I’m in a garden right in the middle of London, and it’s very nice – nice and big – but it’s unremarkable. There must be a score of gardens very similar to this within half a mile… ..but if this garden could speak, what stories it could tell. It could tell us about the great city that rose up around it, and how it became the centre of a mighty empire. It would be in a unique position to tell us about a country at war, from the threat of Napoleonic invasion to IRA bombs – and it could tell us the stories of the people who lived and visited here, from the first owner, who spied for Oliver Cromwell, to the Iron Lady with a passion for roses and the American president who cooked a barbecue on its lawn. I believe that gardens are every bit as important as the buildings we live and work in… ..and if we can unearth their secrets and listen to their stories, we get a unique insight into our history, and what makes us the people that we are today. In this series, I will show not just how gardening has changed over the last four centuries, but discover why these changes have occurred, and who has driven them. And there she is. – He’s an artist, I guess?
– Yeah. Although I bet he never saw himself like that. In this episode, I shall be exploring the gardens of the 17th century. This is grand, isn’t it? I shall be working with tools of the period to discover just how gardens of the 1600s were maintained. Whoa, look at that! I’ll be getting 400-year-old inside information… This is showing you how to lay out your string lines… – Oh, I see!
– ..and then build it up and build it up. ..and a long-lost garden will reveal the secret symbols of our forebears’ religious beliefs. Am I reading this right, that what we’re looking at is… is a labyrinth? HOT-AIR BALLOON BURNER FIRES I’m floating above the Cumbrian countryside, and directly below me is the garden of Levens Hall. And Levens Hall is the only surviving garden from the 17th century. There are other gardens from the 1600s that have been restored, but none which have endured, unchanged, since they were first made – and if you want to step into the homes, the lives or, more importantly, the minds of our ancestors who lived in that century, this is the best place to start. Levens Hall was first laid out in 1692, at the end of a century marked by great changes and upheavals – as well as advances and achievements, all of which transformed the country’s gardens. Every aspect of the garden, every element of its design, has its roots in the history of that turbulent century. Over the past 300 years, it has matured and evolved in a way that its makers could never have envisaged… ..but where other gardens of the period have fallen into ruin, or been completely refashioned, here, the original layout survives and has been lovingly maintained. Levens owes its longevity to the continuity of 11 generations of the same family that have looked after it – and for the past 39 years, the custodians of this extraordinary garden have been Hal and Susie Bagot. This is a portrait of Colonel James Graham, who was Privy Purse to James II, so he was very prominent in the Stuart court. He looked after the finances of the King. – So, a powerful position.
– Oh, very powerful position.
– Right. – And he bought this house, did he?
– Oh, yes. And has it been bought and sold since then? No. That’s the only time it’s ever changed hands. And who did he get to make the garden for him? Well, he brought in Beaumont – Guillaume Beaumont – a French gardener who had worked for King James. Plans drawn up 50 years after the garden had been completed give us a sense of what Beaumont’s original vision for Levens Hall may have looked like 300 years ago. I just love the little figures – I mean, look at these two rather grand ladies standing at the front door. I love the man with the tricorn hat wheeling his wheelbarrow. – Aren’t they lovely?
– The lovely hedged walks. And these are the original beech hedges of the time – and they are now enormous in the garden. The main topiary area is there. – And of course the Wilderness, you see…
– Yes. ..would have been laid out very formally, then. Bowling green’s still there, but not bowls now – croquet. What’s interesting about this is it shows the layout, but it doesn’t give much indication – for example, here – of what these were. – So, actually, the more you look at it, the harder it is to read.
– Yeah. Although the general picture is wonderful, and laid out and exact. – Interesting.
