The magical woodland garden at Bowood House

PUBLISHED: 11:46 02 June 2020 | UPDATED: 11:46 02 June 2020

The topography means at times you look down onto the display (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

The topography means at times you look down onto the display (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

Mandy Bradshaw

There’s a magic to springtime in Bowood House’s Woodland Garden

A springtime stroll through the woodland garden at Bowood House is enough to counter the idea that such spaces are best in autumn. Scarlet, yellow, purple, the dazzling display is as vibrant as any leaf colour spectacle while the fresh green of emerging foliage adds an optimism that’s lacking at the end of the year.

That Bowood can stage such a show is due to a quirk of nature. While the grounds around the listed Georgian house have soil typical of the area – sandy and neutral – the woodland garden a short drive away sits on a seam of green sand. It’s a line that runs from Poole to The Wash with smaller veins leading off; Westonbirt Arboretum is on one of them. The acidic quality allows Bowood, like the National Arboretum, to grow a range of acid-loving plants.

It’s these rhododendron, camellias and magnolias that are in full flight when I visit. Some are fully open, others bear buds that tease with the promise of colour. It’s an ever-changing display that alters subtly over the six weeks the garden is open and there’s a ‘Walk of the Week’ to guide visitors to the current highlights.

Colours range from the delicate pink of Rhododendron prinophyllum (Roseshell Azalea) and R. Barbara Lansdowne’ to the butter yellow of Azalea ‘April Showers’. In between, the grass is washed with blue from thousands of bluebells.

The display at Bowood dazzles with vivid colours (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)The display at Bowood dazzles with vivid colours (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

Meanwhile, the undulating topography of the 30-acre site, set 500ft above sea level, means at times paths seem to be carved through thickets of flowers while elsewhere you look down onto them.

The collection has been built up over generations with the current Lord Lansdowne, the 9th Marquess, who took over the estate near Chippenham in 1972, responsible for much of the development.

While the Woodland Garden’s Robert Adams-designed mausoleum was built in 1761, major planting didn’t begin for nearly another century.

“The mausoleum just sat there amongst these rather wonderful oak trees and that was it,” explains Lord Lansdowne, whose family has owned Bowood since 1754.

He attributes the discovery of the unusual soil in the area to the 3rd Marquess’ gardener, a Mr Spencer.

“I don’t think others had realised that’s the soil up there.”

It was around the time that Joseph Hooker was sending back plant material discovered around the Himalayas, sparking a craze akin to that for tulips in the 17th century.

In 1854, the estate bought 300 rhododendrons from a variety of nurseries and planting in the Woodland Garden began around the mausoleum. This was continued by the 5th Marquess and then by Lord Lansdowne’s father.

Bluebells add a blue carpet to the Woodland Garden (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)Bluebells add a blue carpet to the Woodland Garden (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

The exact identity of the original plants is largely unknown: “The difficulty today is actually identifying those because they weren’t named and, if they were labelled, the labels have gone,” explains Lord Lansdowne.

Keen to cash in on the new fashion, nurseries were hybridising many plants so there were lots of new varieties.

“It was in vogue, exciting and they were getting very, very good prices for them. There were estates like this up and down the country who were purchasing.”

Today, these old rhododendrons are known at Bowood as ‘the ironclads’: “Because they survive in all sorts of climates. They’re tough plants.”

Even so, many are nearing the end of their life and much of the work at Bowood is taking out plants that have had their day and replacing them. Others are reverting to R. ponticum and these too are being culled.

Indeed, a certain ruthlessness is important when you’re dealing with an ancient garden. Over the decades, the rhododendrons have outgrown their allotted space, becoming intertwined with their neighbours, or, in places, completely overshadowing them.

“I think the great secret of good gardens to actually see your plants well. So, I’ve been cautiously removing plants as they’ve matured and replanting.”

A 'walk of the week' directs visitors to the best colour (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)A 'walk of the week' directs visitors to the best colour (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

Some of the old stock has been propagated – Lord Lansdowne sends material to an expert in the Duchy of Cornwall – and he also layers plants.

There have also been new introductions from Bowood. Seedlings that are spotted in the garden are moved to nursery beds and grown on. It can take 20 years for them to flower but several have proved worthy of registration.

When it comes to adding new material, Lord Lansdowne hasn’t limited himself to rhododendrons. Cornus have been introduced, and the number of magnolias and camellias increased.

“I’ve just been replacing with things that I feel are compatible, which balance with what’s there,” he explains. “So, hopefully it’s seamless.”

There have been new rhododendrons, some of them introductions from plant-hunting expeditions before bio-security concerns limited the movement of plant material.

In all this he’s been helped by plant expert Roy Lancaster. They first met in 1973 and have been friends ever since. Roy is one of a group of enthusiasts and experts, including Tony Kirkham of Kew, and writer Robin Lane Fox, who meet annually at Bowood.

“We have a wonderful tour around the garden and then we go to the woodland garden after lunch and argue about what something is.”

Giving plants space shows them off to the best effect (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)Giving plants space shows them off to the best effect (photo: Mandy Bradshaw)

Passionate about growing things since he raised radish and lettuce in a small plot at his prep school, Lord Lansdowne is closely involved with the actual gardening in the woodland as well as with the planning. He works there most Saturdays and admits to being “quite versatile” with a small digger.

It’s used to uproot plants that have been earmarked for removal before his groundsman, Geoff Partridge, and his team follow on to take out stumps and clear or chip branches.

A bad storm in 1989 with winds of up to 104 miles an hour was, says Lord Lansdowne, akin to an aircraft landing in the garden. Many of the old oaks were lost and the woodland was forced to close for a year.

“We lost a lot of the magic because the canopy had been ripped out. It took out some really wonderful things but it forced one to get on and plant.”

Many more oaks have been added, chosen because their damp shade is well suited to rhododendrons growing underneath, and they provide a beautiful backdrop to the spring display.

The Jubilee Garden, which opened to the public in 2012, was an opportunity to plant from scratch.

“It was a clean canvas to start painting on. That was easier than going into an old established part and having to grit your teeth and remove plants that have aged.”

While there are similarities with the rest of the Woodland Garden with some rhododendrons, this area has a more open feel. Candelabra primulas colonise the banks of a stream and there are gunnera, ferns and hydrangeas, which give it interest long after the Woodland Garden closes to the public.

“Because it’s not open to the public, it comes back to us. We go up and enjoy it, having picnics there.”

After 47 years at the helm, something he describes as a “lucky long run”, Lord Lansdowne’s enthusiasm for the garden is undiminished: “You never lose your love of it. If it’s been your passion, you never lose that.”

Bowood House Woodland Garden is usually open from mid-April. For updates, following the COVID-19 closures, visit www.bowood.org

Twitter: @ChattyGardener

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May garden clippings 2020

Newent-based herb specialist The Kitchen Garden Plant Centre are due to make their debut at RHS Chelsea this month in a special ‘virtual’ show.

Restrictions imposed by Covid-19 mean the world famous show has been cancelled for the first time since the Second World War. The RHS is now planning a virtual display, staged on its website – and possibly other platforms – from May 19-23.

The nursery, run by Neil and Niamh Jones was started just four years ago and has already won several RHS medals, including a silver gilt.

Meanwhile, this year’s Chelsea was due to have been the last for show regulars Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants who have won 24 gold medals for their Great Pavilion displays over the past 28 years.

Rob and Rosy Hardy will now go for their 25th gold next year where they will work with the support of gardening app Candide to produce a large walk-through exhibit.

Visit rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show

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