I have said before, in the introduction to Alison Levey’s piece about Rousham, that I have taken far too many trips to Rousham in a vain attempt to discover why it is so very highly regarded. Now it seems Tristan also has been disappointed.
Why two pieces about the garden then? – because they make such very different points.
Apologies if the pictures are not as illustrative as we would have liked – Tristan’s camera broke, so they are mine, and from three years ago.
Anne Wareham, editor
PS. I just added this in the comments, but it seems so pertinent, once again, that I am also including the link here, in the hope that you may read it before commenting on Tristan’s review – Sara Maitland on garden criticism. And see also my editorial on this subject here.
I will not burden you with my reasons for visiting Rousham. Suffice to say it was not under the influence of rave reviews but professional curiosity, and the visit starts rather well with a “help yourself” welcome. There is no infrastructure of financial extraction to be seen, just a self service ticket machine. But true: positive reviews don’t usually need to descend to admiring the ticketing arrangements.
Before continuing it must be pointed out that this is no wreck, the problem is more complicated than that. Around the house the outbuildings are in good order and the house itself, while dour to my eye and lacking both the romance and classical appearance that would seem a better fit for this type of landscape project, is no Gormenghast.
Then there is the clutch of walled gardens in the immediate vicinity of the pile containing vegetable plot, superbly kept fruit trees, good roses and a longish herbaceous border of unremarkable arrangement – but it was February so not a good time to see them. There is a glorious dovecote complete with feathered occupants which was delightful to see but in this little area garden greatness, I would venture, was never achievable and at its best homely and pleasant would have been its limit. Of its current condition, I would have to call it retrenched and yet it is clearly the focus of the garden resources: why?
Why, when the “tea plantation” laurel swathes die in the heavy shade of un-thinned forestry, would you waste time digging the vegetable garden? Why, when the sweeping paths have been in-filled by weeds so that they resemble nothing more than thin yellow sheep trails, would you fiddle about with innumerable espalier apple trees? And why would you waste time on silly circles of winter aconites in the lawns when the plantings and vista’s of one of the most significant examples of landscape gardening in the country degenerate into something resembling the council car park shrubbery behind the recycling bins?
There are elements of picturesque spirit here and there: a tree slowly growing and falling into a mossy stone wall
and in the process becoming one with it, and of course the patination of lichens on the stonework of the various structures, but these are shining examples. They shine out of a dulled canvass but shine they do. The classical structures and the rough grottoes are still testaments to what was and could be still, even if I find it slightly discomfiting to sit under a ceiling as it bulges like the bottom of a plaster bubble over me.
Nor am I a great fan of the bits of architectural tat that adorn the place, not so much reminiscent of the greatness of a lost classical age, as of Roman skip diving.
The statuary, original or not I can’t say, is of fairly modest quality but from a distance it does enough to justify its place in the picture.
Then there is the rill and in particular the view down to it from the path from the front lawn. It annoys me that this scene is insufficient to inspire appropriate effort elsewhere in the garden; it is very special indeed.
Well, if the rill is the best thing, what is the worst?
Of all the things, big and small, which distract and irritate is there one which threatens to destroy? Yes there is – the trees. I like yew trees but I was ready to reconsider after this visit. There are some decent specimens and some interesting wrecks but there are dozens and dozens of the bloody things, both self sown and recently planted clogging up vistas and viewpoints like takeaway fat in a London sewer.
Deep dark shade has a place but only when it interacts as a counterpoint to light and air. Without this association you just have gloom and when you add in horrible, messy thickets of holly, overgrown box and a blanket of ivy – well, if I want to experience this again I’ll have myself buried alive and save the five pounds.
A similar feat is achieved with two of my other favourite trees, the lime and the beech, too thick and too unkempt and while there is an ongoing need to replace parkland specimens that have died off, it should be one for one replacement and no more. One particularly stupid bit of planting involved some straggling larches which might work from one perspective, a little autumn colour behind the pools, but they obscure a view over the river and meadows from another. On the subject of the river, its banks would benefit from clearing or coppicing the trees on the bank: a view of yet another thicket is hardly worth borrowing.
Rousham is an example of a garden that was once gardened for art’s sake but has become an example of gardening as burden. I have given more thought than normal to this place and the particular question that has played across my mind is whether the physical decline of the plantings and structures, and the blurring of the design is in some way appropriate to its spirit. It is with regret that I cannot bring myself to believe this to be the case. I would rather have come across this place ruined and throttled by nature and imagined the acts of artistry that inspired what remained than witnessed the artless, destructive sloth that has set about obscuring its quality.
Drive on by and find a photograph of the rill in some flattering horti rag instead.