Historic Gardens of Worcestershire

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Timothy Mowl, Historic Gardens of Worcestershire (Stroud: Tempus, 2006), 192 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £17.99 (pbk). ISBN 0752436546

This, the latest volume of Tim Mowl’s witty and observant trawl through the English counties (Gloucestershire, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Cornwall have been the recipients of his earlier attentions) in search of historic gardens, deals with one of the most agreeable, in which the ‘loutish and uncouth’ heads by Elizabeth Frink (surely some of the nastiest objects ever to have invaded an English garden) are mercifully absent. Worcestershire, despite modern urban encroachments, is a county of great charm, with varied scenery and generous amounts of water everywhere, not least in its ponds, moats (of which it can boast many, variously estimated as 111 and 146), and the rivers Teme, Avon, and Severn (all three given to flood from time to time). Like Herefordshire and Shropshire, Worcestershire is mostly a gentle, rural county, delightful and full of enchanting things, such as those moated houses that seem to nestle in a landscape civilised by our long-dead ancestors, who knew a thing or two about beauty denied to the deadened sensibilities of the modern prosaic age.

Among the gardens, several are of exceptional importance from the historical point of view: among them are the remains of William Shenstone’s Virgilian groves at The Leasowes; the ‘cruelly divided’ (by the A456) Hagley, nevertheless embellished with Sanderson Miller’s Sham Castle and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart’s Greek Doric Temple; the extraordinary and varied gardens at hauntingly evocative Madresfield; the important park at Croome Court (with buildings by Lancelot Brown, Robert Adam, James Wyatt, and others); and the grand compositions at Witley Court. Mowl’s deep knowledge of English history serves him well, and he does not shrink from sharing his insights with us, his readers. He is a cornucopia of historical anecdotes, and has a keen eye for the quirky, which he describes with a rich vocabulary he is unafraid to air. He shows us the ‘bristling gables, gatehouse’ and ‘sentinel towers of Westwood Park, once set’ with a hunting-park ‘of starburst avenues and woods’, now sadly ‘stranded in a landscape of wheat’, albeit in a photograph in which the verticals are not parallel (a frequent problem with Mowl’s pictures, suggesting that he should invest in a camera that will get over these difficulties, for such images should be rejected for any published work).

Mowl is undoubtedly correct to emphasize the literary aspects of Shenstone’s garden at The Leasowes, and the rôle of the publisher Robert Dodsley in publicizing it through his friend’s poetry, although it is perhaps somewhat startling to find Shenstone described, in typically Mowlian terms, as ‘shamelessly camp, a Boy George of the gardening world’. But it is not all Georgian gaiety, for we are treated to Loudonesque gardens, Victorian gardens, and modern gardens too (such as Stone House Cottage Garden and Nursery, created by James and Louisa Arbuthnott, which Mowl holds is ‘far and away the most poetic and important folly garden of the twentieth century, and few eighteenth-century folly gardens can equal its tightly integrated charm’). Mowl’s enthusiasm is not misplaced, for this ‘modest Carolean Camelot’ near the benighted Kidderminster (‘an actively unlikeable town’, as Mowl accurately describes it), the work, ‘almost single-handedly, of James Arbuthnott, England’s unsung folly king’, contains several towers, all buildings of pleasure, apart from the Waterloo Tower, which, as its name suggests, contains lavatories for visitors.

In Mowl, England’s gardens have a perceptive cicerone who revels in allusions, and jokes of all kinds, and whose insatiable curiosity probes literature, history, art, and the rich story of our gardens, perhaps the one branch of art in which we have truly excelled (apart from Perpendicular Gothic architecture, a miraculous English invention unknown anywhere else). His insights, asides, and commentaries are enlightening, thought provoking, and often amusing: it is hoped he will continue his series, though armed in future with a better camera. In his explorations he does things very well, and this admirable series is warmly welcomed.

James Stevens Curl

34:1 (Summer 2006)

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