A Victorian Garden Lives Again

Long-neglected Biddulph Grange is being restored to its mid-1800s, eccentric glory

`DO you think the man had a sense of humor?'' ``He must have,'' head gardener Nigel Davis answers instantly. He adds, ``He was very forward-looking, I think.''

The man in question was a Victorian industrialist named James Bateman. More exactly, it was his father who was the industrialist and James's real interest (with plenty of money to foster it) was plants and gardening. Orchids were his special love. He wrote a luxuriant - and physically enormous - book about them. Today, however, Mr. Bateman's name is about to achieve a fresh prominence, nearly a century after his death, as the maker, from the 1840s to the late 1860s, of a quite extraordinary, entertaining, and certainly humorous garden called Biddulph Grange.

Through most of the 20th century, this 15-acre garden in the Staffordshire potteries and mining district has lain largely forgotten, the victim of changed circumstances, but also of changed taste. The house that stands where Bateman's did (his neo-classical house was extensively destroyed by fire) has served as a hospital since 1920; Biddulph Grange was just one of many large private houses and gardens in Britain that became financially untenable after World War I.

But Bateman's taste, with its strong ingredients of fantasy, its Victorian love of gloom and mystery, and its wit, may well have been dismissed by 20th-century taste in the same way that Victorian gothic and classical architecture have been.

Today people are far more appreciative of Victorian eclecticism, Victorian style, even Victorian clutter. Once again - and just in time - a place like Biddulph Grange can be fully appreciated.

Amazingly, this garden has been looked after sufficiently well in the interim for restoration to be still possible - though by 1988, when Britain's conservationist organization, the National Trust, took it on, vandalism and decay had begun to make terrible inroads. It is by far the most ambitious garden restoration the Trust has ever attempted, and contrary to its usual policies this property did not come with any financial endowment for its future. Money-raising is still very much afoot.

Nigel Davis is the gardener entrusted by the Trust with the rescue and return of the garden to something like its original glory - and eccentricity.

``It hasn't been a garden for two years,'' Davis points out, ``it's been a building site. From now on we've got to educate ourselves again into being gardeners - into being neat and tidy.'' The garden opens to the public May 1. But for Davis and his team this hardly constitutes ``a cutoff date. We just carry on,'' he says.

It's true that ``building'' is a big part of this garden, and restoration to date has been much concerned with its structures, which provide some of the garden's strangest features. There is the Cheshire Cottage, for instance, a little folly whose timbered fa,cade suggests an amusingly cozy retreat for Bateman and his gardening-enthusiast wife, Maria: Their initials are part of the timberwork.

But once inside you are immediately on your way to ... Egypt! To your right, in a grim niche, squats a grotesque stone figure. It is the Ape of Thoth lit weirdly from above by daylight filtered through red glass. This gruesome character was thought by the Egyptians to have invented botany. The pleasantly surprised visitor then proceeds under a pyramid of yew, emerging into an ``Egyptian Court'' complete with sphinxes. The clipped yew hedging, once immaculate, is now out of hand and presents Davis with one of his longer-term problems. Also, this section of the garden at present is open and visible in a way it was never intended to be: New surrounding hedges have been planted, which will eventually make it once more secluded.

The entire garden is imaginatively divided into areas that are not only separated from one another, but astonishingly different in character. This is not, in the main, a garden of vistas. It is a garden of secrets and surprises.

``China'' is the most secretive and surprising place of all. This garden is an Anglo-Chinese fantasy with a stone ``Wall of China'' and ``Watchtower,'' wooden Willow-Pattern Bridge, ``Joss House,'' and ``Pavilion'' now all restored and painted in startling, if not positively jarring, colors. Steeply banked, ``China'' has a shadowy pool at its center. Davis says, ``China is a secret. China has to be discovered. You can walk round the garden without getting into China. At present, though, you can see glimpses of it, which you shouldn't be able to see.''

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.

``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.

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