Darryl Moore is a valued garden critic on thinkinGardens, with an astute sense of the relationship between the owner and the garden and its implications (see also his piece on Coombe House/Plas Metaxu). I am grateful therefore to have this review of the garden Mill Dene in the Cotswolds, which was rather curtly dismissed in Suzanne Albinson’s piece on thinkinGardens.
Anne Wareham editor
The reactions to Suzanne Albinson’s ‘Letter from America’ sparked a series of conflicting responses which fuelled a healthy debate around the nature of garden criticism on thinkinGardens. What most interested me about the original letter was the fact that I concurred with Suzanne’s admiration for the gardens with which I was familiar, and as a consequence what frustrated me was the lack of rationale for the ones she disliked, as I would have liked to have seen if my opinions matched hers in this respect also. Indeed one of the gardens with an expletive-deleted description left me with certain questions when I visited it last year.
The garden in question, Mill Dene, is as its moniker suggests, an old mill house located in the Cotswolds, where it benefits from being in the heart of not only some of the Midland’s most attractive landscape, but also in a very distinct area of garden culture and heritage (Hidcote, Kiftsgate etc). The garden utilises both these aspects, borrowing attractive views from the surroundings, and drawing upon the pedigree associations of the Cotswold style, whilst also taking advantage of the steady stream of visitors the area annually attracts.
Nestled in a valley with steep sloping sides and a stream running through the centre of the property, the site has presented the owners with a formidable landscaping challenge in terms of terrain, which has been admirably met with a series of garden rooms. The division into distinct areas topographically and thematically provides the garden with a certain narrative flow, presented to the visitor as a meandering tour, with a guide-plan providing explanations and background detail on each area.
Whilst not mandatory, the prescriptive nature of such a tour tends to frame the visitor’s experience in a manner which accords with owner’s desired intentions. Expectations are set and met according to the planned route, and this to a large extent tends to direct the overall picture of the garden as its character is gradually revealed. Such a ‘stations of the cross’ approach to visiting the garden creates a preprogrammed sense of surprise, in which the series of encounters with each area are treated as if they are separate events, giving it all a certain Disneyfied feel.
The sense of adventure associated with such an approach feeds into the thematic content of the garden which is presented as being of a very personal nature, reflecting the charm of family life in a rural village, with an explicitly child-centric orientation. This romantic depiction holds a very strong appeal to many foreign visitors and their ideas of English gardens, but such a pervasive sense of tweeness can equally also put many off, and is not something I would readily admit a fondness for. If the garden was presented in a more open and perhaps ambiguous manner, my experience may possibly have been somewhat different.
This raises a point about gardens open to the public, and the uneasy tension in the interplay between the personal and public realms. Obviously all gardens embody aspects of their owner’s personalities, and consequently any private garden open to visitors has to address how much of this they wish to expose to view, and how much to promote as essential to the experience of the garden. For some this is the very point of showing a garden, for others it is not. In this respect Mill Dene not only exposes itself in a rather intimate manner, but plays upon this as one of it’s major appeals, indeed it could be considered it’s USP.
But a confusing aspect of the personal approach employed at Mill Dene is the fact that a professional designer was also engaged to work on the design. This somewhat detracts from the idiosyncratic narrative the owners are attempting to project, and perhaps reveals what could be the central conflicting element of the garden, which is the confusion of design styles and landscape languages. For whilst the vernacular cottage style employed in many areas of the garden is most appropriate to it’s size and architecture, it also endeavours to introduce elements of the country house style, resulting in an uncomfortable mix of the two. Is this deliberate or does it suggest delusions of grandeur?
Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that the designer in question was Rupert Golby, an acolyte of garden doyen Rosemary Verey whose Barnsley House is still considered, a decade after her death, the jewel in the Cotswold crown.’ Is it an aspirational attempt to sidle up to Barnsley, as if the gardens are on a par and directly comparable? Given the fact that the owner in publicity material makes much of the fact of being a Chelsea Flower Show judge, one would assume that surely this must be a factor which at some stage has been considered, and can therefore only appear to be a somewhat disingenuous strategy.
The cricket lawn, shoehorned into the side of the hill, is an obvious element which reflects this contrast and disparity in scale and social stature, as does the small pavilion which was once commented upon by Verey herself in an uncomplimentary manner.
Again given that many of the garden’s visitors are tourists, particularly Japanese, perhaps this distinction between stylistic conventions may be of little importance to them, and the garden simply evokes a quintessential sense of ‘Englishness’, but from a design perspective it presents a mix of forced cliches and unconvincing conventions, resulting in a rather perplexing experience as a garden visit.