A New Walled Garden at Hadspen

A Summary of project progress and website correspondence

The walled garden at Hadspen House is an early nineteenth century former kitchen garden in rural Somerset, set at some distance from the main house on a southwest sloping lot that traps sunlight and warmth. It lies within a private park of 300 acres, progressively landscaped as woodland and pasture since the 1660s. The walled garden is 3000 square metres. The brick wall, roughly parabolic in form, is about nine feet high, and completely surrounds it.

Since it ceased to be a vegetable garden in the 1960s, this enclosure has been intensively planted as a discrete ornamental garden in different phases by Penelope Hobhouse (until 1978) and Nori and Sandra Pope (until 2005). Though privately owned, and on a private estate, it has been open to visitors since 1970 and has gained an extraordinary reputation both in Britain and abroad both as a horticultural site and as a demonstration of imaginative garden design. With the retirement of the Popes the proprietor, Niall Hobhouse, seized the need to remake the garden as the opportunity to open a platform for new ideas.

Three steps have since been taken. Foreign Office Architects were engaged to consider an approach to the framework of a new design, and completed an intensive study - as part of which a possible pattern of pathways is suggested. An open competition for the development of a new garden was announced – with a formal call for submissions planned for the early summer of 2007. And a website was opened - with a public invitation to join discussion not only on the future of the Hadspen garden but on the place and nature of gardens in the culture, and on the current state of gardening as an environmental, artistic and imaginative process.

Meanwhile, the plants behind the wall were allowed to run wild; local gardeners were offered the opportunity to help themselves and, late in 2006, the site was cleared completely.

Since the first announcement of the intent to hold a competition, there has been widespread public debate, not only on the site dedicated to it but in the gardening and design media. So many words have been written, and so many intelligent ones, that one correspondent has suggested that a good garden could be made by simply laying them all out within the Hadspen walls. Others have become uneasy that their mythical taciturnity will cause gardeners – faced by a mountain of verbal ideas — to shrink from the task of proposing any visual, organic and spatial ones. The conversation – ranging from the initial ‘manifesto’ that initiated it, coded in the histories and programme briefs that the proprietor posted, provoked through the Foreign Office propositions, disparaged by the pragmatic press, encouraged by the more adventurous, and blue skied in much of the correspondence on the web — is in fact perfectly legible, browsable, and provocative, even at times disappointingly pragmatic. It will undoubtedly go on. But as a part of the reflection leading up to the competition, it has now effectively closed, and is posted in the Archive of this site. A short anthology of key points follows, both as ‘guidance notes’ for the competitors, and to keep this important conversation alive.

The discussion has broadened and coloured, but has not changed the basic terms of the competition or its procedures. It is still about making, likely over time, probably using plant material, within the walls of the Hadspen enclosure, a place that will advance our thinking about what a garden is and what it might express. The first stage is still an anonymous short submission –visual and verbal — stating a broad approach, a sensibility, a philosophy or an attitude, with Hadspen in mind, if not specifically in view. A shortlist will then be invited to develop and propose concepts for the actual site. The Foreign Office proposal can now be read either as a provocation to be dismissed, a platform on which to build, or an idea to be modified. With the conversation and clearance in mind, jurors may now be looking more closely at ideas on the relationship between the walled garden and its surroundings; regarding open space, pause, and stillness as vital as movement; looking for ideas that reveal the geometry and archeology of the wall; and considering companionability as central to the experience of a garden as solitary pleasure. And, provided they show they can meet the essence of the brief, submissions will now be welcome from other disciplines or from teams who might choose not to reside or maintain the site, as well as from the practiced plantsman.

Any issues of implementation, logistics, management and day to day maintenance will be addressed with shortlisted candidates on an individual basis. Nevertheless, the possibility of a full time employment contract and a house on the Estate remains, either for a working gardener, or for a ‘hands-on’ member of the winning team.

Where Did We Start? The Manifesto

The client opened the conversation with a brief manifesto, calling for a year of dialogue and a three-stage competition that would locate a gardener “with a bold and untried approach…, seeking out radical solutions to planting, and …exploring links…to other fields of creativity.” The path layout proposed by Foreign Office Architects was attached, “as an empty theatre-stage” on which the gardener was invited to perform, through an idea for planting, “the drama of poetry, surprise and mystery.”

