Westbury Court Garden
PUBLISHED: 11:07 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013
From red and white carrots to 300-year-old cabbages, the recreation of this historic plot has depended on painstaking detail, says Chris Newton
As a piece of gardening history, Westbury Court Garden is a relic without parallel. A 300-year-old formal water garden in the Dutch style, it is the last of its kind - there is no other like it left in the world, not even in Holland. Its precisely-laid-out paths and canals belong to a style which was almost entirely obliterated in the 18th century by the sweeping 'natural landscapes' of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton.
But Westbury Court represents much more than the last surviving evidence of a long-forgotten landscaping technique. The Dutch liked their gardens to be as useful as they were elegant, and this one had a thoroughly practical purpose - the production of food. The history of Westbury Court's plants is therefore as fascinating as that of the garden itself.
The carefully-proportioned canals were once stocked with fish and wildfowl for the table, and the garden had its own built-in rabbit warren. To accompany all that meat, there was a rich and varied supply of home-grown fruit, vegetables and herbs.
When the National Trust took on Westbury Court in 1967, the garden had very nearly disappeared for ever. Fortunately there was enough documentary evidence to enable the Trust's experts to begin to piece together the way the garden must once have looked, along with what was grown in it. Westbury became the Trust's first serious garden restoration, and one of its finest achievements.
An engraving by the illustrator Kip, made exactly 300 years ago, clearly indicates the extensive kitchen garden, though the tiny sprouting shapes Kip drew are not much to go on when it comes to identifying the plants. Fortunately, documents relating to Westbury Court found in Gloucestershire Records Office have come to the rescue - they include the garden's accounts.
Its creator, Maynard Colchester, must have been a meticulous record keeper. An entry dated February 19 1702 indicates that a gardener called Mr Wells had been doing some serious planting. He was paid five pounds and ten shillings for 64 'plumb' trees, 24 pears, 70 cherries, 12 'Scotch firs', 6 peaches, 1 'apricock' and 12 'filbeards' (hazels). There followed 'beans, pease, seeds etc' and a little later more cherries, apricots and plums, along with some nectarines and 'red sweet water grapes'. There are also many references to trees, shrubs and other decorative plants.
Westbury's Head Gardener, Jerry Green, has been researching the garden and its plants since he arrived there seven years ago. Replanting began in 2002, almost exactly 300 years after the original planting. There has been enormous progress in a very short time, though the Trust still has a long way to go.
Jerry has combined the archival clues with historical evidence about kitchen gardens of the period to work out what Westbury Court's original stock must have looked like. In many cases this has meant trying to rewind history to plot a route back from the countless varieties of fruit and vegetables cultivated today to the original types which were grown 300 years ago. For example, Jerry found that a commercial variety of cabbage known as Wheeler's Imperial was only one generation away from the original parental cabbage, so he tracked down suppliers of the seeds of the parents to arrive at a cabbage which was more like an 18th -century variety than anything found in a 21st century vegetable garden.
Old seed catalogues and museum archives provided much vital information. The art world can also be a great help in these matters - paintings such as Lucas van Valckenborch's Allegory of Summer and Still Life by Juan Sanchez Cotan contain pictorial evidence of the varieties of fruit and vegetable which were familiar at the turn of the 17th century. While it is difficult to determine exactly what was planted at Westbury Court (and impossible to bring extinct plants back from the dead), we can get a pretty good idea of how they looked from such works.
The first vegetables to go in were artichokes, asparagus and cardoons (not for alphabetical reasons, but simply because these were considered relatively easy to grow). They have been followed by long-lost varieties of potato and tomato.
With each season more progress is made, and there is more to delight and intrigue the visitor. Take those strange pale cream berries that grow in the border beside the Long Canal, for example. They look for all the world like raspberries, except that they are the wrong colour. In fact they are raspberries - and they taste, if anything, even better than the more familiar crimson varieties.
"There's another advantage - the birds don't think they're ripe, so they don't eat them" says Jerry. A pity that insects don't make the same mistake.
Colour of course is one of the great variables in nature, and the garden is an eye-opener to those who imagine that beetroots have to be red, that cucumbers are always green or that carrots are naturally orange.
"The first carrots were red" says Jerry. "Later a white variety was developed. Then someone decided that as a tribute to the Dutch-born William of Orange, there ought to be an orange carrot, so they crossed the two. It caught on so well that the red and white variants were forgotten. Now most people assume carrots have always been orange."
Other curiosities include the Babbington leek, which looks like a large bulb of garlic, the mediaeval Martock bean and many ancient apple and pear varieties.
Much work has been done to create espaliered fruit trees - pears, apples and cherries - as well as fan-trained peaches and morello cherries.
"Our ancestors may not have had Sainsbury's, but they had access to a lot more variety than many people think" says Jerry. "They were able to enjoy a very varied and healthy diet - it wasn't all pease porridge and gruel."
This year's weather has not helped the project; you can still see a muddy tidemark on the yew hedges and box bushes, indicating how close the floods of late July came to washing away parts of the garden entirely. The ponds were overtopped, but the fish and water-lily beds have survived. The rain did no favours to the potato and tomato crops, but fortunately it did no permanent damage either.
To add to the garden's authenticity, the turf has this year been stripped from the original paths, which have been relaid with local red gravel from the Forest of Dean as they were originally.
Westbury Court Garden is on the A48 at Westbury. It is open 10 am to 5pm Tuesdays to Saturdays from September 1 until October 28 (7 days a week until the end of August). Telephone (01452) 760461.
Westbury Court Garden
Sat 20 to Sun 21 Oct
Come along and find out about historic apple varieities and orchards and try a few.