Keele Conference 2011
report by Dominic Cole and Charles Boot
Continuing the tradition of holding these events regionally, to reach as many members as possible, we were at the University of Keele in Staffordshire, described by our guest speaker Dr Nigel Tringham (of the History department at Keele) as the ‘lost county’. Some 80 members attended. Our visits to two major gardens near Stoke on Trent, Biddulph Grange and Trentham proved that the county is very much still on the map! Two past Chairmen resident in the county further proved that Garden History is thriving here.
At Biddulph Grange, our extra visit, Peter Hayden shed light on this remarkable garden and its restoration, and is looking forward to a reprint of his book, Biddulph Grange, Stafford: Victorian Garden Rediscovered (1988), to coincide with the National Trust refurbishment of Bateman’s unique Geological Gallery. Keith Goodway hosted us at Keele and gave a fascinating account of the early history of the house, its residents and its garden and landscape setting, as well as of the transformation of the former army barracks and Keele Hall into a vibrant University campus; Keith has been involved at Keele for many years and was pleased to see some of his former students enjoying the weekend.
We were especially pleased to initiate the first GHS Graduate Symposium on the morning of the AGM. The idea was proposed by former Chairman, Colin Treen and built on by Tim Richardson and Patrick Eyres. The aim is for new unpublished students of Garden History to showcase their studies and establish a public footing in the discipline. We enjoyed the lucid and erudite offerings, from five new scholars. Oliver Cox on Jeremiah Dixon, Alfred the Great, and the merchant fathers of Leeds provided a valuable lesson in showing how one Leeds resident’s aim was to remind the Lascelles at Harwood that political decisions had consequences; alas his architectural and landscape reaction is now just a street name in a Leeds suburb. Sarah Hundleby on The Development of Bramham Park raised questions of the attribution of the famous park’s designers, suggesting the key role for London, wasn’t in fact the famous designer, but instead a local mason. Sarah Law on The Rufford Abbey Estate provided an engaging account of how one enterprising landowner built up a remarkable garden under the eye of his much wealthier and better landed neighbour. Elaine Mitchell on ‘A fine crop of peaches, and several hundred geraniums’ traced the story of how two business partners created a large and thriving business on the banks of Birmingham’s canal system which survives as a trace in a business still extant. Gabriele Mulè on The Extended Garden: following Walter Swinburne, ‘Grand Tour’ traveler, demonstrated a delightful journey in the footfalls of this now obscure traveler, brilliantly elucidating his view of a journey through the Sicilian landscape as a garden; perhaps made more poignant as Gabriele himself was combining the Symposium with his honeymoon. Most members attending the weekend were able to attend the Symposium and found it very stimulating; a very exciting way of encouraging younger people to engage with the Society, and it will be rerun next year.
Having been involved with the reawakening of the gardens at Trentham our chairman, Dominic Cole, was able to describe the huge amount of work that has gone into re-opening this garden as a popular local and national attraction. Long ago memories of the Beatles performances in the conference centre and waterskiing on Brown’s lake are now complemented by the magnificent new plantings by Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart Smith. He was also able to explain how in a scheme on this scale it is possible to accommodate the enormous new car park, shopping village and garden centre without detracting from the overall ambience of a great garden.
On Sunday we visited two very different gardens, both still in private hands. At Adlington Hall in Cheshire, after a brief tour of the house that set the context of the visit, we were impressed to discover ‘The Wilderness’, which deserves to be far better known. Currently undergoing a very gentle rediscovery with vistas and garden buildings being opened out and uncovered for our visit it made an impression on all who visited it. We await the return of Father Tiber to his Cascade, albeit in replica form.
The final visit was to Henbury Hall, which is itself about to undergo a transformation under the guidance of its new chatelaine, the owner’s third wife. Julian Bicknell’s new villa Rotunda sits at the head of a system of ancient radiating avenues, with relatively modern pleasure gardens laid out in a hidden valley below the East front, though an older walled garden suggest there has been a garden here for some time. Somewhat surprisingly this old landscape has no Register listing at present, surely an oversight. Perhaps it is Cheshire that is the lost county?