Debate began at once. The radical idea that the re-design of a famous garden should be the subject of a discursive and competitive process was almost universally applauded; as was the impulse behind it – “fighting for greater range and expression in gardens.”

On everything else, opinion divided drastically.

Structure or Scaffold? The Foreign Office Plan

Not only was the pathway plan itself disputed. Many asked whether it was contradictory to express confidence in gardeners’ ability to design imaginatively, and then require them to limit their ideas to a spatial framework developed by architects. This became the platform for a long discussion about whether the basis of a garden design should come from research or from the exercise of intuition, whether a framework should be fixed or evolving. The scheme, said one, means that the garden is half made already – what room is left for originality? But the garden is half-made already by the wall, which is a fixed element, responded another, so why not allow a thoroughly researched architectural framework to discipline the planter’s instinct?

Others questioned the emphasis on movement and on linear pathways, rather than a fluent use of open space, as a way to unfold an experience. One questioned whether this presupposed an “English” approach to the garden – which concentrated on dense layered planting – rather than a “French” attitude – which focused on how open spaces were framed and interrupted by plants. But those who supported the pathway plan found it most interesting precisely because of the rhythms of opening and closing it set up, and because its linear pattern brought the geometry of the wall itself into constant but changing view.

Some saw a lively play between angular geometries on the ground and the curving shape of the plot and wall; others saw the zig-zag and parabola as fighting a battle royal. A similar debate ensued over whether the slalom grid was in sympathy or in contradiction to the fall of the slope. There was uneasiness over the practicality: “only a mountain goat could negotiate the turns” said one writer; while another believed that overgrowing plants would rapidly make them impassable.

A sensible consensus seems to appear by the end of the discussion, in which all left standing come to agree on the need for some framework that contains the transience of plant-life and gives a map for the intuition and adaptations of the gardener to follow – but in something less rigid and schematized than the plan at hand.

What is A Garden?

The call for “poetry, surprise and mystery” in the manifesto was challenged early: Were these terms generous enough, or too romantic? Where, correspondents asked, were: clarity; points of focus; repose; contemplation; responsible management of the environment; above all, sociability?”

But what is a garden, people asked at once. And all had their own answer: “A garden is not natural,” reads one example. “It is a representation of Nature which in any given period will hold up for scrutiny a particular attitude towards the relationship of Man and Nature.”

And what is a garden for, they asked next, again happy to reply for themselves. ‘It is the greatest refreshment to the spirit of man,” a contributor quotes Bacon. Once the displays of cultural erudition were out of the way the question of ‘what for’ actually became rather straightforward:
For being within or for looking upon? Divorced from the house it served and sheltered behind a high wall, most agreed there was little chance of the walled garden at Hadspen performing the latter.
For the visitor, the client, the plants, or the gardener? Here the weight of opinion came down subtly on the gardener’s side. The emphasis in the initial brief on moving visitors through was challenged. The competition documents had spoken of finding a gardener who would “make plants conform to a single and largely personal view.” Some responded that plants did not grow to be passively marshaled to a human point of view but to actively transform that view themselves. But there was some reconciliation at hand. Asked one correspondent: Could we not share the pleasure of guiding – or being guided by – plants by “making the experience of the visitor as close as possible to the gardener’s own?” While the client himself recalled that the triumph of the Popes’ garden was in “preserving the connection between the plants themselves and the overall design….The vividness came out of a sense of the direct connection between the elements.”
For perambulation or repose, solitude or society? If the old ideal of walking through or around or past it was the object, then the articulation of the space – as well as the view out from it - became vital. But what about the even older dream of finding a quiet static observation space within it? Or more radically, of the garden as a playground or a social space in which the plants simply set the scene for action? There were no answers, but even its peripatetic client conceded that “simply hanging out in a sequestered gardened space is in itself legitimate and rewarding.”
Forever or for a day? None dared suggest that a garden was fixed, permanent or unchanging. Some dwelt on the knowledge and pleasure that come from flux. “What a space to watch grow. For a space that will grow on you.” Others were more pragmatic. “Didn’t those 100 year gardens turn out to be a myth? They were designed more around existing trees than the ones planted for their heirs.” “I suggest whatever concept is arrived at it remain for say 3 years and the ball will roll once again.” “Watch the light change and the wind howl through the south gate.”