– Very. Mm. The only plan of Levens Hall provides a tantalising hint at the mind at work behind the garden, but the details remain frustratingly elusive. I will be returning to Levens, but to understand what inspired and influenced those plans, I need to delve much further back – to the very beginning of the century. I’m on my way to visit a building that I’ve never seen before but I’ve read an awful lot about – and I know that it was never finished, and apparently there’s no garden attached… but within the structure that IS there, there are clues, and if you can break the code, then the garden reveals itself in fascinating detail. This is Lyveden New Bield… ..and it’s a garden building. One of the most magnificent garden buildings ever constructed in this country… but it was never finished. It was made by a man called Sir Thomas Tresham – I’ve got a picture of him here. He was a wealthy and successful nobleman – successful because he was knighted by Elizabeth I, and you can see him here in this magnificent armour, showing off his wealth – but the armour is decorated beautifully with trefoils, and that is part of the code that is inscribed all over the building. Trefoil was the symbol of the trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost – and this was really significant, because Tresham was a Catholic. In an age dominated by the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, the intricacies of faith of our 17th century ancestors is the key to understanding their homes and gardens, because they are often packed with religious codes and messages. So, the first thing you notice with this entrance porch is that it’s got five sides to the bay – one, two… three…four… five – and each side is five foot long – three, four, five. Five times five – 25. That symbolises the 25th of December, Christ’s birthday, and the 25th of March, the date of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. Immediately, as a Catholic, you would get that – you would start to read into this. It’s a message to you. You’re amongst friends – and these are very persecuted friends. And there’s one last clue that isn’t immediately apparent, but, as you walk around, it reveals itself, and that is that the whole building is in the shape of a cross. On account of his Catholic faith, Tresham was constantly in and out of prison, which is one of the reasons why his plans for Lyveden were never completed. This building, which he called The Lodge, was intended to be a banqueting house where fellow Catholics could gather in relative safety. The best rooms would have been at the top of the building, where his guests could look out and admire Tresham’s grand estate – and, even more importantly, his magnificent garden. Now, Sir Thomas Tresham never lived to see the building completed. He died early in 1605. Work stopped, and then, later in 1605, the Catholic plot, which has come to be known as the Gunpowder Plot, was discovered. His son was involved, thrown into the Tower, and also died later that year. And this building stood unattended, and it’s been untouched for 400 years – and the garden that we look down on was ploughed up, trees grew on it, and it disappeared, too… until recently. Very recently, clues have been discovered that reveal what Thomas Tresham’s garden of 1600 may have looked like. Mark Bradshaw from the National Trust has found that hidden religious codes and symbols weren’t only confined to the buildings. So, we’ve arrived at the site, here, of Tresham’s house. Archaeological research indicates that from the house, Tresham and his guests would have walked up through a series of seven terraces, symbolising the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. They would then have arrived at an orchard, which has recently been restored using the original planting holes. Do you know what amazes me about this? I had no idea that gardens were being made on such a scale. This is grand, isn’t it? There’s over 306 trees, 25 different varieties, from damsons and gage and plums, to apples and pears… avenue of cherries. This is statement gardening, showing wealth, ingenuity, ability to obtain these varieties, bring them into your garden – to show off. Until the beginning of this century, it was believed that the rest of Lyveden’s garden had been ploughed up and irretrievably lost, but a fresh clue has revealed a remarkable feature that lay hidden for 400 years. This is an aerial photograph that in 2003 we obtained – from Maryland in the US.
– Right. It’s an aerial photograph taken by the German Luftwaffe in the 1940s, and we’re standing around about here – and where we’re looking out over looks like an open field today – but can you…?
– I can see… Am I reading this right? That what we’re looking at is… ..a labyrinth? Your heart must have almost stopped beating – when you saw that picture.
– Oh! We’d had earlier aerial photographs, and we’d just never picked up that sort of detail, – but the light…that the day this photograph was taken…
– Yeah. ..the time of year, just captured what are very subtle changes in ground level. Well, having discovered this, – and after you had all sat down and got your breath back…
– Yeah! ..what did you do? Literally, we came in with mowers and started cutting the path – as accurately as possible to this representation… and we’ve continued cutting that over the last number of years. Labyrinths were a popular feature in many gardens of the 16th and early 17th centuries. Tresham’s labyrinth was over a mile in length, and designed to be walked as an act of contemplation, the journey representing the tortuous but true path of the Catholic through life and on to heaven. Letters have been found that reveal that Tresham lined what he called his circular beds – but which we now know to be a labyrinth – with white roses and raspberry plants. The raspberries would have symbolised the blood of Christ, the roses the purity of the Virgin Mary. Now, with the help of an aerial photograph and a lawnmower, we can once again reveal Tresham’s 400-year-old horticultural expression of faith. It’s a fascinating insight into the hidden messages that lie below the surface of these gardens. Lyveden has revealed and hinted at some of the clues to the secrets of the 17th century garden, but I’m now keen to discover more. So I’ve come to the Lindley Library in central London, where the Royal Horticultural Society holds some of the earliest books published on the British garden – and straight away I realise that I have underestimated what good records there are from this period. This is the period that is like the Dark Ages in many ways – but clearly it’s not. It’s not if you can turn to primary sources, to books. – In terms of what’s left on the ground, it is.
– Nothing. – There’s nothing…
– Nothing. ..but luckily it’s the time when there’s an explosion in printing, – an explosion in publishing.
