Fruits of aeons of cultivation

A Little History of British Gardening
July 16, 2004

Timothy Walker delights in the hardy perennials among the tale of Britain's plots.

Gardens are ephemeral. Even the oldest of our gardens will quickly return to wilderness if the gardeners fail to turn up for work. Yet these same gardens have an organic identity and fame that is greater than that of anyone who works in them. Gardening is a symbiosis between plants and people; at its simplest, a garden is the bit between us and nature. The back gardens and allotments of British gardeners have shaped our landscape in a far more profound and extensive way than is realised. William Kent, Capability Brown and Humphry Repton may have entered the national consciousness as the architects of the landscape, but they are just the tip of a very big iceberg consisting mostly of landscape sculptors working, like Jane Austen, on small pieces of material but creating masterpieces.

Jenny Uglow's book is an important contribution to the literature documenting the rise of British gardening. It shows beyond doubt that the people are more important than the plants in the history of gardening.

Gardening has to be considered within its socioeconomic context, and Uglow supports her arguments with carefully selected evidence and wonderful quotations. Many of us will agree with Vita Sackville-West's refusal to allow rhododendrons at Sissinghurst, likening them to "fat stockbrokers, whom we do not want to have to dinner".

The modest title could mislead you into thinking that A Little History of British Gardening is neither scholarly nor thorough. Obviously no one could catalogue every fact about two millennia of British gardening in 342 pages. This is not a reference book in the traditional sense. But the comprehensive index and lists of notes, further reading and gardens will have you referring to this work time and again because it makes you want to visit gardens and see the evidence for yourself.

It is a mark of the quality of the writing that Uglow inspires this desire to travel without resorting to dreamy pictures normally taken at times of the day when the garden in question is not open to general visitors. There are many black-and-white illustrations in the text and some very carefully chosen colour plates, which add to the text rather than distract the reader.

A recurring theme in the book, and in the history of British gardening, is the conflict between growing plants for pure pleasure and cultivating for the pot. The conflict is not a violent one, and the balance between the two has normally been governed by the financial circumstances of the gardener or garden owner. Vegetables were often grown around dwellings to provide a supply that would not be interrupted by the frequent wars and incursions from continental Europeans. The same was true of the medicinal herbs that were especially important during times of strife, when plants were valued "more for use than beauty".

The plans of 9th-century monasteries reveal a pragmatic approach to gardening: the physic garden was sited next to the doctor's house, and the fruit trees were planted among the gravestones in the cemetery.

Other 9th-century garden plans described in the book show raised beds nearly 1,000 years before they were promoted by Repton in 1816 as a way of enjoying your garden from a bath-chair. In the 20th century, they enjoyed another reinvention by allotment holders. This is just one example of a recurring theme in the history of British gardening - that gardening is full of recurring themes: 21st-century gardening is just a rehash of everything that has gone before.

Hidcote Manor may have been the first property to be acquired by the National Trust on the quality of its garden alone, but Hidcote is startlingly similar to Pliny the Younger's garden rooms created nearly two millennia earlier. It is possible that Hidcote is a reworking of the first "pleasure gardens". The term was coined around 1260 by the Dominican Albertus Magnus, and 50 years after that people were being urged to create palaces in their gardens with rooms. It is possible that the social upheaval and human thinning-out that resulted from the Black Death may have had a profound effect on ornamental gardening. Only a dramatic reduction in population could have precipitated the evolution of larger plots around dwellings, which led to the development of cottage gardening. Only a historian such as Uglow would possess the breadth of knowledge necessary to make connections such as this.

People create gardens, but sometimes the reverse appears to be true; it should not be forgotten that Stourhead was created by a banker. Throughout history, people have retreated to their gardens to evade society when it has rejected them or to avoid society at times of personal grief - yet another recurring theme. The promotion of horticulture as therapy is not new. In the middle of the 19th century, gardening was considered to be "a cure for depression, political agitation, drunkenness and ambition, keeping men off the streets and out of the pubs".

Uglow states that "the driest of lists bring a vanished world to life". Her book brings the past back to life, but it is never dry. It is a real page-turner. It transports the reader through history and across the British landscape with such skill that one either instantly recognises the familiar parts or is filled with intense curiosity to explore the unfamiliar. During this journey, the reader is constantly stimulated to consider his own thoughts and theories on garden design. Gardening, we are told, "has always been a balance between poetry and practicalities", with "surprise and delight" being the charm of a good garden.

There have been many gardening books since The Feate of Gardening by Master Jon Gardyner was published around 1440. Many gardening books published today are simply good examples of recycling. This beautifully balanced "little history" places English gardening at the beginning of the 21st century into its historical context. It must be read by anyone interested in their garden and gardening because not only will they learn a great deal about gardening, they will also learn a great deal about the history of Britain along the way and be inspired to seek out more for themselves.

Timothy Walker is director, Oxford University Botanic Garden.

A Little History of British Gardening

Author - Jenny Uglow
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 342
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 7011 6928 1

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