Where’s the Context?

Very early in the debate, increasingly as time wore on, and intensively as the garden itself was cleared, correspondents began to talk of context.

First was the wall itself, as a texture and palette, as an archeology, and as “a great sculpture in the landscape.” “The problem is trying to place a fine large but awkward object,” said one commentator, “so that it relates to other objects and spaces, but retains its peculiar impact. Then came the ‘wilder’ landscaped grounds beyond: was the walled garden an entity unto itself, or did it live in relation to the grounds around it?

A sense of both the wall and its surroundings, it was widely felt, had been obscured in the last garden, which had been so intensively planting and so firmly followed the internal geometry of the site. Some felt that the texture of the entry to the garden had been too closely allied to what lay within, leaving no sense of discovery when one entered the walls. A few felt Foreign Office in their pathway plan had arranged for a much heightened awareness of the world beyond the walls, and the architects of the paths themselves saw the three elements in unity – “the curve of the land, the curve of the wall, the curve of the distant hills.” Others could see no relation between angular geometries and the particulars of the Hadspen site, one eloquently writing of the need for “a companionship between spaces.”

Then came the more daring context of the immanent and the unseen: “Will there be,” asked a contributor, “a haunt of emptiness running through to prefigure the elsewhere?”

A rather surprising consensus gradually emerged that not the wall, nor the parabolic form of the garden, nor the pathways and voids that might sit within it, but topography, “the slope and its setting,” were “the pre-eminent condition of the garden.”

What is A Gardener?

A cultural context also came to dominate the discussion. This went beneath the question of gardens in society to debate the cultural perception of gardening: The solitary gardener, his habits, his resistance to words or the cerebral, his conservatism, his separation from the landscape designer. The competition and the pathway plan were both hailed by one observer as breaking with conventions that divorced plantsmanship from spatial design, saying that it “forced the planting design out of the straitjacket of the border.” Others asked why, if “no modern garden is ever better than its gardener,” as one exchange began, “must we think of the solitary plantsman”; and others added that if the intent was to open the making of gardens to wider disciplines, then perhaps the best garden could come from collaboration. Again the consensus evolved around answering the broader question of the restrictive modesty of the gardening community. One condemned this as ’myopia’; another traced it to a laudable but misguided ‘pastoralism’; a third praised the natural accidents that forged a design simply from the determined hand on the bramble and the spade dug into the mud; a fourth responded that accidents do happen, but that happy ones only happen through good design. But nearly all agreed that gardening should take its place as an art like any other and asked: “Why are even gardeners themselves reluctant to accord gardens the same expressive range and cultural importance as buildings or literature?”

Where Are We Now?

By the autumn of 2006, surprised by the excitement, breadth of participation and passion of exchanges in the press and in the correspondence, it became apparent to the owner that his call for new ideas had struck a chord, and that: “Whoever wins the competition will have the extraordinary opportunity of a highly visible public platform on which to advance the concepts and practices of gardening”.

With this in mind, the client gradually clarified the initial call for ideas. By January 2007, he was clear that he wanted an initial “response to the site, not a proposal”; that it could come from those without a gardening background; that it did not have to be conceived with plants; and that the path layout could be treated either as a possible way to organize the space, or as a provocation, or as something to be ignored.

With the clearing of the walled space late in 2006, the air became perhaps too clear, and speculation on what might be ever more adventurous. Ideas ranged from a garden that was made by laying out on the ground the thousands of words generated by the debate on its future, to using the Wall as a giant screen to project films on, to keeping it as a slope of churned earth on which anything could be imagined, to one that took cognizance of the threatened Earth by making a virtual Hadspen garden visible only in images at large of ideas generated for and about it. By the time this level of discussion was over, one correspondent noted the snowdrops and primroses flowering outside the Walled Garden and asked if it was not now “time to stop intellectualizing and start gardening.” And the client himself could now re-state his manifesto quite simply:


Note: this was compiled at our request by the social historian and architectural commentator, Nicholas Olsberg who, when asked if he wished to be credited as the author, replied “I’m happy to sign it as someone who doesn’t ‘care for’ gardens, or know anything about them”.