There’s been a lot of talk over here about the lack of a ‘barbecue summer’ optimistically tipped by our weather forecasters several weeks ago. ‘Staycationers’ (that horrible recession-inspired word) have been duped! Rainy beaches, cool countryside, wet London. But it hasn’t been all that bad as this post will reveal. And what’s rural England good for if not lush green landscapes, fine old country houses and gardens ablaze with colour? So here’s a quick tour.
Down on the Kent- Sussex borders (rightly dubbed our ‘garden of England’) stunning gardens surround dozens of venerable mansions and castles. These of course include big names like Sissinghurst and Bodiam Castle, but there are also lesser known and, happily, lesser visited places where you can wander in peace. One splendour, Scotney Castle, claims a double-whammy: an ultra-romantic, semi-ruined 14th century castle plus moat overlooked by a Victorian country house. Instead of descendants, the late dowager owner, who died in 2006, left a trail of cat memorabilia in her wake. Even her pink-tiled bathroom has a few framed feline sketches. Best of all though, her bedroom windows command sweeping views across lawns and copses down to the picture-perfect ruined castle and gardens.
It has that inimitable English wildness about it, though in fact the gardens were carefully laid out, and are deemed formal. One curiosity is the quarry garden – a stony hollow from where sandstone was dug out to build the ‘new’ house in 1778. Talk about local materials – it’s hard to beat THAT carbon mini-print – despite it claiming a giant dinosaur footprint. Even the sheep from the neighbouring farm sneak in to enjoy its bucolic charms.
Heading north of London into Warwickshire, a couple of places are worth searching out for completely different reasons. Compton Verney, a coldly elegant 18th century mansion designed by Robert Adam, stands in vast, undulating parkland full of towering cedars of Lebanon, the preferred tree of the original landscaper, the late great Capability Brown. The main interest though is the fabulous interior renovation that has produced several art galleries and a great caff – all state of the art. Get there before September 6 and you’ll catch a fascinating exhibition, Surrealism and Contemporary Art – paintings plus particularly brilliant video and photoworks. Outside, spanning one of the lakes, the original bridge is crowned by four sphinxes that were recently reinstated – and inspire a double-take.
Not so far away through farmlands and quaint villages is Upton House. Now here I found the interior a real turn-off. Gloomy and depressing, it is supposed to reflect a millionaire’s lifestyle of the 1920-30s. OK, there’s a squash court and a swimming pool outside, plus an impressive collection of paintings (Hogarth, Stubbs, Canaletto, Brueghel and El Greco). But what is extraordinary here is the vegetable garden cultivated beside prolific gardens on a steep slope leading down to a lake. And ALL of this completely invisible from the house! Bizarre design to say the least. But once you reach this secret Eden, it is absolutely glorious. And when I later discovered that the vegetable garden once fed the entire household, my day was made. Here you see it from the other side of the lake.
Finally, back in London, a garden with a twist has materialised in the forecourt of the British Museum. This is an addendum to the exhibition Garden & Cosmos (extraordinary, large-scale ‘miniature’ paintings from Jodhpur – with some incredibly metaphysical and/ or conceptual content). Thus you find, in the centre of the British capital, banana-palms, coconut-palms, bamboo and a host of other sub-tropical vegetation. Who said English roses?