Sezincote – of elephants and water by Alison Levey

February 7, 2013

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

The name Sezincote has acquired a kind of magic for its associations: Brighton Pavilion, India, the Raj… Does the garden live up to this magic? Alison Levey visits for thinkingardens (and herself) and, as ever, offers an astute opinion…

Anne Wareham, editor

Sezincote 1 copyright Alison Levey garden review for thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham

Alison Levey:

I, like many gardeners I am sure, have three lists for visiting gardens: on list one are the gardens I have yet to see, this list is ever growing; list two has the great (in my opinion) gardens I have visited and want to visit again.  List three contains the gardens that I have visited and will not rush to see again, – one visit was probably enough, for my curiosity has been satisfied.  Sezincote, in Oxfordshire, was until recently quite close to the top of list one.

List one is not in priority order, it is more about a mix of opportunity, location and urgency to see.  The opportunity came to visit a few weeks ago and I decided that it was time I tried to visit again.  I have tried before to visit, I even got as far as the gate, only to find it was closed due to a power cut.  Happily this day the gardens were open as advertised.  It was a nice, sunny, late September day perfect weather for garden-bothering.

I was surprised at how busy it was in the garden, but apparently there had been a recent article on the house and garden in a national newspaper.  The amount of people was off-putting as I suffer from the wish to visit a popular tourist area totally on my own: exactly the same as everyone else who was there that day.  This was exacerbated by the focus of the route into the grounds automatically taking everyone to the front of the house, so there is a bunching of people when you first arrive.

Sezincote 2 copyright Alison Levey garden review  for thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham

The house is magnificent, a stunning example of an Indian/mogul inspired house which apparently was the inspiration for the Brighton Pavilion.  I did not go around the house, I had only gone to visit the garden and this might have been a mistake; I shall explain:

The gardens are lovely, they are very nice indeed.  The water garden to the left of the house is rather fine.  It is a good example of its type and the proportions are good.  It complements the house and the curved orangery that sweeps around from the side of the house.  It is a fine example of its type, as this garden appears to be an extension and reflection of the house.

This garden also has two rather nice stone elephants in a vantage point.  Of course, because of the above mentioned bunching, everyone else was admiring the elephants and wanting the perfect photograph opportunity at the same time.

Sezincote 3 copyright Alison Levey garden review for thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham

I then wandered down into the rest of the gardens.  There is good use of water throughout the gardens.  There is a stream running through leading to a lake at each end.  One is styled into a sort of Buddhist shrine effect, the other end is a naturalistic lake.  Both are very effective and connected by colourful marginal planting that is very pleasing.

A feature worthy of note is the bridge that you have to walk across to reach the house.  As you walk across you get wonderful views into the stream valley.  You also notice the very fine cow statues that adorn the bridge.  These again are well placed for photographic moments.  The real joy of the bridge however is when you go underneath it – there are stepping stones set in water and a carved stone bench that is simple and beautiful.  I walked (carefully) through on the stepping stones. I did not sit on the bench but maybe I should have done, it was a great vantage point to look out across another pond with a snake on a pole structure in the middle of it.

Sezincote 4 copyright Alison Levey, garden review for thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham

So why was it a mistake not to go in the house?  It struck me as I left Sezincote that the gardens are all about the house, they are pleasant to wander around as you wait for the house to open, or to walk off your cake and tea after your house visit.  Nice as the gardens are they appear to be the window dressing, the warm up act for the main event.

By not going into the house maybe I had not got the full story and maybe that was what was lacking.  This is not to say that the gardens are not gardened with skill or with care, it is clear they are well tended and that gardeners who look after them know their stuff.  Some of the planting was incredibly good and worthy of mention; but when I look back at my photographs I have largely photographed statues of cows and elephants and structures so it is clear that they are what caught my real attention.

Sezincote 6 copyright Alison Levey, garden review for thinkingardens, editor Anne Wareham

I would say that a visit to the house and gardens is definitely worthwhile, I am glad that I finally got to see them, but for me Sezincote has moved into list three, for it is a great house with a good garden.  In fairness, when I re-visited the website, the garden is not dominant.  There are photographs but not a specific garden section, which makes me think that this is symptomatic of the issue.

Sezincote has the potential to be a great garden, the structure and structures of it are strong and could lead to something quite amazing.  The garden is good, it should be great.

