They fell asleep.. a review of Kiftsgate by Anne Wareham

July 11, 2013

in Garden Reviews, Reviews

I didn’t intend to write a review. I was just having a good day off and taking some photographs for Tristan’s piece. But it didn’t turn out like that: I found I hated the probability that all the masses of tourists at both Hidcote and Kiftsgate were thinking that this is the best that British gardens have to offer. Perhaps they are just past their sell by date, but if these gardens are our best, we need to shut them and give up.

Anne Wareham, editor.

 Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Nice plants but did they plop out of a plane? What they doing there?

Anne Wareham:

Well, we went to Kiftsgate at the same time as we visited Hidcote. Forewarned, I had expected that Hidcote would be disappointing. But I was expecting Kiftsgate to be a joy. I had liked it on previous visits, some years (too many..!) ago. So, a reliable treat, I thought.

And perhaps that’s important: years of making and attempting to perfect my own garden, and of visiting other gardens have affected my perspective. I have got more particular, and have a greater sense of what actually is possible and important than I did in my salad days. (when, yes, we did grow salad).

So, I’ll be clear – Kiftsgate was a great disappointment to me. Better I had not gone back.

Let’s start with some of what was nice. (that word chosen carefully).

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens


That’s not bad – old stone, an intriguing entrance, glimpse of a pool..

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

and that’s the kind of pleasant borders you’d expect?

Here’s a little repetition, making a pleasant edging to the path:

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

And there are plants to look at.

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

The hostas everywhere in the garden were in wonderful condition.

And here is an amazing view, over the cliff, as it were, to the bathing pool:

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

What on earth is that revolting phormium doing, dying so miserably there?

and here’s another pool:

24th June 2013 156 .Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

If you haven’t been before you may even find those last two a ‘wow’. However, – and this will be too picky for some, but is an interesting question I think – does this

24th June 2013 155 Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens s

really belong in the same garden as this?

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

The inevitable green murky water….shame.

Or indeed with this?

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

The garden loses coherence and integrity for me, juxtaposing these incongruent styles and time frames. This is not what would happen in a first rank garden.

And, it rapidly becomes apparent that this is no longer a first rank garden. It’s pretty enough in places, but the planting is random and mostly meaningless.

Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Was that really a yellow grass? Or just my rotten photography?

At best, pretty. At worst

24th June 2013 108 Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens


There are problems which I find in almost every public garden I visit. Intrusive staking:

24th June 2013 164 Staking..Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

– the garden is well strapped up.. Intrusive and inaccurate labelling:

24th June 2013 163 Anemone lipsiensis - think not. Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Bare soil and random planting:

 Bare soil and random planting. Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

and things which make no sense at all – what on earth is that Trachycarpus doing there? It is ugly, out of place and unhealthy. And distracts from a good view, together with its miserable friend the dying phormium.24th June 2013 112 Trachycarpus fortunei Kiftsgate. Copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens

Perhaps this

24th June 2013 159

was not surprising?

So what did we think, overall? I really don’t know what these gardens  (Kiftsgate and Hidcote) looked like originally in terms of their planting. I imagine pleasant evening walks with like minded plant lovers, discussing the plants, and maybe not the planting. Eric, (name not given) in a comment on a recent post spoke of the  ‘British upper crust whose passion for collecting every new plant from every colony in the Empire that defined what we think of as today’s English garden style of dynamic and complex mixed borders of shrubs & perennials.’ 

This may have been the origin of the planting style, but was it really executed like this? Discussing the ugly bare soil and gappy planting which appears here and at Hidcote, a friend instantly identified ‘the tyranny of the hoe, the death of good gardens’. I recently spoke to John Sales, who says that gardens are all about management and this, I believe, illustrates his point. Hoeing is horrid.

And as for the majority of the planting,  Gertrude Jeykll said, and I never tire of quoting:

‘I am strongly of the opinion that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and how ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection.It seems to me that the duty we owe to our gardens and to our own bettering in gardens is to so use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures; and that, while delighting our eyes, they should always  be training those eyes to a more exalted criticism; to a state of mind and artistitic conscience that will not tolerate bad or carless combination or any sort of misuse of plants, but in which it becomes a point of honour to be always striving for the best. It is just in the way it is done that lies the whole difference between commonplace gardening and gardening which may rightly claim to rank as fine art.’

I think this is an aspiration which both Hidcote and Kiftsgate have let slip. Perhaps the maintenance style is that of professional gardeners? In which case, their training may need reviewing.

And perhaps over familiarity with a garden – when it has been in the family for a long time as this has for example, -means the sharpness gets lost? Perhaps it’s a good plan to call in a critical eye now and again to discuss what’s needed in a garden to freshen it up?

Anne Wareham, editor  of thinkingardens and garden maker at Veddw. See also (if you are interested in garden reviews and critique) the visit to the Laskett.