– Yeah. The archivist Fiona Davidson has selected some gems from this burst of publishing that tell us a huge amount about our 17th century forebears’ relationship with their plants and gardens. And they’re beautiful objects, too. Aren’t they lovely? What’s this book, here? The Gardeners Labyrinth, which is often quoted as being the first popular gardening book – in English, so it’s a good place to start.
– When was it written? It was written – this copy is 1586. And there is a very ornate patterned form. – Mm.
– What’s going on there? So, these are the designs for the knot gardens, and you’ll find there are quite a few of them. – And that’s like a labyrinth.
– Mm. So, entwined, elaborate hedges made out of thyme, or herbs of any kind – – maybe box, but low hedges.
– Mm. These were there for the gardener to look at and get some inspiration from – – but if you look at the book along…
– ..next, it gets more practical, because this is showing you how to lay out bits of string in order to calculate your square and get your dimensions right. What was the reason they were using these very elaborate forms? – Well, we think…
– Mm. ..that it’s to do with having control over nature and showing that you’ve got… There’s a pattern and a plan to creation, – and you’ve made it – you’ve built that pattern…
– Yeah. ..so you’ve demonstrated that you’ve got an understanding of complexity, but you’ve also got control. – You’ve got control – and it is to the glory of God.
– Mm-hm. Yes. Just get this out of the way… Like Tresham’s labyrinth, using patterns to reflect order was one method to communicate religious messages – but there was also another way. This is the rather elaborate frontispiece, and it’s the garden of Eden, this idea of God as a gardener, – and Creation as a garden.
– Mm. These are the beautiful plants for your paradise garden. But what’s really interesting about it is the mixture of plants that you’d recognise… Well, I can see, tulip, pineapple… So, these are plants of the New World, as well. – Yeah – there’s a lily.
– Cactus, as well. – And what’s that?
– At this moment in history, it’s the mix between exploration and mythology, because this is the Tartary lamb – it’s this idea that somewhere in the mysterious East grew a plant that sent up a shoot, and at the end of the shoot a little lamb grew, and then would eat its way around – still tethered like an umbilical cord to the shoot – and then it would run out of grass and it would die. People believed in them, because other wonders were being discovered all the time. So why not that? In the age before scientific understanding, it’s clear that religious symbolism played a key role in garden design – but the idealised image of a Garden of Eden combined with sheer greed also drove what became a frenzy to acquire new and exotic plants. There’s no question that tulips were the most important plant in the 17th century. People became obsessed by them – and in the 1630s, particularly in Holland, tulip mania was the first case of a bubble and a credit crunch, because people noticed that these bulbs, newly imported from the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey, had a tendency to go from a plain flower to one that the following year would appear streaked, and flushed with colour, and these apparitions – what we now call breaking – were admired, and held to be valuable, and, of course, things that are valuable then can be sold, and rapidly these prices became inflated, and you speculated on it happening. So, what it would mean is that you would take a simple bulb like this, an ordinary tulip bulb, sell it to someone in the hope that it would break, and by the time it went from being planted as a bulb to appearing as a flower, it could have been sold ten times – and vast fortunes were made, and, in fact, I’ve noted down, one bulb of a variety called Viceroy was sold in the 1630s for two cartloads of wheat, two cartloads of rye, 12 fat sheep, two hogshead – that’s 100 gallons – of wine, one bed, one suit of clothes, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, 1,000 gallons of beer, two tuns – that’s two barrels – of butter, one silver drinking horn and 1,000 pounds of cheese – and you could only hope that it was a beautiful flower at the end of all that. Well, the bubble burst, fortunes were lost, capitalism crashed around its ears – but the tulip endured. This tulip mania was a very strange affair – although perhaps not so different from the booms and crashes of recent times – but what was essential to the age was the idea that the more one could tame and control nature, the greater the demonstration of wealth, status and power. I’ve come to Hampton Court, where, following a bitter civil war that had seen Charles I executed, a republic under Oliver Cromwell rise and fall, the new King, Charles II, chose to mark his return from exile with one of the century’s most iconic garden features. This piece of water is really significant. You’ve got to remember that Charles had just come back from exile – this is 1660 – and one of the first things he does is to make this. And the context is that he’s been driven out of the country – there was a terrible civil war, and, as far as he was concerned, a monstrous regicide as his father was murdered. So he returns, and he does this. What it does is slice through the landscape – it straightens a river. You’ve got the avenue flanking it either side, so nature is dominated – and this was designed to be seen from the palace looking out, and everybody there would have read the message, which was that “I am in command, not just of you, my people, “but of nature itself.” The Long Water introduced a French style that had inspired Charles during his exile in Paris, and, for the privileged few who could afford it, his return to England heralded a new era of extravagant garden building. At the vanguard was a neighbour and close ally of the King who ploughed a fortune