A Victorian Garden Lives Again
Long-neglected Biddulph Grange is being restored to its mid-1800s, eccentric glory
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In fact, Davis says, as you walk round the whole garden ``you shouldn't be able to identify one area from another. And ... you shouldn't get much view of the house. You should lose your orientation a little bit, twisting and turning. You should partly get lost. That's part of the fun. A voyage of discovery.'' Various tunnels and narrow paths help to isolate the different parts.Skip to next paragraph
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``China,'' like the ``Egyptian Court,'' sports sculptural features. A delectable stone frog crouches atop a wall. And an ox or buffalo, now regilded to a terrible brightness, the sun held between its horns, seems about to leap out of its own small pavilion above our heads.
In the architectural features of Biddulph Grange, Bateman freely acknowledged the debt he owed to his friend and fellow-gardener, the painter Edward Cooke. This garden survives as a tribute to Mr. Cooke's fertile fantasies as much as to Bateman's. The sculpture was the work of Waterhouse Hawkins.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all about this garden is that for all its extravagant fun-and-games, it was really always a plantsman's garden, the garden of a ``passionate gardener,'' as Richard Offen, the Trust's fund-raiser for Biddulph, puts it. Mr. Offen points out that Bateman was no gentleman-gardener with pristine fingernails. ``He has been described as never seen without a plant or a trowel in his hands,'' Offen says.
So Bateman's plan in separating his garden into irregular compartments had a practical horticultural basis. He transformed a gently sloping site into a place of hills and dales, bastions against an awful climate. The earth excavated from the lake was used to make ``China's'' banks.
Bateman also liked to plant his trees on mounds and, as mentioned, greatly favored rock work. And he had a ``stumpery'' - a bank made of old tree stumps and roots upturned and planted over with ferns, ivies, vincas, and other trailing, ground-cover plants. He brought back native plants from the countryside.
His aim was a ``natural'' garden with his plants feeling at home, in spite of all the garden's artificial ingredients. He was clearly smitten with hollies and was a great enthusiast for all the conifers being introduced into Britain. He sponsored plant-collecting expeditions overseas. He frequently begged for a slip of this plant or that from his horticultural and botanical friends. ``China'' was specifically intended as a suitable environment for plants brought out of China.
Davis's aim, now, is to reintroduce as many of the plants recorded growing in Bateman's garden as possible. The garden has been written up in some detail on several occasions. One article was by Edward Kemp in 1856, so Davis has a long list of plants he is looking for that would take the garden as accurately as possible back to its state in 1856.
``They are not all that rare,'' Davis says, ``but many of them are not grown commercially anymore.''
Of course it is not entirely possible to take a garden back to its early state. Yew hedges can be (and have been) accurately replanted; a buried dahlia border excavated; and an orchard replanted, with cherries, cotoneasters, and clematis, and parterres re-created. All this has been scrupulously achieved, even if it will require some years to re-establish.
But many large trees have grown enormous, or have (like an avenue of Wellingtonias) disappeared altogether. Some areas are today far too shaded for plants even Bateman sometimes found wouldn't grow as he hoped. Davis is going to have to experiment with what-and-where. Also, Bateman had greenhouses at his father's estate nearby, which meant he could supply Biddulph with certain plants requiring heat in the early stages of their growth. At present, Davis doesn't have that facility.
Nevertheless, he can now start filling out the garden with more unusual ferns, with lilies, irises, hostas, and trilliums, reinvesting Biddulph with its past.
James Bateman's garden seems all set to live once more.