014 anne pic

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pianolearner July 2, 2015 at 5:03 pm

I went to Kiftsgate for the first time on Saturday. I knew nothing about it apart from it being ‘that garden by the Hidcote entrance’ so I went there with no expectation and no knowledge. I have to say I really enjoyed it. Perhaps things have changed in the last couple of years (I certainly don’t remember seeing any dying phormium). To answer your question about the pools I think that it’s perfectly fine for the garden to have such different pools within it. They are separated from each other completely and therefore didn’t jar with me at all. I like the fact that they built the newer ‘Water garden’. Cottage garden planting is really my thing but we all like a bit of a change so it adds a different pace to the garden. Clearly the garden has evolved over time so it seems reasonable that new bits are added that are contemporary with the time and not pastiches of the rest of it.
I can’t remember seeing any bare soil, perhaps they had just newly planted up that border you photographed and now it has filled out.

The only bit that wasn’t looking good was a bit near the tennis court which had clearly been a bit a spring ‘room’. just some allium heads and dying foliage. I guess it looked good a month ago, so I didn’t begrudge them that. Although to be fair to them they seemed to be adhering to your idea of leaving the foliage to compost in-situ rather than making a separate heap.

annewareham July 2, 2015 at 5:26 pm

Glad to hear it. Xx

Adam Hodge August 15, 2013 at 7:59 am

Anne You protest about the tennis Court pond being incongruent, and yet one regularly encounters this sort of juxtaposition, especially in concerts of classical music or in interior design, . Often very modern pieces are placed along side much older pieces or placing a piece of furniture into a context seemingly out of keeping. I personally hate it as much as I find the tennis court …creation , simply ugly ugly ugly , but it happens,so we’ve got to get over it. Thank goodness it’s behind a big hedge…out of site out of mind.

annewareham August 15, 2013 at 8:21 am

I suppose it can be done better or it can be done worse. It could be a challenging and exciting juxtaposition. But that would actually require more relationship and more sense of the integrity of the whole.

bernhard feistel July 12, 2013 at 1:32 pm

This piece (plus Hidcote) resonates with me on many levels and reveals an armed and experienced eye, which helps people to get away with being uncritically awe-inspired. I admire your boldness to bury perceived icons tourists or inmates are used (or told) to admire and actually forget to look closer. Your examples trachycarpus and phormium are so obvious that it is almost inconceivable that “millions”, including myself, passed by eyebrows not raised.

Perhaps it is the lot of all established institutions that “real” development and progress (usually related with protest) happen outside their sphere. Tourists almost by definition go and gaze at the beaten track, i.e. a dead culture.

I suppose incongruent styles can sometimes go together if well applied or by able or lucky hands. My best example is always those English village churches or even cathedrals which have not experienced a complete overhaul after each change of style/fashion. Often these are the ones with scarce funds. But what to do with these temples? My first reaction would be to let them overgrow with ivy or position a giant wheelbarrow underneath them to underline their ridiculousness.

And this all important second or third visit: The reputation or longevity of many fossils might rely on this one-off-visit. Are there recommendable garden examples when it worked the other way round for you (enchantment/rehabilitation after repeated visits whilst the object remained principally the same)? We do know this with books, pictures or even people; sometimes we need to grow or work to appreciate. To quote a great opponent of Goebbels: You need to love the French in order to understand them, and you need to understand the Germans in order to love them.

(Please don’t overdo the Goebbels, after all, it’s just gardens, even though they are so dear to our heart…)

annewareham July 12, 2013 at 11:25 pm

“Tourists almost by definition go and gaze at the beaten track, i.e. a dead culture.” – never thought of that before but it’s an important point.
This isn’t, sadly, a recommendation, because it is also history now, but The Courts when run by Troy Scott-Smith (before National Trust) got better and better on each visit. Tintinhull under Penelope Hobhouse kept its sparkle. So it is possible. Under a innovative, skilled and imaginative hand?

(sorry about the Goebbels – it’s just so horribly relevant! People really believe these gardens are good and will go on believing, whatever their eyes tell them…)

Vanessa Gardner Nagel July 11, 2013 at 9:45 pm

Good post! Although I have not seen Kiftsgate, I can say that design consistency and a scheme for plants that makes sense are two key points to create a successful garden, not to mention weeding.

lucy July 11, 2013 at 6:42 pm

To be honest, I thought the review lacked some depth. It was just a list of all the negative points you had found and I was disappointed that you didn’t address the more interesting point of why it was bad. You have had two reviews of degenerating, once grand gardens. Could the theory be that to be really good a garden needs passion just that a jobbing head gardener cannot provide? It comes then to Sara and the pure commercialisation of these gardens. If they can’t deliver the intensity of purpose and vision required to create and maintain them, what they do they become? I disagree with with Sara, though that if that is the way it’s going, being an Alton Towers type attraction is bad – what about thrill and fear of visiting the claustrophobic Anne Wareham enclosure and then being swept out into a grassy madness of the Piet Oudolf border! Also, the Alton Towers analogy brings on another point – not everyone who visits gardens cares about plants. Anne, you discuss the plants mainly and the setting a little, but it maybe that Kiftskate is still a very pleasurable garden to walk round if you don’t have your critical eye. What, I mean is – what about the spaces in between? Does the structure and layout still not give the visitor something?

