Scampston: The Walled Garden reviewed by Charles Hawes

September 21, 2010

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

Scampston by Charles Hawes   |   thinkinGardens

The 4.5 acre rectangular walled garden at Scampston was constructed in the mid C18 within the 70 acres of park and gardens which have been in the ownership of the same family since a house was built there around 1690.  The St Quintin’s have employed some notable gardeners over the years. Charles Bridgeman laid out a scheme for the grounds in 1720 and Capability Brown was engaged to redesign the park in 1773. William Herbert St Quintin (1851-1933) had Charles Puddle as his Head Gardener until Charles Puddle moved over to Bodnant to create the dynasty of Puddle head gardeners there.

Once required to keep the large households that these estates supported in fruit and vegetables, as the households shrank and the upkeep of these large walled gardens became prohibitively expensive, so they simply ceased to be used and were abandoned or destroyed.

When Sir Charles and Lady Legard inherited the property in 1994, after repairing and redecorating the house their attention turned to the then derelict walled garden. It was being used for growing Christmas Trees and for grazing sheep. In 1998 they hired Piet Oudolf to design a new garden within the walls.  Apart from retaining the rather fine but shabby glasshouse and some outbuildings on the north side of the garden, he appears to have had a blank canvass to work with.

Work began in 1999 and the beech hedges and limes which form the internal walls of the garden were mostly planted that winter. The overall design of the garden is one of formal rectangular spaces of differing character and planting linked by brick and grass paths.

The little wooden ticket hut marks the beginning of the tour of the garden. The suggested route is to take the long Plantsman’s Walk (above) around two sides of the garden and enter the main part of the garden at the east end.

This consists of a deep border of mixed shrubs and herbaceous plants (and bulbs). It was, admittedly, designed to be at its best in the spring, but the fact is that it was pretty dull at the time of my visit. At the same time it was clear that this was not just another indulgence of plant collecting. The same plants are repeated several (many? – I wasn’t counting) times along these perimeter borders and to add to the rhythm are several large cloud shaped box plants.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 2Anyway, perhaps it is good to get the plant spotting visitors on side before introducing them to the rather more radical planting that awaits. But only if they also have in their mitt the 50P plant List (essential if you do want to know what the plants are because they are only identified by numbered markers in the ground). The deviant visitor could break though into the inside of the garden half way round this walk but I followed the suggested route which brings you to the first area of what this garden is all about.

If there is one thing that most garden visitors might know about Oudolf, it is that grasses are going to feature heavily in his planting schemes. And in this Drifts of Grasses area, he has chosen to devote the whole space to Molinia caerula ssp caerulea ‘Poul Petersen’ – with a supporting role played by a lawn type grass.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 3I had not seen anything like this before and for that alone I was wanting to applaud, but at the same time I was struck by how “flat” the area was. The grasses themselves were at most mid thigh in height and the average was about knee high.  Their dark chocolate flowers were beautiful but even on this fairly windy day there was not the “dramatic sense of movement” that the Guide promises. The reason being is that this grass is too short to give those wonderful effects that you can get as drifts of long grass or crops sway in the wind. The brick paths are gorgeous, though, and a perfect foil for the colour of the grass at this time of the year. Interestingly, the brochure for the garden shows a birds eye view of the garden taken in October or even early November, and by then this grass is a beautiful golden yellow and considerably more filled out, so that may be the best time to go for this area to wow you.

Two other things bothered me in this space. One of them proved to be a theme of the garden. Nothing is mulched. Bare earth always bothers me, and I would imagine that this is a fairly dry part of the country, so to forgo mulch seems, well, a bit daft, considering that the consequence is also that so much more weeding and watering will be needed. (Though I do know that mulch can be hellishly untidy when the birds get in there). (Use edging ~ ed.)

The other thing that irritated me was that this incredibly formal and restrained space has been given a boundary on its south side, not of clipped beech or yew but of an informal line of mixed shrubs and this really detracts from the impact of the area. Big mistake in my view. And to my mind the bits of herbaceous stuff around the four small trees in the middle of the garden are an irrelevance, too. The seats, though, are great. So solid and comfortable.

The spring box garden follows next.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 4Well it wasn’t spring and the seven large box squares that run down the middle of this long avenue have yet to reach the height to give them the domes which are planned for them. So I was not seeing this garden as it is intended. If the box survive the dreaded blight and they get their hats on in due course, they could look stunning. Looking at the plants in the borders, I noted with approval that the plants repeated on both sides and along their length.

Turning left, and running parallel to the Drifts of Grasses is the Silent Garden.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 5Names are funny things in gardens. It is so easy to make them sound naff or pretentious but at the same time you just have to call certain parts of a large garden by different names (yes, you do!). But there was nothing more “silent” in this part of the garden than anywhere else.  Or perhaps this title is an instruction?

