Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Almost Wordless Wednesday - on top of the world in beautiful Bhutan

Posts recently have been brief and consisted of pictures because I've been travelling in India and Bhutan for the last few weeks. First to Assam in the northeastern corner of India and then from east to west across Bhutan, where you get regular views of the mighty Himalayan mountain range as you negotiate steep, unpaved mountain passes. Sadly, there are few gardens to visit in England at this time of year, but if you want to see what's on offer for 2015, head to the side bar at the right and click on Garden Visits - UK & Europe. 
Assam, in India, is astounding and so is Bhutan. The people are gentle and smiling; the landscapes magnificent; there is also abundant wildlife - tigers, mighty rhinos and elephants in Assam - whilst rare birds abound in both. But travel is tough and the terrain of Bhutan means that a short distance as the crow flies can take many hours by road as you hug the mountain side to traverse from one range to another on single-track roads that feature terrifying drops to the valley below.
Most major centres have a zhong - a municipal building that houses both government offices and a monastery. The architecture is amazing and one of the finest examples is to be found at Punnakha (above). en route to the capital city of Thimphu, in the west of Bhutan. This one perches on the edge of a fast-flowing river, with views to the mountains beyond.
Festivals are a major entertainment feature in Bhutan, with magnificent costumes, masks, dancing and music (above); the national sport is archery; and this is the one country in the world that boasts a National Happiness Index. The people are charming, gentle and kind - always ready to help - and extremely welcoming to foreigners. 
I will be reviewing more gardens visited this year in January and February 2015, to give readers a taste of what's on offer for next year.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Almost silent Saturday - on the road in astounding Assam, India

Visitors have the opportunity to take elephant rides in Kaziranga National Park
Close up of an Indian one-horned rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park, Assam
An elephant ride gives the perfect opportunity to photograph the rhinoceros, whilst staying safe
Mother and baby elephant in Kaziranga National Park, Assam
Early morning fishing in Kaziranga National Park, Assam
Sunset at Kaziranga - a bird watcher's paradise
This week, I've been lucky enough to be travelling in northeastern India, in Assam - home to the magnificent Kaziranga National Park, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and home to the Indian one-horned rhinoceros (pictured above). This magnificent park is located on the banks of the Brahmaputra river and covers 166 square miles and the one-horned rhinoceros is flourishing here, along with elephants, tigers, wild buffalo and hundreds of bird species. Assam is also famous for its tea plantations, which I'll write about soon.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Great British landscapes - Stourhead in Wiltshire

The Palladian bridge at Stourhead, with the Pantheon in the background
On arrival at Stourhead, you would be forgiven for thinking that this magnificent landscape garden was created by one of the two men who changed the face of landscape design in Britain in the 18th century – William Kent or ‘Capability’ Brown – but it was actually created by a man who belonged to a banking empire, Henry Hoare, with the help of his architect, Henry Flitcroft. And whilst the latter Henry was a colleague of William Kent, he was by no means an established landscape garden designer when work began on the gardens here.
The lake at Stourhead, created by Henry Hoare and Henry Flitcroft in the mid-18th century
The 18th century saw sweeping changes in garden design when William Kent introduced the new concept of landscapes into the imposing English country house vernacular. And although he was more an architect than a gardener, word soon spread about his grand designs at Stowe, Chiswick House and Rousham. Prior to this parterres, hedging and flowers had been fashionable and no English designer had thought to complement the landscape with classical buildings and statuary.
The Temple of Apollo sits high above the lake at Stourhead and offers spectacular views over the water
Architectural detail on the Temple of Apollo

Henry Hoare (who is often referred to a Henry 'the magnificent') had travelled extensively in Europe before settling at the Palladian house, designed by Colen Campbell and built for his father in about 1720. He was well acquainted with both foreign architecture and many of the great European landscape painters. On his return to England, his intention was to create a formidable panorama in the grounds of the country house he had inherited and when work began in the mid 18th century he set about creating the huge lake that forms the centrepiece of the grounds at Stourhead today.
    The lake was created by damming the River Stour and whilst work continued on the buildings in the garden, which include the pillared Temple of Flora (1744), the Temple of Apollo and The Pantheon, Henry was also busy planting the trees that make this landscape so spectacular and creating the pathways that wind through both the wooded areas and alongside the water.
     It was his grandson, Richard Colt Hoare, who introduced many new plant species to the estate in the first half of the 19th century. His legacy includes tulip trees, Indian bean trees and swamp cypresses, as well as copper beaches and many of the rhododendrons that provide spectacular spring colour in the garden. Subsequent generations of the Hoare family added to the planting during their time at the property and when Sir Henry Hoare eventually gave the estate to the National Trust in 1946, the garden, which was already recognised as one of the finest landscapes in Britain, was well established and renowned for its specimen trees.
The Pantheon seen from the woods below the main house
Stourhead is not a garden to gallop around. It's a landscape to be savoured and is particularly lovely in the autumn, when the leaves are turning and also in wintertime when you can really see the structure of the landscape through the bare trees. It attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually and, to enjoy the garden at its best, you are well advised to visit as early in the day as possible to avoid the crowds, particularly when the leaves are changing colour. 
Part of Stourhead's charm is the magnificent views across the man-made lake
One of the best routes around the garden is from the top path by the main house, which allows you to catch memorable glimpses of the Temple of Apollo and The Pantheon and panoramic views of the lake below as you walk down through the trees. Do make the effort to climb up to the Temple of Apollo, for more magical glances of this Arcadian landscape created by the two Henry's - owner and architect - nearly 300 years ago. Allow at least half a day to see everything, to savour the buildings and to enjoy the statues and finer architectural details. 
The Palladian Bridge glimpsed from the grotto
The gardens at Stourhead are open daily throughout the year (except Christmas Day) 9.00-17.00. Entrance is free to National Trust members. Check website for house opening times and prices. Another memorable garden nearby is Chiffchaffs - a cottage garden on a very different scale and only open during the summer months.

