Painswick Rococo Garden
PUBLISHED: 10:34 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013
Snowdrop time has come around again and the show at Painswick Rococo Garden will, as always, be spectacular.Words and photography by Jane Gifford
Snowdrop time has come around again and the show at Painswick Rococo Garden will, as always, be spectacular. These delicate flowers grow in their hundreds of thousands in a deep wooded coomb behind Painswick House. The conditions suit them well and they have naturalised over more than two centuries spreading through the trees and over lawns and banks making this one of the most famous snowdrop displays in the country. Anyone who loves nature cannot fail to marvel at the way such apparently frail and delicate flowers continue to push their way up through ice and snow to bloom in such abundance each year.
The first spikes of the snowdrops begin to show amongst the leaf mould in early December and flowers appear by January. Aconites and cyclamen join them and the display is at its height in February. In the unusually mild weather last year the snowdrops were even joined by the first of the Tenby daffodils on the bank below the top path. Later this year this bank will be planted up for the first time with old-fashioned pink and white wall-flowers to match the colour of the Eagle House. The bee hives here are essential to the pollination of all the produce in the Kitchen Garden and most especially to the fruit trees in the orchard below, so ensuring that Apple Blossom Time and Harvest Festival continue to be great seasonal successes at Painswick.
Behind the scenes much has to be done in preparation for the Snowdrop Season. The garden is closed from the beginning of November to 10th January allowing staff to tackle essential restoration and repairs. Wood is chipped for the paths and hardcore and gravel laid where paths are inclined to be muddy, making walking a pleasure and allowing wheel-chair access. Borders are replaced and buildings repaired along with much cutting back, planting and general tidying up.
Along with these routine tasks, there is also always one larger project to be overseen by Head Gardener Chris Hitchcock and this is always in keeping with a delightful painting from 1748 by Thomas Robins. Within a fancy border of sea-shells and leafy fronds in true Rococo style, Robins gives us a finely detailed aerial view of Painswick House and garden. Charles Hyett, an attorney from Gloucester, chose to build the house here on the brow of the hill at Painswick around the beginning of the eighteenth century and his son Benjamin commissioned the valley garden. Whether Robins' painting was intended as a proposal for the garden design or showed the place as it already existed is unsure but this painting is the real inspiration behind the garden you see today.
Rococo design in the eighteenth century was ornate and frivolous, with a love of untamed nature combined with a sense of fun. A garden was seen as a place to hold parties, to picnic on the lawns and indulge in saucy pleasure - a very different attitude from the straight-laced formality otherwise en vogue. To use a garden as a setting for enjoyment and pleasure appealed especially to the new Upper Middle Classes. Old Money of course found this attitude vulgar and viewed the Rococo style as a kind of 'Carry on Gardening' for the nouveau riche. As a result the Rococo style proved short-lived and few gardens survived the nineteenth century fully in tact.
Today we are thankfully more broad-minded. An exhibition in 1976 of Robins' work revived interest in the Rococo and Painswick was identified as a worthy subject for restoration. Work began in 1984. Four years later Painswick Rococo Garden Trust was established as a charity to fund the project and maintain it into the future. The major undertaking this year has been the restoration of the tunnel arbour alongside the fish pond. Overgrown with holly and old-man's beard, it has been completely grubbed up. The frame-work has been replaced and one hundred hornbeams, a species consistent with eighteenth century fashion, were being planted when I visited last December. The hedge will be solid on each side and trained over the top of the arbour. To maintain a fanciful style, regular raised trunks will also be allowed to grow along each side which will eventually be shaped like lollipops.
Garden Director Paul Moir particularly enjoys this fun-loving aspect of Rococo and prefers to promote the garden as a pleasure ground, a social space more about enjoyment of the ambience and wildlife, rather than a daunting collection of plants for the horticultural expert. He says he would much rather see someone reading a novel than carrying a notebook plant-spotting. 'Here at Painswick Rococo Garden there is no desire to be elitist and no need to feel intimidated if you don't know the names of the plants. I want people to take simple sensual pleasure in the garden, to enjoy the views, the smells, the play of the light through the trees, the reflections on the water. This is what a Rococo garden is all about.' The only modern addition not part of the original garden design is The Maze. Still in the tradition of games and fun, it was planted in 1998 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Robins' painting.
Painswick House has always had its back to the main part of the garden in the valley, another quirk of the Rococo style, so the visitor comes upon it as a delightful surprise. The house was completely separated from its garden eight years ago when Lord Dickinson sold up. The main building and grounds immediately surrounding it are not open to the public. There are fine views of the house from the main entrance and from the path to the Pigeon House. However the current owners Mr. & Mrs. Elvidge value their privacy and do not welcome any intrusion.
The Rococo Garden lies in a frosty hollow with only 3-4 hours sun in the winter months. In severe cold more tender plants like the phillyrea angustifolia in the Exedra Garden are under wraps. A member of the olive family, it was often grown outside orangeries in the seventeenth century and it lends itself well to topiary. Head Gardener Chris Hitchcock intends to shape Painswick's specimens to mirror the pinnacles on the Exedra nearby. Chris mostly grows plants which would have been available when the garden was originally designed. Stocks, sweet-peas, honeysuckle and old-fashioned shrub-roses perfume the summer valley today as they would have in the past. Chris has a particular interest in preserving old-fashioned fruit varieties. The espaliers in the Kitchen Garden contain one hundred and twenty alternating apple and pear trees. Look out for Catillac a seventeenth century pear; local Ashmead's Kernel, a Gloucester apple from 1700; the sixteenth century Black Worcester pear, shown in the county coat of arms; and oldest of all, Couer de Boeuf, .a large red cooker from the twelfth century.
There are two full-time gardeners in the Rococo Garden - Chris Hitchcock, expert plantsman and co-ordinator of all garden work and Tim Barker whose expertise is woodland management and machinery. Shelly Beaumont and Richard Lewis work four days a week, taking care of everything from planting to environmental concerns, and Karen Reid devotes two days a week to her speciality the Kitchen Garden.
Many of the ingredients for the restaurant in the Coach House come from the Kitchen Garden - salad potatoes, rhubarb and soft fruits and especially cut-and-come-again produce like lettuce, radishes, chives and parsley, radicchio and rocket - all picked fresh in the morning and on your plate by lunchtime. The apples and pears are mostly pressed at Harvest Festival for their juice. Using what is in season gives rise to some unusual cooking like the Chocolate and Courgette Cake recipe to be found in the guide book.
Opening Times: 10th January - 31st October 11am - 5pm
Painswick Rococo Garden
GL6 6TH tel: 01452 813 204
How to get there:
The village of Painswick is on theA46 between Cheltenham and Stroud. The Rococo Garden is on the B4073 half a mile from the centre of Painswick