into building one of the most fashionable homes in England. Bringing together leading architects, craftsmen and landscape designers from the continent, Ham House dispensed with long standing traditions of design, to create a contemporary garden that was every bit as important as the house itself. The great hall is laid out in a very familiar fashion. You have a main door at one end and another door directly opposite, to create what was a passageway – and this would have been familiar to anyone from the Norman conquest in 1066 right up to Elizabethan times. But what was new was the way that what would have been the old cross passage was designed along the line of the main axis of the garden, so, for the first time, house and garden were designed as one entity – and this is really the turning point from a medieval arrangement to one that became essentially baroque. Ham was extended and remodelled in the 1670s with all the drama and magnificence of the baroque style, and in doing so, the splendour of the new garden was revealed wherever possible from inside the house. As at Lyveden, the reception rooms were on the first floor, so the guests could view the ornate planting of the French-inspired parterre from above and admire the owner’s impeccable taste. These changes were propelled by an extremely ambitious woman who inherited Ham and then transformed it into the exquisite house and garden that we see today. – Here we are in the long gallery.
– Uh-huh. I wanted the house steward, Camilla Churchill, to explain to me how this woman, Elizabeth Lauderdale, could afford the vast expense of all this. And there she is… with her black servant… And she’s got her hand on roses, which signify fertility. So, she’s possibly pregnant with her first child. What sort of person was she? She was very well educated. She was able to befriend the right people. Who were the right people? The right people? Well, she was a royalist. She was friends with Charles I. While the Civil War happened, she was also friends with Cromwell. It seems that through a combination of guile and charm, Elizabeth managed to hide her true allegiance to the exiled Charles II in France, and while publicly she endorsed and befriended Cromwell, in secret she was plotting behind his back, passing on intelligence from the privacy of her garden at Ham. She was part of the Sealed Knot Society, corresponding with other royalists on the Continent and trying to get Charles II back on the throne in this country – presumably supplying political information to him to help forward the royalist cause. On his return to England, Elizabeth’s loyalty to the King was rewarded with an annual salary of £800 – that’s something around about a million pounds in today’s values – and she spent this new-found wealth on extending the house and creating a garden that reflected contemporary fashions. Medieval knot gardens were swept away and replaced with something we would consider very familiar, even very ordinary, today. By the 1970s, the garden was pretty overgrown, and the decision was made to restore it to its heyday 300 years previously, in 1675 – just after the extensions to the house were done and this garden was laid out. And, at first glance, these great expanses of lawn seem unlikely – think of formal gardens consisting of hedges and patterns – but, actually, these plats, as they were called, were a symbol of wealth and control, because to have a lawn at all – particularly a lawn of this size, and eight of them directly in front of the house – meant that you had to be able to employ people to cut them. There were no lawnmowers – these were cut by scythes. A tightly-cut lawn, usually used for playing bowls, as at Levens Hall, became an essential, fashionable feature for late 17th century gardens. And so, too, was a Wilderness. This was still formal, but a more private space – and ideal for a stroll, entertaining guests – or even an assignment. Wilderness was an exciting mixture of a very controlled wood and a touch of the unknowable. Somewhere that was just a little bit outside normal life, a little bit of frisson of danger – BUT very, very organised – so, you have these trees pruned so you can see through them with hedges clipped tightly underneath them, and this use of space, of bringing the wood into the garden and the garden into the wood, exactly fitted with the new spirit of the age. Although this garden continued the tradition of extreme formality and control over nature, you get a real sense that it was designed not just to be admired but also used as a place for recreation and pleasure – and this modern idea of a garden is encapsulated in a painting of Ham done at the time. This is one of those iconic images that, if you’re interested in garden history, pop up again and again. There you have the duke and duchess walking in their garden surrounded by what amounts to courtiers – this little private court here at Ham House. Friends, visitors, hangers-on, all dressed to impress each other and the duke and duchess. And the little dogs there – King Charles spaniels – and that figure in the back… ..yes, rather a brooding figure of a priest following on behind, and the page boy bowing low. So, this moment caught of extravagance, of a couple in their prime, dominating their world. This is somewhere where their lives are being lived – and the garden is working as part of the household rather than just serving the house – and that’s a big change. That’s an important shift in the use of a garden. Alongside this evolving use and design, the contents of our gardens were also significantly changing in this period. It was a pioneering age of ever more adventurous travel and trade, which saw the influx of new plants from around the globe, many intended for the dinner table. I wanted to find out what people were eating in the 17th century, and if that differed very much from what we eat today. – Hello, Vicki, nice to see you.
