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15 September 2021

How do you preserve the history of something that lives and dies each season?

After visiting Kew, Dixter and Charleston, great gardens that reflect the past, I was intrigued to stand in one of our own era’s making.

By Alice Vincent

Some gardens are spoken of in reverent tones. Kew, Dixter, Wisley, Sissinghurst – names that litter horticultural conversations with knowing elan: “Oh, yes, I picked that up at Beth Chatto.” Until a year ago, I’d barely been to any of them.

Between lockdown, curiosity and the loan of an elderly relative’s car, I’ve found myself at the ticket counter of some of these hallowed grounds, handing over my £15. They’re built on an interesting – and impossible – premise: to honour the work of those who created them, several decades after that gardener has left. Working from photos, diary entries and personal hunches, these gardens’ custodians must strike a fascinating balance: how to preserve something that lives and dies each season?

When I asked this question of Mark, the accommodating gardener at Margery Fish’s Somerset garden, he said it had become instinctive. He has worked on “Mrs Fish’s” grounds since the Seventies; one person’s lifelong project has become another’s. At Dixter in East Sussex, Christopher Lloyd’s rebelliously colourful borders still hold thrill and wonder under the head gardener Fergus Garrett’s innovative care. In the grounds of Charleston House, years of dedicated research into the lives of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant have spilled into a living homage to an artists’ garden originally planted nearly a century ago.

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Gardens, although inherently ephemeral, are tethered to their history. Which is why The Newt hotel in Somerset is so intriguing. Opened in 2019 by the property’s new owner, the South African billionaire Koos Bekker, the hotel and grounds are known in gardening circles as “Hadspen House” or “Penelope Hobhouse’s garden”. Hobhouse, in her nineties now, has moved on, but in the Sixties she transformed the 18th-century walled garden and opened it, briefly, to the public.

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I went to The Newt in August. Rather than capture one moment in time, it strives to celebrate horticultural history. Hobhouse’s definitive 2002 book The Story of Gardening inspires an exhibition of the same name; we’re told to consider it a “living thing” rather than a museum, but it is filled with plastic plants, taxidermy and VR headsets.

There’s a Capability Brown-esque lawn; its ha-ha topped, illogically, with a hedge. The walled garden leads to a Renaissance-style vegetable patch and a Victorian terrace stuffed with bedding plants. There’s an Arts and Crafts-era cottage garden, complete with recently thatched cottage (the tiled roof fell in) and a 19th-century swimming pool that was rebuilt in a new position three feet from its original place to ensure symmetrical perfection.

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It’s a kind of fantastical gardening theme park, complete with gift shop, “cyder” press and treetop walk. There’s a gelateria, a mushroom house, a threshing barn filled with contemporary sculpture. As we ate our (delicious) lunch from a glass-box café perched above the restored wall garden, a helicopter landed on the great lawn, then shuffled to park closer to the 4×4 waiting nearby.

Bekker didn’t destroy anything when he built all this. The last inhabiting Hobhouse bulldozed Penelope’s work; empty bottles and high heels were left scattered across the grounds in the remnants of a lost summer party. Now a new work has sprung up, complete with the nation’s greatest collection of apple trees. Families played in the grounds, ducks padded about. There were good-natured smiles everywhere, not least from the uniformed staff.

For all its historical trappings, The Newt is searingly modern. I was fascinated by the insistence on “experience”: eat the edible flowers, post a photo of the cottage on Instagram, buy the booze to take home. The apples hung tantalisingly at eye-level. After a year of visiting gardens that reflect the past, I stood in one of our own era’s making: a garden fuelled by the frictionless, dizzying ease of late capitalism; a garden that urged us, in a time of mass consumption, to consume.

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor