Wednesday, 15 February 2012

PROBUS CLUB OF COLESHILL - Report February 2012


Derek Bull, son of Charlie Bull a past president of the Probus Club of Coleshill was the guest speaker at the meeting of the club on 7th February. A long serving member of the National Trust Derek has been a keen volunteer at Hidcote Manor Gardens since 2005. He had come along to tell us about the garden’s origins, what his role there is and to encourage us to pay them a visit. The gardens are in north Gloucestershire not far from Chipping Camden and Snowshill Manor, on the border with Warwickshire to the south of Stratford-upon-Avon off the B4632. Some readers may have seen the documentary about Hidcote on BBC 4 last year.

We owe this outstanding National Trust feature to one man, Lawrence Johnston, the son of a wealthy American, Mrs Gertrude Winthrop (by her first husband) born in France (1871) and went to Cambridge University (Trinity College). He became a British subject around 1900, joined the army and fought in the Boer War and later World War One. When he retired from the Army he had the rank of Major and was often known to his staff and colleagues as Major Johnston, he never married. He was a very keen horticulturist and is known to have travelled extensively collecting specimens.

His mother bought the Hidcote estate for Lawrence in 1907 –at which time it did not have a formal garden as such but now the gardens created by Lawrence have been Grade One listed by English Heritage and were presented to the National Trust by him in 1948. Derek told us that although his mother was very wealthy she was very much a spendthrift and begrudged opening her purse for the smallest amount. Lawrence did not need to work and spent his time pursuing his gardening ‘hobby’ so much so that his mother attempted to curtail his spending activities.

The gardens are set some 600 feet above sea level and exposed to strong winds from Siberia blasting, unchecked across the Vale of Evesham in some seasons which explains the high hedges, stands of trees and the original walled garden now incorporated into Lawrence Johnston’s original layout. In the heavy rains of 2007 the neighbouring village of Hidcote Bartrim was flooded and we saw some photographs taken at the time: unusual when you consider the hill top location of the site. Derek explained that a major refurbishment of the Gardens has been taking place over the last ten years and it is hoped to refurbish what is known as the Garden Room to form a ticket point and entrance area as well as opening several rooms on the ground floor of the manor house to the public. In 1910 a new wing was added to the late 17th Century house that was for the use of Lawrence and his personal staff who maintained a separate life to that followed by his mother in the original manor house rooms.

The gardens are described as being of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement of the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries; until fairly recently when parts of the house were opened to visitors the entrance to the gardens themselves was via the Garden Yard. There are twenty two gardens and laying them out began in 1910 the earliest being those in close proximity to the house such as the Kitchen Garden. They are interlinked and each laid out in a style/type of its own, some publications refer to them as ‘Garden Rooms’. The original access from the Yard was onto what is called the Theatre Lawn, a large grassed area lined with hedges where on long summer evenings it is possible to attend various open air theatrical performances (Pride and Prejudice 16th June 2012!). Completion of most of work was done in three stages culminating in 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War. In September 1939 and early 1940 Lawrence was actually at his French estate of ‘Serre de la Madonne’ near Mentone and was the last English citizen to leave from Marseilles on a coal boat. He stayed at Hidcote until 1948 before returning to France until his death in 1958.

The high number of visitors that are attracted cause problems due to the number of feet treading the various pathways and we heard how the ‘compacting’ of the surfaces is dealt with. We also learned that many of the plants have a life span of their own and have to be replaced because they will not continue to regenerate themselves ad infinitum. As an aside we were told that after Lawrence’s mother died (1926) he went on several world wide adventures to places as far away as China, Australia and South America collecting specimens and bringing them to be planted at Hidcote occasionally having to landscape a garden to suit a plants natural environment.

Derek went on to describe in great detail all the numerous features and styles and as a volunteer his expert knowledge was surprising and if you visit on a Saturday when he is on duty he will be only too willing to answer any questions you may have. Taking cuttings for your own little patch of England is strictly prohibited, but we believe there is a National Trust run plant shop….

It was a most interesting talk and our members were very grateful to Derek for sharing his photographs and knowledge with us. He told us that there are 40,000 different plants there and it is possible that he named most of them when they appeared on the screen. Gardens are not easy to describe in a report such as this unless the reader is a gardener with knowledge of the subject matter: we would urge the reader to pay a visit to Hidcote over the coming months – the views change from month to month due to seasons of the plants.

Alternatively you can always type ‘Hidcote Manor Gardens’ and/or ‘Lawrence Johnston’ into your internet search engine for several hours viewing!

Jerry Dutton

Press Officer

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