The garden has a square pool surrounded by yew columns which have not quite reached their intended height. So they look a bit ragged.  As someone who has spent a lot of time contemplating (rather noisily at times!) our pool garden at the Veddw, I think that this particular pool will not actually give the “splendid” reflections that are intended. The pool will only reflect the pillars immediately near it and even then they are not shaped in such a way as to create a really powerful image.  It is a simple space, though (apart from having that loose line of shrubs to the north side, separating it from the Drifts of Grasses). Perhaps, Quiet Garden would be a better name for it? Parents of small children might find that more realistic, too.

To the other side of the Drifts of Grasses is the Cut Flower Garden, and beyond that the Vegetable Garden. Neither did much for me.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 6The box edges of the 12 round beds of the Cut Flower garden have not all grown together, and gappy hedges never look great. The wide lawn grass was looking pretty tired as were several of the beds.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 7We are told that the vegetable garden supplies the house and restaurant. Well, it might make a very small contribution unless, perhaps, they receive a miraculous blessing en route from bed to table. What I did not understand was why so much space has been given to the paths, relative to the size of the beds. They are massive. You could fit three wheelbarrows side by side in them. Perhaps they had the need to accommodate the massed hoards of several coach parties at once. But the result is that the garden seems sparse and dominated by the bark covered paths rather than by the vegetables.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 8By this time I was feeling rather deflated, so I hoped that the Perennial Meadow in the middle of the garden was going to have me whooping with delight. I had seen the pictures and they make it look STUNNING. But I wasn’t stunned. This area isn’t a meadow at all, but has four large beds of mixed perennials and grasses divided by wide grit paths with a central fountain. Mid afternoon light is not the best time of day to flatter such a planting scheme (or more or less any part of a garden if it comes to that, but that is when most visitors will be there).

The overall picture looking across the beds was pleasing from several vantage points and the plants have been skilfully assembled.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 9I don’t have the imagination to know when this area “peaks”, but it seemed to me that the moment had passed.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 10I could get some great shots of sections of the area and in a hard frost I bet it is beautiful, but on my visit it appeared rather muted. Now I was disappointed and surprised, as I was when I saw the perennial plantings at Lady Farm, at how small this area was.

The Katsura Grove to the side of this area does what it says on the tin with a smashing circle of a tall and beautiful grass in its middle.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 11Not all is well here, though, a shabby corner of planting was poor.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 12Next up, the summer Box garden echoes the spring one, though here the intended shapes of the central box will be dipped at the centre. Not yet though, and no wow factor from the borders, either.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 13The wavy shaped yew hedges of the Serpentine Garden that follows is definitely a garden in the making and I know I will love it when it has grown up. I did like the simple shape of the flat topped circle at its entrance.

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 14The final feature of the garden is The Mount and it is just awful!

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 15No less than two signs greet you at the foot of the municipal style steps telling you not to climb up the sides. And for good measure there is a sign at the foot of each of the other 3 sides, too. The grass sides were ragged and rough, which made it more or less an eyesore. And what of the view from the Mount? It’s nothing special. You do get a very fine view of the restaurant

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 16and you get a decent look over the Serpentine Garden

Scampston by Charles Hawes - Image 17but there just isn’t the elevation to provide you with a decent view over the rest of the garden.

So what is the point of it? To appease the Kim Wilkie fans? I trotted down the steps leaving a couple of visitors seeing if the Guide would explain. It lies: “From the Mount…..the whole scheme of the design and the view beyond may be appreciated”. Well if you are a fifteen foot tall giant maybe. Then you would get a good view.

At just over 10 years old, this is a young garden. Its youth is particularly apparent in the hedges and topiary features which are a really important part of the garden have yet to grow into their intended shapes. So for the time being the more flowery parts of the garden are that much more important. And yet, apart from the central area of the garden planted with perennials and grasses, there was little at that time of my visit that had real impact.

I carried to Scampston very high expectations of being bowled over by the place. These expectations were created by inordinate praise that has been heaped on the garden in the press.  And the garden owners have devoured these accolades and are feeding them back to visitors in quotes in their brochure and website:

“…will set standards for the 21st century gardens for many years to come” – The Garden

“It is without doubt one of the great gardens of the early 21st Century” – Sir Richard Carew-Pole (past president of RHS)

Gardens Illustrated featured the garden in 2007- which means the photography would have been done in 2006, just 6 or 7 years after work began. There is nothing garden writers and magazine editors like better than new gardens and if there has been the hand of a celebrity designer at work they are queuing up to be the first to put the garden in print.

The writers heap these new gardens with unremitting praise and the photographers do everything they can to flatter the gardens. This process, in my opinion, creates totally unrealistic expectations when visiting these youthful gardens. And when you have a garden such as Scampston that has clearly set itself up to be a visitor attraction, the public respond by visiting in their thousands. When faced with all this hype, it takes a brave garden visitor to buck the trend and say to themselves (or anyone else) “this is not all it’s cracked up to be”. Maybe this garden will fulfil its expectations one day. But not yet.

Charles Hawes – member of the Garden Photographers Association

Charles Hawes’ photographic portfolio GAP Photos

Veddw House Garden website

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