Friday, 24 October 2014

National Trust snubs Sir Roy Strong and turns down his garden. Will The Laskett be lost to the nation forever?

The Laskett is the largest formal garden to be created in England since the end of World War II
The gardening world is so often considered to be gentle and unassuming. We all watch wonderfully crafted television programmes where presenters walk us through other people’s horticultural havens; we listen to Gardeners’ Question Time on the radio and we gloat over gardening magazines that highlight the best possible views of horticultural heavens encapsulated in colourful photographs.

Sir Roy Strong at home at The Laskett in 2014
So when Sir Roy Strong announced that he intended to “destroy” his garden – The Laskett – created during a rewarding and enduring 30-year marriage to his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, both press and public reacted with a sense of shock. The news broke in early October with several national newspapers telling readers that the National Trust had turned down Sir Roy’s invitation to leave his garden to them for the nation to enjoy, because it failed to meet "strict acquisition criteria". 

The gardens at The Laskett in Herefordshire are the largest private formal gardens to be created in England since the end of World War II. Sir Roy had planned to leave the property to the National Trust with a substantial endowment (and to avoid confusion for my overseas readers, it needs to be explained that most properties acquired by this well-known British institution are left on this basis, so that it is not just the property that passes to the nation under their stewardship, but also sufficient funds to make sure that it is self-supporting until the entrance fees make it a viable business proposition).
The Laskett is a series of garden rooms with strong emphasis on topiary
But the National Trust turned his offer down. And, Sir Roy, who is no stranger to the public eye, having been the youngest ever director of the National Portrait Gallery at 32 and who then moved on to redefine the Victoria and Albert Museum as an must-see London venue, rather than a red-brick building housing an extensive collection of artifacts, responded by announcing that his four-acre garden would be “destroyed” one year after his death.  
The Laskett is a series of vistas that draw you in
With just one year to go before he becomes an octogenarian, Sir Roy is well able to make his own decisions and on hearing that his garden had failed to reach the required standards of “historic and national importance” required by the National Trust, he responded by saying he would extinguish many of the notable garden features that he and his wife had created during their marriage at their Herefordshire home.
The garden created by Roy and his wife Julia was once a four-acre field
Just before the Sunday Times broke the story, Sir Roy was interviewed on the popular radio programme Desert Island Disks, where host Kirsty Young was able to pick up on some of the feistier aspects of a remarkable man and self-confessed monarchist who has variously “stormed the establishment” and spent the whole of his life “fleeing his family” and humble origins. His determination to succeed guided him into the spotlight throughout his career, and in 1983 he was knighted. Today he is a household name and respected historian, as well as a committed gardener.
Sir Roy's home at the heart of The Laskett in Herefordshire. It is not open to the public.
The Laskett is a garden that rarely opened to the public until Sir Roy felt strong enough to face the world alone as a widower. There are many poignant memories of Julia in the sylvan landscape, including an urn that houses her ashes. But it has rarely been accessible to the general public and when Julia died in 2003, the garden was only on show to the privileged few lucky enough to join private tours.  Then Strong decided to live up to his surname and re-invented both himself and his garden, opening his doors couple of years back to groups of visitors.
Sir Roy has threatened to "destroy" The Laskett, which he created with his late wife Julia over 30 years
I have visited The Laskett several times and have always enjoyed my forays into the garden. It’s a wonderful eclectic mix of garden rooms interwoven with statuary and artifacts acquired by Roy and Julia during their three decades of marriage. It certainly has its critics, but also its fans including Prince Charles who asked him to become involved with the topiary at Highgrove, where he not only helped to design and style the hedges, but also spent several years cutting and shaping them.
Strong is no stranger to topiary - he helped Prince Charles with the hedging at Highgrove
Stephen Lacey describes The Laskett as “one of the most important and interesting gardens of the 20th century”. Most garden enthusiasts have heard of the garden and many would welcome the chance to see it, so it is a great disappointment that the nation will not now have the opportunity to enjoy a slice of history created by a venerable historian who is also a household name in Britain.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wordless Wednesday - Autumn colours at RHS Wisley

We've been blessed with so many sunny days recently in between the rainstorms and Britain's gardens are overflowing with autumn colours. Family illness has severely curtailed my galloping this year, but RHS Wisley is looking magnificent at the moment and has the added benefit of being extremely wheelchair friendly. I went with a dear friend earlier this week and we had a delightful day there, made entirely possible by borrowing a wheelchair at the entrance gate.
And to see glorious autumn colours at Westonbirt, pop over to Veg Plotting and feast your eyes on Michelle's pictures.