs and slender pay-packets.

Of course there’s always more to do. The garden is in the process of being restored, and as we are open seven days a week in the summer, you will always see jobs that are half done and projects that are incomplete. That’s part and parcel of opening up your garden to everyone all the time. Life here can be hectic, but we love sharing our passion for this place with the people who love to visit it.

However, the constant smiles and pleasant remarks from visitors can make life rather repetitive. It’s all a bit “samey”, to be honest.

So it was with relish that my colleagues and I recently stumbled across this web page. I myself am a great fan of eccentricity – to devote yourself single-mindedly to something utterly pointless is one of our most endearing national characteristics. To do it with such dogged determination as displayed here is quite outstanding. Not only do you take the time to visit gardens that you don’t think you’ll like, but you resiliently focus on as many things that you don’t like as you possibly can. And what’s more, you send back another couple of people to photograph all the things that you don’t like. So that you can then create a web page devoted to all the things that you don’t like. This shows a truly extraordinary commitment to the practice of disliking things.

We were also intrigued by some of the more cutting-edge ideas expressed here. The idea, for instance, that gardeners shouldn’t take the time to talk to each other about their work. This idea is almost exhilarating in its originality. The idea that there might be another approach simply hadn’t occurred to us here. Perhaps we could start to share your vision of a new generation of super-gardeners who communicate telepathically. It’s a most exciting thought.

But this is far from being the only refreshingly new idea expressed on this page. We were all particularly taken by the idea that at Hidcote there is no “mutual respect between visitor and gardener”, and that the visitors to Hidcote are let down by the gardeners’ “failure to keep it”.

By the way, Sir Roy Strong has invited the Hidcote garden team to visit him at Laskett in June. Perhaps we could call in at your place on the way back. You seem such a pleasant person, it would be a shame to miss you. And we’d love to take a look at your garden. Perhaps we might even review it for this site.

Yours sincerely,

James Evans

annewareham April 19, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Good try, but Tristan isn’t responsible for thinkingardens – that’s me.

And my sympathy – it is hard being criticised. For what it’s worth, I’ve been there:

Before you visit the Laskett you might read these reviews too –

It’s a changing world and ‘lovely’ is no longer enough. Those of us that care about the gardens we’re responsible for bite the bullet and are grateful for the opportunity to see the way to improving them. I’d be happy to take your review of Kentchurch,(email me via the email on contacts page). Tristan responds positively to criticism too and would not begrudge you.

Anne Wareham

James Evans May 20, 2014 at 6:29 am

“It’s a changing world and ‘lovely’ is no longer enough.”

I don’t know what this means. You’ve got bored of ‘lovely’?

“Those of us that care about the gardens we’re responsible for bite the bullet and are grateful for the opportunity to see the way to improving them.”

And again with the insults. It sounds as if you’re saying that we don’t care at Hidcote. Do you mean to say that? Do you know the difference between criticism and insult? “That rose could be pruned better” is a criticism. “I’ve decided that the gardeners here don’t care” is an insult. Do you perceive the difference?

James Evans May 20, 2014 at 5:44 pm

Perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree. But I’d just like to mention a few things.

A chap came up to me today and said that he’d been visiting gardens all over the country. He said Hidcote was the most beautiful garden he’d ever seen. He thanked me.

That’s an absolutely true story, but it’s not unusual, as I mentioned before. We’re lucky enough to get that sort of response from many of our visitors. And for more comments like that, have a look at what people say about Hidcote on

Those comments are from the people who pay my salary. And we take their thoughts very seriously – we gather as much feedback as possible from our visitors by using comment cards and feedback forms.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. For instance, many of the woody plants that Johnston planted are looking their age. We’re starting a program of systematically sorting them out. We also need to take a look at the herbaceous planting. A panel of experts has been brought in to review all the planting in the garden. Some areas have certainly drifted away from their original schemes, with “good doers” dominating. We’ve been reversing that process for years now, and will continue to do so.

There’s always lots to do, but we’ll get there.

annewareham May 20, 2014 at 6:27 pm

I hate to say it but I think we’re all often the best garden people have ever seen. Most people think if it’s a garden, it’s lovely… But glad you are taking feedback seriously – it’s so hard to get honest comment – you are better placed than most.

I’d look at the cultivation method – hoeing isolates plants and makes a spotty, miserable effect especially early in the year. Mulching has enormous benefits as well as the aesthetic. But now you’ll accuse me of having another go. Ouch! Xxx

Tristan Gregory April 20, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Temporarily removed AW

James Down August 14, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Begrudging the gardeners their chat about weeding is mean spirited and unnecessary. Discussing the job in hand implies the staff are engaged with their work and keen to do it as best they can, a miracle given the National Trust’s wages and conditions of employment.