– Hello. – These look really good.
– Oh, thank you very much! Yes. – I love the smell…
– Mm! Can’t beat fresh carrots. ..of a newly pulled carrot in the morning. I’ve come back to Hampton Court, where Vicki Cooke and her team have recently restored one of the palace’s period vegetable gardens. We have this idea… that they ate meat and then hardly ate any vegetables at all. Ah, right, yes – well, vegetable eating started to be popularised in this era, I think partly due to revolutions in the way that they grew things. They had better knowledge of how to get good crops from the land, but also it was, I guess, partly a fashion thing. People were more aware of the health benefits of eating more vegetables. Carrots were originally purple and white, and then they had some that were selected to be yellow, and then… So when did the orange carrots come in? Orange carrots came in in the 17th century, and they were bred by the Dutch in about the 1650s. Some say it was as a patriotic gesture to the house of Orange. But these are the purple ones. That’s beautiful! Absolutely gorgeous, aren’t they? Have you got any white ones? We’ve got some white ones here, yeah. You see, that’s fantastic. – OK, there’s carrots. Let’s move on.
– Mm-hm, yep. You’ve got rather an overgrown… what looks like – I don’t know, radishes? Yes – we have some very overgrown radishes, – but they’ve been left for a reason.
– Ah! So, these are radishes that have gone to seed, but they would have eaten the radish pods as a delicacy. Well, the pod is quite tough. To be honest, that isn’t the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten. THEY LAUGH What strikes me is the variety of produce that was being grown. In fact, it’s a much wider range than most of us grow or eat now. Costmary would have been used to flavour ale. It has a very strong, distinctive flavour. And they used quite tanniny things for beer, because it helped preserve it. – Oh, gosh.
– Yeah, it’s quite… Wow. – Also listed as a salad ingredient.
– Oh, no! OK, is there anything that they conspicuously didn’t grow? In the 17th century, things like potatoes and tomatoes and runner beans, they were very new, they would have been novelties. Right – and yet they’re pretty much staples for us, aren’t they? There aren’t many gardens that grow vegetables – that don’t grow a tomato or two.
– Exactly, that’s it. Yes, but it would have been dangerously exotic and – you know, people were a bit suspicious of these fruits, which are all in the same family as deadly nightshade. – That’s interesting.
– Mm. Like your lettuce. They’re looking really good. – Yeah!
– Did they eat lettuce as salad, as we do? They might have boiled it. – Boiled the lettuce?!
– SHE CHUCKLES They seem to have boiled quite a lot of things. Exotic new varieties of fruit and vegetables coming into the country weren’t always equipped to grow in our climate – but gardeners had managed to work out an ingenious method of nurturing them through to their precious harvest. – Oh, look, you’ve got some melons.
– We have actually got some melons. ‘Melons would have been grown in hotbeds, ‘which were an important feature ‘of any aspirational garden in the 1600s.’ So, how were these hotbeds made? So, a hotbed would have been a construction a little bit like you can see here – raised off the ground – and they would have used a very fresh strawy, manurey mix straight out of the stables, which would create heat as it breaks down. And that is providing an artificially warm environment for the seeds to germinate… – Yep.
– ..and the young plant to grow.
– And then the plant to grow.
– Yeah. Yes, you really need to protect them in those early months. – Around August, September time.
