Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Bowood, again (and again)





On Sunday I fled from London and book proofs to visit one of the most glorious gardens in England, just in time to see its famous rhododendrons in full flower. Bowood is a magical place, where history seems alive within its walls, and the gardens have been tended over centuries. The 18th century house is full of extraordinary treasures: from Napoleon's death mask to Byron's Albanian robes; from a spray of orange blossom in Queen Victoria's wedding bouquet to the records of Dr Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen gas while working in his laboratory at Bowood in 1774. There are angels and centaurs, lions and stags, and an elephant in an Orangery. It's the kind of house that I imagined as a child, reading C.S Lewis's Narnia stories; rather as he described in the opening pages of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe': 'the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of... full of unexpected places... and then a whole series of rooms that led into each other... lined with books -- most of them very old books and some bigger than a Bible in a church.'
I didn't take myself off to sit in a wardrobe in an empty bedroom, although I might have been tempted to do so several decades ago; but I did wander through a glade of rhododendrons, some of which were first planted over 150 years ago, having been brought back to Bowood by intrepid Victorian plant collectors, who discovered them in the Himalayas. Amidst these exotic specimens are equally luscious azaleas and magnolias; and then there are the wisterias, waterfalls of lilac and white flowers, cascading down walls and over pergolas, forming doorways to yet more garden landscapes, like the 17th century Dutch paintings that seem to miraculously reveal rooms beyond rooms beyond rooms.
The flowering season of the rhododendrons is brief -- just a few more weeks, perhaps, through the high summer days of June -- so if you happen to be in Wiltshire, or thereabouts, I do hope you find yourself in this English Arcadia, discovering more of its famous glories, hidden corners and secret hideaways, where time seems to stand still, even as the blossom blazes and fades.

14 comments:

Stephen Pope said...

'There are angels and centaurs, lions and stags, and an elephant in an Orangery.'

That's such a beautiful line. You could certainly imagine that lot ganging up against Tilda Swinton or the White Witch.

Serenknitity said...

Fab pics.

The rhododendrons at Kenwood look pretty good right now, too, especially today against the heavy grey sky.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for kind words and encouragement. Good idea about Kenwood -- it's just down the road from me -- and I can imagine the crimson flowers against dark sky. At least today's rain will water the budding roses in my garden.

Justine Picardie said...

Meanwhile, the blog is still misbehaving. Perhaps I have angered the gods at Google.

kairu said...

I only wish I could hide away in an English Arcadia, but alas I will have to console myself with your pictures, Justine, and your words which bring them as clearly to mind as photographs do to my eyes.

The idea of the grand English house set in gardens where nature and order are beautiful adversaries has stayed with me since The Secret Garden, where Mary Lennox spends hours exploring the 100 or so rooms of Mistlethwaite Manor when the weather is foul and bringing her garden back to life when the weather is fair.

I have bouquets of peonies and ranunculus and ladies' mantle in my apartment now; maybe this weekend I will beg some friend with a garden to give me a few branches of rhododendrons, to bring the garden inside.

Stephen Pope said...

Kairu wrote: '...maybe this weekend I will beg some friend with a garden to give me a few branches of rhododendrons, to bring the garden inside.'

The university grounds in Seattle have them - maybe you could, er, borrow a sprig of giant-leaved Rhododendron sinogrande and pop it in a vase! The foliage of this exotically pumped-up species looks so architectural irrespective of whether you're in time for the flowering season, which is brief unfortunately (and earlier along Kairu's PNW than here in the UK).

Meanwhile back at Bowood: there are two tucked-away quarry hollows where contemporary planthunter Roy Lancaster has been experimenting with the latest big-leaved Rhododendron discoveries from the Chinese side of the Himalayas. Some of these varieties now have metre-long leaves - far larger than anything you'd normally come across in a normal garden Rhodo planting.

Daphne DM's grounds at Menabilly, another one of Justine's special places, used to have a reputation for its early adoption of the cutting-edge Victorian Rhododendron discoveries, brought back from the Himalayas - don't know what state those old plants are in now, but the originals could easily still be there. Such music and history involved in why plants come to be where they are...

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for the reminder of The Secret Garden -- one of my favourite children's books -- and a perfect story to read in the walled garden at Bowood. And thanks, too, for the reference to Menabilly, which does indeed have giant rhododendrons in the woods; huge plants, like those described in the opening pages of Rebecca...

Hannah Stoneham said...

Sounds and looks fabulous. If you like escaping to gardens - have you come across the national garden society open gardens scheme? It operates all over England (if not Britain!) and certainly in the counties surrounding London. My parent's in law love it - all sorts of very interesting and various gardens that you did not know were there open each Sunday....

thanks for the fantastic pictures. It is currently tipping it down with rain in Paris so it is most inspiring.

hannah

jaywalker said...

Just went to your link on Bowood and another 'six degrees of separation' popped up - your mention of the Victoria memorabilia. I've just finished reading Kate Williams' "Becoming Queen" which details the wedding and the orange blossom sprig.It's a brilliant biography, giving quite a different slant on the Victoria/Albert relationship from the usual one. We leave for the UK on the 26th but don't think we could manage to get to Bowood this time which is a pity. I will put it on my list for another time.

Stephen Pope said...

Justine's Narnia framing device has got me wondering. How much of Bowood's evocative magic is actually down to the acretion of history and association, and how much to its garden designer, Capability Brown? The heritage industry won't have a word said against him, but Russell Page - arguably our most interesting 20th century landscape designer - famously described Capability Brown as 'encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless pools and lakes'.

Jaywalker touched on the connectedness of everything: designer Russell Page's own best loved garden, the incredible La Mortella, is on Ischia, in the Bay of Naples [Mimosa alert!], created for composer William Walton and his wife. Although Lady Susana Walton lived to a very grand old age indeed, and our mutual friend Elspeth Thompson died so very young, they shared obituary pages in the same week last March. Two rather special lights in the world of garden writing going out simultaneously.

Justine Picardie said...

I always like it when the universe chimes; am so glad to hear when it chimes for people here. Happy to discover that Queen Victoria's orange blossom still flowers in a good book, as well as in its glass case at Bowood.

lyn said...

Gorgeous photos, the lilac in the previous post is especially beautiful.

Glenland Ladybird said...

Lovely, it brought back childhood memories,but Scottish rhodies are best. My sister was at school with the Fitzmaurice girls and I think that the old Earl of Landsdowne had a a Scottish pad near Meikleour - better rhodies?

Mantiz said...

Very nice shots, the second one is just so good, looks like a quiet and peaceful place.
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