COLUMN: Civic Society

The Druid's Temple near Swinton
The Druid's Temple near Swinton

Society chairman David Winpenny takes a look at how gardens have developed over the centuries:

‘God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man; without which, buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks; and a man shall ever see, that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection.’

Francis Bacon’s essay On Gardens very properly starts with the Garden of Eden, that symbol of perfection in the Book of Genesis. Adam and Eve may have forfeited paradise by their disobedience, but, as Bacon suggests, humanity has even since striven to regain that “greater perfection” by making gardens.

Because of Ripon’s location at the heart of North Yorkshire, and because North Yorkshire contains so many historically-important gardens, we are ideally placed to see how gardening developed down the centuries – and to see when, if ever, they reached paradisiacal perfection. This week, we start as early as we can and take a quick canter through gardening history as far as the Romantics; next week, we’ll bring the story up to date.

In the UK, gardening for pleasure, as supposed to use, is relatively modern. Those Mesopotamians of early history may have had their hanging gardens; we, it seems, used our gardens, if they existed at all, as a distinction from subsistence agriculture, to supplement our food with vegetables and herbs. No doubt, though, the gardeners even then gained pleasure from the act of growing.

Perhaps the earliest gardens we can recognise near at hand are those connected to the many monasteries around the area. No monastic gardens survive, of course, but we can get a good idea of how they were on at least one site, Mount Grace Priory. Here the monks had their own isolated cells with their own gardens, one of which has been recreated. They grew mostly herbs for medicine and for flavouring – though, it seems, there was some artistry in the arrangement of the gardens.

Other early gardens have vanished – we know that Tudor gardens were full of symbolism and statuary, and there are recreations of them in other parts of the country. No doubt places like Fountains Hall and Markenfield Hall had their own versions at some point in their history. And the use of topiary in these gardens was also said to be extensive; there are some reminders of this at Fountains Hall, while at Newburgh Priory there are plenty of yew trees – probably much later in date, but giving a flavour of the Tudor garden.

By the time we get into the later 17th century, we are on firmer ground. On the continent there was a great elaboration of gardens – places like Vaux-le-Viscomte in France and Het Loo in Holland showed how you could manipulate nature into such formality that it almost lost contact with its origins. We have no such gardens in North Yorkshire – though the county has links with one, at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire through the Earls de Grey. We have a remarkable survivor nearby at Bramham Park, just into West Yorkshire, which remarkably retains its French-style straight allées, lined with beech hedges.

The great formality of the Wrest Park and Bramham gardens has a more English expression at Studley Royal. John Aislabie’s great garden relies less on intricately-cut beds and formal planting than on geometrically-shaped pools and carefully-angled grassed slopes, dotted with classical temples and sculpture.

At Duncombe Park near Helmsley a long grassy terrace was placed to admire the view – and was soon matched with another at Rievaulx that provided a view down to the abbey ruins – a romantic idea that was soon to be followed at Studley when Fountains Abbey was added to the Studley Royal Garden.The other great late-17th to early-18th century landscape in North Yorkshire is, of course, at Castle Howard. Here, working on a grand scale, Vanbrugh and his colleagues, who included both the architect Hawksmoor and the landscape designer George London, created a carefully-controlled vista of water, trees, rides and temples.

It was about this time that people started considering nature not as something to be feared or, at best, ignored, but as something to be admired. So at the edge of Ray Wood at Castle Howard, Vanbrugh provided great retaining walls, backed by ditches, which appeared to give an uninterrupted view of a wide landscape. This was one of the forerunners of the ha-ha, so often found in country house gardens. At Duncombe Park, too, there are similar – in fact even more impressive – retaining walls.

And having, as Horace Walpole said about William Kent, “leap’t the fence” to see “all nature was a garden”, we begin to move properly into the Romantic garden – or the “Sublime”, as contemporaries might have termed it, intended to work upon our feelings both of admiration and of horror.

At Hackfall, John Aislabie’s son William began the antithesis of his father’s nicely-groomed Studley landscape. Here we have what Addison called “gloomy horrors overspread” – a deep gorge, thick woodland, tumbling water, great rocks – all interspersed with temples, mostly not in the classical mode but in Gothic, to send pleasant shivers down the spine.

And not too far away, though slightly later, William Danby at Swinton Castle was also using nature for the same purpose, both in the landscape immediately round the castle, with its informal lake and a deep valley walk leading past rocks and great trees, but also in the piling of natural-looking rocks into structures – none more impressive than the Druid’s Temple.

How did gardening escape from this self-imposed gloom and horror – which is nonetheless a delight to the eye? That will be the subject of next week’s column.