Having worked in horticulture for many years, alarm bells sound when I hear a phrase like “[I] could only think how nice it would be to have so many staff that they can afford the time to talk at length about things they could just have got on with.” It is indicative of a manager who sees his or her staff only in terms hours on a pay slip. Gardeners should be discussing their work, throwing their ideas about and learning from each other, it encourages ownership of the garden and may go some way towards combatting some of the faults this reviewer finds with the garden.

annewareham August 14, 2013 at 10:40 pm

(Well it might very well, but clearly – doesn’t. In this case.)

James Evans May 19, 2014 at 7:31 pm

A charming thought, Anne. And thank you for all the hilarious captions to the photos above. What a lovely person.

Pat Webster July 11, 2013 at 9:38 pm

I visited both Hidcote and Kiftsgate for the first time last year. I was expecting greatness in both and was greatly disappointed by much of what I saw. I liked the arrangement of space at Hidcote and found the plantings dull. The rock garden was newly made and unchipped — perhaps a good thing. Kiftsgate had some planting surprises that I liked. Looking down on the moon pool was wonderful. The modern pool in the old tennis court area would have been grand without the tall fiddly bits. Jellicoe knew his stuff and did it simply — too bad the Muirs didn’t copy his Sutton Place design without adding to it.

Helen July 7, 2013 at 9:34 am

I have visited Hidcote a couple of times in recent years with various friends and never been that impressed, I much prefer Kiftsgate. I presumed that I was just a weary garden visitor who no longer really had the energy to be annoyed and that everyone else thought it was great so I must be wrong!

I have a theory that the really great gardens are personal gardens and not those run by societies and trusts. You loose the soul of the place once there is not one or two leading voices, people with passion.

I saw the head gardener post at Hidcote advertised a few years back and was surprised at how low the salary was. I don’t know if thats the norm for the sector but it did seem low considering that Hidcote is one of the NT’s flagships. Also I know they rely a lot on volunteers to manage the garden and I wonder whether this has reduced the skillset.

Anyway, visiting Hidcote has dampened my enthusiasm for visiting other NT gardens. I prefer gardens that radiate their owners passion rather than set pieces stuck in a time warp and going down hill

Tristan Gregory July 8, 2013 at 6:18 pm

I am lucky enough to have volunteers at Kentchurch and they make a huge difference to the condition of the place, especially when they are allowed the space to develop a sense of ownership over a particular set of jobs or area of the Garden.

It again boils down to enthusiasm and autonomy and when there are more managers and administrators than actual doers then those seem to be the first two victims.

Mary James September 27, 2013 at 6:39 pm

So agree with Helen’s comments above on Kiftsgate vs Hidcote, the soul of a garden when its privately owned etc. The Red Border some 10 years ago was stunning, it all sounds very sad now.

Vanessa Cook July 7, 2013 at 9:22 am

Went to Hidcote in 1960 and remember the scents, pushing away the roses and the feeling of wonder and delight round every corner, have been back once since the NT tidied according to their rules and will never go again. Tell everyone, if they must visit, to make sure they go on a day Kiftsgate is also open, a truly loved garden

Alison July 3, 2013 at 9:38 pm

I’ve not been to Hidcote for about 5 years, but when I last went I thought it rather a sad sort of place, a shadow of it’s glory days and surviving more on what people hope it is rather than what it delivers. I thought it lacked heart. Such a shame.

Adam Hodge July 3, 2013 at 8:54 am

I wonder if the NT has cut the Head Gardeners budget, perhaps a bit too hard and he/she’s either run out of steam or lost inspiration.

The remarks about the orange chippings are a tad ..silly. It is the local stone he was looking at. It is that colour!

annewareham July 3, 2013 at 8:57 am

Re stone: it is revolting – so perhaps we should discuss whether being the local stone is enough? Ours is conglomerate and I’d be careful how I used that too. (editor)

Tristan Gregory July 3, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I think it is a local stone but there are local quarries that seem to give a better match; there is some in my local builders merchant.

The running out of steam comment is quite possible for budget or no when there is passion for a garden it shows most in the little things whereas personal ambition often manifests itself in the grand statements.

Tim July 3, 2013 at 8:52 am

Thank you for posting this. It appears that even in the best regulated gardens things do sometimes go awry. A good lesson to learn and I shall stop worrying over my box hedging forthwith. I agree, the gravel in the scree bed/rockery looks dreadful.

annewareham July 3, 2013 at 9:00 am
Tim July 3, 2013 at 9:31 am

Thank you for that. I now feel very much worse.

annewareham July 3, 2013 at 9:37 am

Sorry! (ed)

Sharon Moncur July 3, 2013 at 5:38 am

This describes our reaction on a visit last year rather well. We left and went down the road to Kiftsgate and had an altogether better experience!

annewareham July 3, 2013 at 8:20 am

O! (see next week for Kiftsgate review….ed.)

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