Alison Levey  Alison’s blog

Alison Levey portrait copyright Alison Levey for thinkingardens.




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Trisha March 26, 2013 at 9:44 am

I am a garden lover, a keen gardener and a designer – but not a garden designer, if you see what I mean, except for my own. I also live nearby in Oxfordshire. I have visited many gardens big and small over a lifetime, even choosing them for a dayout as a child. Hidcote used to be my favourite, but I had never, strangely, visited Sezinctoe until a few years ago. Partly, I think because its only open on days I normally work, or on Bank Holiday mondays. I was lucky enough to hear that it was open on a Sunday afternoon for the national garden scheme, so took that oppotunity. I agree its not a normal garden in the sense we think of them, it has a slightly theatrical feel to it, the architectural features and the water are as important as the plants. But I do worry that this article and the subsequent comments may put people off. I think you have to FEEL this garden more than others, to enter its spirit, even its sense of spirituality, rather than treat it as a normal British garden, it is something apart. It has now gone, strangely, to the top of my favourite all time list, I love it. It evokes a dreamy, magical atmosphere for me of a time and a Raj long past, it is a kind of fantasy that maybe as a designer I can better appreciate – I am under its spell. My father who was in India and Burma before and during the war remembers the gardens there as a wonderful escape from the noise, poverty, dirt and troubles of the times. For him, now 90, they felt reassuring, peaceful and spiritual in the same way when I took him to Sezincote. I have never been to India, I was brought up with too many stories of poverty, bad treatment of lower castes and the like and avoid the recent middle class obsession to discover it as a tourist spot. But Sezincote has a specialness, a feel to me, that no other garden can touch.

annewareham March 26, 2013 at 10:05 am

It would be interesting to have more comments in the light of this quite different take on the garden.

Jane Nadel-Klein February 18, 2013 at 12:31 am

I visited Sezincote 4 years ago and a similar reaction – I mostly remember statues and the orangery. I do not remember feeling a sense of the garden as a whole.

catharinehoward February 14, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Alison you are right about that no-expense-spared water feature under the bridge. Bench to sit or stones to step across… I would love to have the garden to house that and would happily take the cows on the top of the bridge too. My visit was about 5 years ago and the planting in the bog garden was immaculate.

Alison February 10, 2013 at 11:02 am

Hi Charles

Thanks for your comment and I am sorry that it disappointed you. Your comments are useful so I have had a think about them so that I could possibly provide some less-vague answers.

I will start with a caveat though that it is only my opinion, therefore what I think is good might be considered less so by others.

I liked the use of water as it made a thread through the garden that you could follow, leading from one part to another. Particularly when a space is so large there needs to be some mechanism that leads from one part to another. Paths are an obvious way but I found following the water did this for me at Sezincote. The planting around the water was what I would call effective. It looked ‘naturalistic’ and worked with the water in harmony. It was not a case of water here, plants there; but water and plants working together. In some places it was a bit ‘block’ planting but there was a generosity of planting and colour that worked well whereas the further from the water I went it felt (to me) like that planting became less co-ordinated with its surroundings. I felt less drawn to walk from one area to another.

What does it need in order to make it great? Now that is a huge question and one that is not straightforward to answer. I think what I felt most strongly was that the garden is in the shadow of the house, the house is the star. The garden needs to be associated with the house, but it needs to be a thing in its own right. So I am not going to suggest planting plans or design principles, I am not qualified to do so. It is more I think about the garden finding its own heart.

I am not sure this is any less vague! x

Charles Hawes February 8, 2013 at 12:41 pm

I have been to Seizincote, but it was many years ago and I remember very little about it other than its striking architecture. This maybe says as much about the garden as it does about my memory. And in Alison’s rather fun categorization of gardens, I think I would put it in my Three list.

So I was interested in this review and a little disappointed. There are a lot of positive comments here, but they also seem a bit vague. Maybe I am being rather demanding, but if the use of the water is “good” and “effective” I would have liked to have heard more about what made it so. Or perhaps an offer of a contrast where she has not found the use of water so effective and why not. And if some of the planting was “incredibly good”, I’d have liked to have heard what made it so and why, despite that, she took few pictures of the planting.

Most intriguing of all, was that is she thought the garden should be great, what would they need to change in order to lift it from goodness to greatness.

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