annewareham July 11, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Bluntly – not enough, Lucy. Really – not enough. Hidcote is better at that – offering contrasts, open spaces to refresh and places which have had drama. Shame that progress through is constrained by ropes there.
You are right, though – there should be more depth in the review. What I really really need are some more really good reviewers, offering different perspectives and a cool eye. I’m a bit overwhelmed with thinkingardens and Veddw. I hadn’t intended to do more than have a day off taking some pictures..

lucy July 11, 2013 at 7:12 pm

I can’t say I’m a good reviewer but I am going to visit Veddw soon …

annewareham July 11, 2013 at 7:20 pm

There’s your chance then! AW

Tristan Gregory July 11, 2013 at 6:01 pm

If I’d gone to Kiftsgate after Hidcote I’d probably have been pleased, I’m glad I didn’t for it is just nice. The worst thing about a nice tidy garden is that it takes no more time or resource than a truly exceptional one. The most frustrating thing about gardening at the moment is that that crucial differentiation is not being made but we can all do it; you look at a nice garden but you feel a great one.

The hoe is better than nothing but is also one of the quickest ways to get mediocrity. As a weapon of mass destruction it belongs in the veg patch though as a precision instrument it is a quick way to check certain “old friends” in the border.

annewareham July 11, 2013 at 6:12 pm

It seems to lead to a plonk plonk plonk effect, with the plants in their little hoed islands,is my problem. I have one, but have never found a constructive use for it: but have no veg garden…

Helen July 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Hoorah I hate that square pool with the strange leaf fountain but everyone else says its nice!! I found it really jars with the rest of the garden and I find it quite dull to be honest.

I have become increasingly picky as you say. I think the more gardens you visit, the more jaded you become and the more you are looking for that special something. In the early days it was big bountiful perennial borders for me, now I’m not so sure. I seem to really like gardens that challenge my preconceptions, that give me new ideas, that make my heart race.

My recent visit to gardens in San Francisco gave me this but none of them were gardens that I would probably love on a second visit but the ones that inspired me gave me that heart racing moment, ideas and made me think again about plants or style I had dismissed

annewareham July 11, 2013 at 6:02 pm

The second visit is interesting: that’s often when I discover whether a garden is as good as I believed first time round. I also think the pool’s incongruity is an interesting question – I might have forgiven it were it not for the leaf things – which I loathe too. But they needed something in the absence of much reflection…

Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall July 11, 2013 at 5:07 pm

How sad if Kiftsgate is going downhill. For years when asked to name my favourite gardens it has been on the list. For me it’s one of the few gardens that has the extra ingredient – the emotional factor that touches your heart. NT and other institutionally run gardens (such as Hidcote) don’t have it on the whole. It’s partly to do with personal input by the people who made and continue to make the garden, and at Kiftsgate there has been rare continuity. The maker of the garden, Heather Muir handed on her daughter Diany Binny who handed on to HER daughter Anne Chambers. The first two were exceptionally talented and very knowledgeable gardeners, and Anne Chambers is too.
Sara, I don’t think the motive for such owners in such a garden is money making, although the income from visitors is sorely needed to help meet the huge cost of managing a large garden. Owners give most of their time to the garden sometimes from a sense of duty to keep going what they have inherited, and sometimes from sheer love of the garden.
But as we all know, gardens are not set in aspic, they develop and grow old and decay. Perhaps Kiftsgate has reached the stage when the planting is simply tired and needs a re-think. Anne, your pics do seem to tell a dismal story and I totally agree about the dying phormium and the trachycarpus. But what about Rose ‘Mutabilis’ climbing to the second story on the house, and the avenue of Rosa mundi with the sculpture at the end? Are they still there? I think the 21st century water garden is a fine addition.It is invisible behind it’s hedge and comes as a stunning surprise. Best treatment of a redundant tennis court I’ve seen yet. I’ll go and have another look.

annewareham July 11, 2013 at 5:59 pm

The roses are there, but were not out two weeks ago, Jane. (late season) Maybe the garden depends too much on them? – I missed the impact that the Rosa mundi offer. That’s the kind of coherence and joy I was looking for – and there’s plenty of room for more of that if the will and flair was there. Let us know what you think if you visit?

Sara Venn July 11, 2013 at 7:14 am

So the question I think we need to ask in relation to all these previously exalted gardens, is has the actual history behind them become lost in their own myth? Are they now all about management, which judging by the planting in some of those photos is not being done from a horticultural viwepoint, but which is focussing on getting people in to visit?
Are all large gardens now just money making and if so are they becoming the middle aged, middle class equivalent of a day out at Alton Towers?

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