Last summer, with 2 good friends, always the best way to visit a garden, I visited Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, one of those iconic gardens that you just have to see. It is probably best known for its fantastical mid nineteenth century recreations of Egypt and China, and was the work of James Bateman, who had the vision to transform the site into a series of evolving atmospheres and scenes, in which he displayed his extraordinary collection of plants and artefacts.
But stunning though those parts of the garden are, other things caught my eye and imagination. I particularly loved the Lime Walk close to the perimeter of the garden site. There was a calmness and lyricism to the repeated statuesque trees framed by subtle groundcover planting. Interestingly, the Lime Walk predates the Bateman development of the garden as we see it, so he must have really enjoyed the curving lyricism of it to have decided to keep it in his new garden. I loved the scallops of groundcover that framed each tree, very simple and pleasing to the eye.
The Stumpery is an extraordinary sight. Great fossilised tree trunks rear up from the wall in which they were embedded to make a frame for ferns to grow. The Biddulph Grange Stumpery dates from 1856 and was designed for Bateman by Edward William Cooke. It was the first Stumpery made in England and it became quite ‘the thing’ to embellish your garden with at the time. At Biddulph, it is immense and has an otherworldly feel about it. It is almost as if you are picking your way through a gigantic dinosaur skeleton.
I think Bateman had a childlike ability to create landscapes of atmosphere that tell stories. The Himalayan Glen, which was only re-opened in 2013 after repairing the bridge, is another storybook place, exciting and full of vista as well as mystery.
On the way home, I found myself thinking about another garden, Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington DC, one of the very few remaining garden and landscape projects of the pioneer American woman designer, Beatrix Farrand. Maybe it was the lyricism of the Lime Walk that triggered it. Dumbarton Oaks is a garden that was a huge, 30 year project for Farrand as Biddulph was for Bateman. But she never garnered the recognition that came to other (male) landscapers and designers of the same period. I have always been intrigued by the elusive quality of her work and reputation.
Looking for information about Dumbarton Oaks, I came across the report of a 2013 conference re-examining her contribution to landscape design. The report called for a total re-assessment of her rather lowly status. She is now recognised as a pre-ecologist, for her understanding of the human body and what it needed to get around a landscape environment, and her passion for connecting humans through their senses with the landscape. My kind of woman. Just look at these beautiful steps she created for Dumbarton Oaks. They are a great example of how to handle a woodland slope with elegance, economy and ease of climb for the visitor.