– That’s it, yeah. But even earlier – I mean, they were very keen that you could show off your status by having a melon out of season. So, you know, some gardeners said they could produce melons by May for the table, which is quite an impressive feat. As our 17th century ancestors sought better methods for growing plants out of season or from tropical climates, they increasingly began to challenge old superstitions that were based on tradition and faith, and to embrace a new world where intellect and science was applied to gardening for the first time. The age of enlightenment had arrived. I’ve come to the country’s first botanic garden, made specifically in Oxford to observe and study plants. The way that people were thinking about themselves about the physical world – and, of course, that included plants – and explaining it, was changing radically. And actually this amounted to a revolution in the way that we were looking at the world, and the effect of that obviously changed gardens and still affects how we make and view gardens to this day. To see this legacy for myself, I’m paying a visit to the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University, where the collaborative study of science in the late 1600s transformed our knowledge of plants. We’re particularly interested in using this very simple plant to understand how rooting systems grow and develop. We can identify genes that control those traits, then we can begin to use this information to enhance crop productivity. Today, this genetic modification of plants has raised a passionate ethical debate… ..and I wondered whether, in an age ruled by such profound religious beliefs, the work of 17th century botanists was greeted with similar scepticism. So, tell me what we’ve got here. It’s a book herbarium, and it dates from about 1680. So, it’s over 300 years old. Stephen Harris is the Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria, and it still houses some of the first collections and studies of plants in this country. What you have here, then, is a whole series of dried plants. The interesting thing is that they have been carefully collected, – carefully, beautifully, preserved…
– ..and recorded, and an attempt to organise and understand their interrelationship. Not only necessary preserving stuff in the form that we have here in terms of these dried plants, but also in terms of being able to grow things – how do plants respond to the environment? People were starting to ask explicit questions – and, more importantly, they were actually manipulating things, they were changing things. They were essentially doing experiments. Research into the behaviour of plants had, by the 1720s, led to the crossbreeding of different species, and this was a pivotal moment in the story of our gardens. This is a specimen of a plant called a Fairchild’s Mule, and it is, in fact, the first artificial hybrid – it was created by a chap called Thomas Fairchild, he was a nurseryman in Hoxton, and it’s a hybrid between a carnation and a sweet William. And what was the reaction to Fairchild’s Mule? People started to get a bit queasy about what the implications of this might be. If you can create something else out of two different species, then where does that place your ideas that species were somehow God-given, that they were fixed? Mirrors, in some ways, the sort of GM debates we’re having now. Yes, I think these sorts of discussions, where you get these fundamental changes, perhaps, in ideas and in beliefs about, if you like, the roles of genes and genetics in our general lives, would have been very similar. Despite the growing band of scientists and intellectuals finding a new language to talk about plants, by the late 1600s, gardens in this country had yet to express our own national culture and identity. Under Charles II, we had followed the fashions of the French, like at Ham House – but his death and the subsequent overthrow in 1688 of his Catholic brother James had ushered in a new era of garden design. I’ve returned to Hampton Court, where this latest style arrived with a new protestant monarchy from Holland – Charles II’s niece Mary and her Dutch husband William. William and Mary brought with them a completely different culture. Mary, for example, brought marvellous pottery, there was a new gardening culture, and they came to Hampton Court and really adopted it as their favoured palace. Together, the new king and queen set about transforming the old Tudor palace to their own Dutch tastes – but, just six years into their joint reign, Mary died, and it was left to the grief-stricken William to complete the task. I’ve been given permission to go up on the rooftops to look at the result. Up on the leads. That’s fantastic. Incredible to see it from up here, on a beautiful clear day. And what it brings home is the particular Dutchness of it. If you think that the great enemy was Louis XIV in France, and Louis had Versailles – Versailles which, by the 1690s, was the great wonder of Europe, this vast garden and court which stretched out literally as far as the eye could see – and it set the tone for all aspirational gardens. But what William brought was a completely different sensibility. Whereas Versailles looked out, with its great avenues and domination, there was something inward-looking about Dutch gardens, something contained and precise, almost finicky, and, of course, in many ways, that appealed more to the British sensibility with its enclosed gardens than it did the French, and immediately it was taken up by the British. Through a combination of meticulous historical research and the forensic examination of old planting holes, William’s privy garden, as it was known, was accurately restored in 1995. Now, the whole point about the privy garden was that access to the King was a series of stages, and in the palace itself you went through reception rooms that got smaller and smaller until you reached the royal closet, where the King could speak to people one-to-one, or just two or three people, and so it was with the garden. You were only allowed in here by invitation. The court couldn’t mill around. So, this was personal, and it was private – but he is a king. It wasn’t as though he was out here weeding. This was magnificent, and intended to be so from the outset. To the modern eye, it’s a magnificence that’s slightly hard to read. There seems to be too much space between the plants… ..and the topiary, the one abiding garden feature that William and Mary brought with them from Holland, are all tiny compared to the large gothic creations that we have become accustomed to. I’m intrigued to know how the estates and gardens manager Graham Dillamore keeps them so small and tight. I mean, I grow some topiary, and I know that although they are only about 20 years old, – however tightly you clip them, they just get steadily bigger.
– Yeah. – It’s this weird thing!
