Hidcote Manor Garden: Lawrence Johnston, a man known only by his gardens

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Hidcote Manor Garden, a story of light and shade, June 2017

This lovely view, as if looking through a tunnel into enlightenment, sums up Hidcote Manor Garden for me.  Visiting with friends on one of the hottest and brightest days possible in an English summer, the gardens glowed with all of their manicured elegance on display but the man who made the garden, Lawrence Johnston, was present only as a name on the National Trust publicity material.

Comparatively little is known about him, apart from his immense inherited wealth and his all-consuming passion for plants and plant-collecting- and his creation of two gardens, Hidcote Manor Garden in England and Serra de la Madone, near Menton in France.  He was born in Paris in 1871 and died in 1958 and was buried near Hidcote next to his mother.

Both of his gardens were eventually saved, Hidcote became the first National Trust property to be acquired solely for its garden in 1948, and Serra de la Madone was saved by the Conservatoire du Littoral in 1999, when threatened with destruction by a housing scheme proposal.  Graham Stuart Thomas, of the National Trust, carried out restoration work at Hidcote which led to the removal of much of Johnston’s Italian statuary, essential ingredients in his pursuit of the classical Italian style.  Serra de la Madone has undergone extensive archaeological restoration- and is certainly to be visited.

So there is a lot riding on a visit to Hidcote- arguably one of the finest gardens in the world.  The great joy is that much of Johnston’s work still remains- especially the bold and decisive architecture of his hedges cutting across the landscape, carving space out for intimacy and surprise, and the wonderful views of the Vale of Evesham still remain as borrowed landscape.   Pools and ponds, towers and openings still work to define the space and the experience.

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Looking down the Red Borders to the landscape beyond, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017
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Looking through the hedge opening, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017
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And further in, the room opens out, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017
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Long vistas and the eyecatcher of the small pavillion, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017

But, and you may have guessed that a ‘but’ was coming, I was disappointed by probably about half of the planting.  Some of the ‘rooms’ were in need of much more colour and variety and planting was sometimes, surprisingly, sparse and dull.  Johnston was a true plantsman, whose passion for plants surely should be insisting that his legacy garden is generously and amply planted.  It wasn’t- enough.  Having said that, the Red Borders sung with colour and vivacity, and the famous Long Border did not disappoint at all with repeated swathes of planting supported by the massive clipped evergreen cones.

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The Long Border, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017

Plants that caught my eye and those of our friends, Jill and Colin:

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Stunning blue and yellow combinations, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017 photo credit: Colin Massey
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Eryngium ‘Silver Ghost’, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017
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Primula florindae, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017
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White Astrantia, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017 photo credit: Colin Massey
Martagon lily Hidcote CM
Lilium martagon, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017 photo credit: Colin Massey
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Waterlily, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017
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Unknown rose, Hidcote Manor Garden, June 2017 photo credit: Colin Massey

I am not just carping.  It is a great and glorious garden, which deserves all of its acclaim and attention- and that creates a pressure to maintain standards.  Quite right.