Reflections on water: Gwent Arts and Crafts study tour
5 to 6 September, 2009; a report by Caroline Bowdler
This study tour centred on the life and works of H. Avray Tipping (1855–1933), architectural historian and garden designer. From 1907 until his death he was Architectural Editor of Country Life; his articles on country houses and gardens were influential and widely admired. But our focus on Tipping did not preclude our enjoying Monmouthshire buildings and gardens of different periods where water was a recurring theme; water lost, water re-discovered, water formal and informal.
Water lost at Raglan Castle, embellished for show rather than defence, and slighted in the Civil War. The bed of a ‘great poole’, with the soggy remnants of a sophisticated 17th century water parterre at its head, lies in fields below massive Tudor terraces. A moat walk survives around the Great Tower, with semicircular brick niches originally decorated with shells and coloured plasterwork and containing long-vanished statues of Roman emperors. Although I had visited the castle earlier in the year, I saw twice as much with Liz Whittle to tell me what I was looking at, including a few surviving pieces of Tudor balustrade lying forlorn among a collection of stonework fragments.
At Clytha Park the gardens surrounding the later Greek Revival house were originally laid out by John Davenport in the early 18th century. They included a formal canal, re-shaped as a romantically informal early-19th-century lake, now surrounded by champion trees.
An elegant but impractical boat house of the same period, consisting of little more than a weathered corrugated iron roof on poles, would have done little to keep the cushions dry. At the far end of the lake we found Avray Tipping’s ‘secret garden’, now a sombre place of overgrown yews, once elegantly topiarised.
High Glanau was Tipping’s home in the 1920s; it seems dug into a steep west-facing hillside, with views towards the Black Mountains, and was built by Eric Francis of Chepstow. The gardens were designed by Tipping himself, with characteristic use of local stone for terraces, walling, steps and octagonal pool, with a woodland garden below.
We were impressed to learn that owners Helena and Hilary Gerrish had removed an incongruous swimming pool inserted by a predecessor in Tipping’s wide grass walk between two long herbaceous borders, now restored to give a harmonious vista from the house to the pergola adjoining the walled garden. In the early evening a small procession followed Hilary Gerrish down Tipping’s rough stone steps, through the undergrowth, to the bottom of the valley, where the stream powered a hydraulic ram, in place since the garden was built, lifting water to pools and fountain. We returned to the house for a delicious supper, where water was less in evidence.
Wyndcliffe Court, where Tipping was commissioned in 1922 to design the garden, has distant views across the Bristol Channel, now largely obscured by an overgrown shelterbelt. Here too are stone terraces, steps and a rectangular sunken garden overlooked by a two-storied summerhouse, with a formal pool at the centre. The gardens at Wyndcliffe are now being kept up, valiantly, by one gardener, while the house is being refurbished to await new tenants. A stone dolphin hangs dry-beaked over a Lutyens-esque semicircular pool on the lower terrace.
Water has been magnificently rediscovered in an elaborate series of Pulhamite grottos and subterranean passages commissioned by the eccentric Henry Oakley at Dewstow from about 1895. Reaching their most complex in the 1920s, they were subsequently covered over, in some areas with two feet of concrete, filled in and largely forgotten. Painstaking restoration and replanting has been undertaken below and above ground (the Garden is now listed Grade I by CADW) by the Harris family who bought Dewstow house in 2000.
No stream-fed hydraulic ram for them, sadly, in spite of its abundant pools and cascades the site relies on a pumped water supply. Liz swears there is more to discover under the lawns and farm buildings.
Our final visit in time and chronology was to a contemporary garden; the Veddw. Developed with sensitivity to the local landscape and history, this garden has a very different feel. Among its many unconventional features is a black-dyed reflecting pool which mirrors the wave-shaped hedges behind it, ‘reflecting’ the rounded hills of Gwent.