– They do, don’t they? Yeah. Trying to get out, and trying to break free from the shape. Well, it wants to be a tree, doesn’t it? It wants to be a tree, yeah. How do you get them to be as tight as this? Real control over nature, and it begins at a very early stage when you get the plant very, very young. You have to keep clipping it, keep controlling it, and eventually it just firms up – it just stays within its framework. And in the 17th century… they’d worked this out, hadn’t they? They’d cracked that. Yeah, they’d mastered it. It’s about quality over quantity. The quality of the topiary was really, really important to them and they’d rather see a very good specimen – – you know, modest in size, to be honest with you…
– Yeah. ..but of absolute pure quality. And did that apply to just yew and box, or were they topiarising lots of things? Well, it was that era where the control over nature, as I said earlier, was absolutely king, and wherever possible, they could exercise their power over nature by clipping everything. So we find in the privy garden, for example, they would have clipped hollies, they would have clipped the roses, the honeysuckles, the lavenders, the philadelphus – – all would have been clipped to shape…
– Right. ..just to give that example of, “I’m the King “and I can make plants grow to whatever shape I like.” At exactly the same time as William’s privy garden was being made, our sole survivor from the 17th century, Levens Hall, was also being planted – and all the evidence from Hampton Court would suggest that its famous, monumental topiary would originally have been just as small. Now, Levens has long since matured and evolved, but I wanted to know if there were any contemporary records of what was being planted here at the end of this century that had witnessed so many discoveries and advancements in gardening. Certainly, for the look of the garden, we can go back through photographs of 100 years, – paintings probably for another 100 years before that.
– Yeah. But amazingly, here at Levens, we’ve still got all the records – the letters, bills, receipts – all the paperwork relating to the whole setting out of this garden back in the 1690s. Chris Crowder is only the tenth head gardener to have worked at Levens since his predecessor Monsieur Beaumont created the garden in the 1690s. He’s taking me behind the scenes to a fascinating treasure trove of records from the garden’s long history. Everything that’s gone on at Levens for centuries… – It’s all here.
– ..is all stored in these boxes. A pound and a half of onion seed, 2oz of radish, lettuce seed, two quarts of French bean. All this – the evidence is here. So we know exactly what he sowed? The sort of things he was ordering at that time, the sort of things that were being received. A thousand tulip roots, 200 double jonquil… ..200 ranunculus… They’re fairly substantial numbers. You know that 50 years earlier, tulips were going for vast sums of money, and that they were really precious. The concept of a border, as we know it, didn’t really exist, did it? No, perhaps not the way we fill them – – but that’s the difference between now and then, isn’t it?
– Yeah. Back in the 1600s, we’re looking at individual plants. – Yeah.
– If you see old illustrations, there would have been a plant and a lot of bare soil, and they would’ve focused in. Which is why I look at a thousand tulip roots, and I’m thinking, “That’s interesting, “maybe the world is changing.” Were they beginning to mass plant? – It’s possible, the very late 1600s…
– Yeah. ..it might have been the cusp of that new era. – So, it was a period of revolution, really.
– Mm. It’s a very fascinating moment to see a garden being developed – and it’s all here. As Autumn comes round, so, too, does the annual ritual of cutting the famous hedges and topiary. Today, the gardeners use hydraulic lifts and the latest power tools, but I’d like to know how a task like this would have been achieved in the 17th century, so I’m on my way to visit a blacksmith to help make a pair of period shears. I want to get the feel of what it was like to look after these gardens. I’m a practical man, I’m a gardener. So, I know, when I’ve made them, that if I use them, it will replicate exactly the experience of the 17th century gardener making their controlled world. Hello, I’m, Monty. It’s nice to meet you. There we go. Long before the advent of mass production, tool-making was a bespoke craft where the relationship between a professional gardener and a blacksmith like John Beavis was absolutely vital. What I’ve got here is a billet prepared ready, and once it reaches temperature, out onto the anvil, quickly bang it together. And we’re almost there, actually, Monty. Coming out. What we want to do is to create the top end of the blade, working back, and then form the cutting bevel. The billet is made up of a strip of wrought iron and steel fire-welded together, which John then slowly hammers into the shape of the blade. – This is folding a bit, isn’t it?
– That’s right. So it’s correcting… what you’re doing. Shaping the blade is a laborious as well as skilled process. Once completed, we’re ready to start the handle. Right, confident to have a go, then? No, but I will. – Take hold of the tongs…
– Yeah. ..and I’ll tell you when. – Which way up have we got to go?
– We’ve got to go…
– That way? OK. On the side of the anvil. Right, there we are, so we’re there. – And…
– Then just… That’s right. Work your way up to the end of the blade. Turn it over… Lovely – Are we there?
