They may not make for good photos, but sloping gardens offer a journey of changed perspectives.
I was astonished once when a photographer told me which his favourite garden was.
And then I put it together with the perennial complaint that another photographer – the one I live with – makes about our garden. The garden the first photographer admired was totally flat. Ours is lumpy. Photographers, it seems, do not like hills.
One of the major bonuses of a flat garden is that you can have light all year round, all day. This is not so much about what plants you can grow – in our hilly garden we lose the sun for a few weeks in winter but that isn’t a major shade problem. However, it is a problem for a photographer wanting that picture of hoar frost on the hedges, because such a picture doesn’t work without sunlight to illuminate the scene, and for once what the photographer needs is also what the garden needs. That sunlight – as long as it’s not the brightest midday sun (as if) is the kiss of heaven for a garden, whether you are a photographer, a garden owner or a garden visitor.
Of course, if it is a flat town garden you are contemplating you may well have a smacking great house taking half the light.
I often wonder what town gardeners, with their almost inevitably restricted light, make of those recommendations to plant grasses so they are backlit. But a town garden, even when overshadowed by a house, still has a great advantage if it has a flat garden – you can look down on it. This offers wonderful scope for the use of pattern.
If you have been puzzled by the garden such as the one at Trentham, in Staffordshire, (see above) where you wander around in a half-discerned pattern, you may need to remember how critical the view from the house can be. Half the point of this garden, as with many other grand gardens, was the view from the windows.
Similarly, if you can’t enjoy the pattern of your own garden while you clean your teeth in the morning, you are missing the best trick.
And this overview is critical in a flat garden. Partly in order to understand the view. Complaints about Sussex Prairies garden for example, say that although the garden is designed in a spiral, you cannot see the spiral properly anywhere. You can only be in it, and thus none the wiser about the shape.
When I visited Wollerton Old Hall, near Shrewsbury, I discovered many beautiful enclosures, but also began to feel enclosed. In a flat garden, if there is not a clear route round or out, you may begin to experience that nightmare feeling of “will I ever escape?” It helps if you have an image of it in your mind?
Solutions may include the provision of some large, clear breathing spaces or, rather expensively, a fashionable mound or a tower. But if you do this, do make sure that what there is to see is worthy of the vantage point; that it’s not simply a way to make sure people can find the loo.
In a hilly garden, the equivalent of claustrophobia could be vertigo.
Some gardens actively seek this. At Piercefield House, Monmouthshire, once a famous Picturesque garden, you can still walk along the edge of the cliff tops overlooking the river Wye, a view which inspired Coleridge to Romantic effusion “From that low Dell, steep up the stony Mount I climb’d with perilous toil and reach’d the top, Oh! what a goodly scene! “
More ordinarily, the designer provides some “stopper” to a slope –
such as a viewpoint to avoid creating the impression that the garden bleeds away to nothing. The eye will always follow a line down (or up) a slope, which should then lead to a focus or a stop. Think how odd it is at Chatsworth that the great Cascade ends not with a bang but a gravel path, going nowhere in particular. Which is why most pictures show you just the dramatic water, uphill:
A garden with slopes needs to offer a view worth having from the top.
If the garden slopes away from the house, with a poor view out of it, then it has problems. The only answer appears to be some kind of screening, if the slope is not too long and steep. Or to redefine the view as postmodern.
Slopes may go every which way, nudging designers to naturalistic wanderings and other longueurs. It is so much harder to play with pattern on a slope: if you try to make any horizontal actually horizontal across it, you are in danger of it looking as if it is rearing out of the ground at a fearsome angle. Not quite the thing, especially if it is a seat. At least one of our seats was designed not to be horizontal but just to look horizontal.
Given all these thoughts, I find I cannot justify what is perhaps just a prejudice
– but I do believe sloping gardens work best. Despite my anxieties about how on earth I will get round it when I’m older. It is something to do with the journey through them. Slopes give you not only views, but changed perspectives. There is such scope for shifting the way the plants and the terrain are experienced, and so much more sense of movement.
Flat gardens are just rather, well, flat.