– Yes, we’re there. We’ll have him back in the fire. Right, we’re almost ready. OK, I’m going to keep out of your way. – Set him down.
– Right. Quite a difficult process. We need to get it on the side of the anvil, hammer half on, half off… and hammer it down, and then bring him up and take him through. So, the side of the anvil… – Has created that step.
– I’m with you.
– Yeah. – Prepare yourself, Monty.
– All right, OK. – Your turn to have a go.
– Right-oh. Vicelike grip. Fine. Ooh! There he went – you were right! – Vicelike grip.
– Vicelike grip, OK. Let’s pick him up. TONGS CLACK Whoops, quite tricky. Right, let’s put him back down… ..and it was on an end-to-end like that… OK. No, he went again. Well… So, what was I doing wrong? Just simply not holding it hard enough? – Simply not holding it hard enough.
– That’s a bit humiliating! HE LAUGHS Real craftsmanship based on years of skilled practice is needed to make a tool like this, so I’ll leave John to finish making the shears’ characteristic curved handle. There, and you simply scroll tongs in… and take him around… ..and then square him up on the side of the anvil. And that’s him basically done. Let’s burn him on. So, the handle is here with a hole drilled in it. Yep, and all we need to do is push him on… Whoa, look at that! – Look at that.
– ..and he’s there. Right Here we go, then, Monty – cleaned, finished… handles on. All we need to do now is put them together, set them, and see if they work. – Now, this you’ve made?
– Yep. A wing nut, which we forged, as well. Threaded on… ..and when you pull them apart, you should hear it… SHEARS SNIP And there’s the picture. – Clearly the same.
– That’s right. If you had a pair of these and you found that picture, you’d say, “They’re my shears!” They’re incredibly beautiful, and it’s obviously a privilege to watch them being made and see craftsmanship at work – but the truth is, beauty won’t earn their keep. That’s right. – They’ve got to be useful.
– They’ve got to be practical. Yeah, they’ve got to do a job, so I’m now going to take these to the oldest surviving garden in England with an enormous amount of topiary to cut, and I’m going to try them out. When you think this is a 1640-odd design… There you are, look, it’s working. They’re functioning, aren’t they? – Well, that is amazing…
– A bit. I’ve never realised that-that – there’s not much difference. – No.
– Technology hasn’t progressed THAT far. – That’s got a better edge on it, but it cuts…
– Yeah. So, there’s no question that they could have done your job – with these tools.
– Mm. Not as efficiently, but they could have done. Do you cut this with hand shears at all? I have cut a lot of the pieces with hand shears – the bigger they get, the higher they get, the more I slip into the electric and the petrol stuff. I would say 90% of the things in the garden are cut mechanically now – but it’s a great joy to do it by hand. – You get a feel for it, don’t you?
– You do – and do you think that the technology, shears, for example, affected the shapes? Almost certainly, yeah. There’s certainly a different style of clipping when you get on to the straight-edged mechanical shears. – You’re making much smoother, flatter edges more easily.
– Yeah. So they would have had more curves, more balls… – I would think they would have been more rounded.
– Right. Everything would have been more rounded. And do you feel bound or even inhibited by the fact that these are 17th century pieces of topiary, and somehow you need to preserve that heritage? I would say probably not. I love and respect these old pieces – they may be from the 17th century, but actually it’s us that remake them and reshape them every year, so, it’s our little edge to them that’s important every season. So, in 1690-something these were 17th century pieces, and then in the 18th century they became 18th century topiary, and 19th and 20th – and now they are 21st century topiary living and alive in the present. They are. I don’t think any generation should be completely tied and trapped by the views of the previous one. What I’ve learnt on my journey through the 17th century is just how powerful a statement gardens could be. They weren’t just a space to entertain or while away the hours. Gardens defined who you were and what you stood for – whether it was your faith, your understanding of science, or your wealth and status in society. And whilst our only surviving 17th century garden, Levens Hall, took the fashions and trends of that century for inspiration, it also looked forward, with a revolutionary new idea. One of the ironies of this garden is that the very first thing that Monsieur Beaumont did was quite unlike anything else that had been done in the 17th century, and that was to build a ha-ha. This was the first ha-ha ever known in this country – and the point of it is, you have a wall which keeps out the cattle and the sheep in the park, but no barrier to the eye, so, from the garden, you look out and include the countryside as part of your gardening view. Now this – not the topiary, not the bowling green, no other feature – it was this that was to revolutionise gardening in the next century… but that…is another story.