A Puzzle In The Woods: Part Two

The terrace garden, 1911.
Picture courtesy of RHS Lindley Library

What remains of the grand gardens of Baron Hill today?  At first glance, not much as the grounds are overgrown and subfusc.  Some of the gloom is provided by evergreens which date to the Victorian period: yew and other conifers, cherry laurel, holm oak and holly all casting dense shade.  The often serried yews indicate hedgelines that have outgrown their original formal silhouettes.  Conifer identification is not my forte but I managed to work out the presence of Scots pine and wellingtonia.  An article from the Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener (22 Jan 1874) lists some of the recently planted conifers, and wellingtonia is asterixed as being planted in a specific year: 1858.  This was just five years after the species was introduced to the UK, demonstrating the wealth and influence of Viscount Bulkeley.

Another botanical relic are the palms.  I hadn’t noticed these the first time around, and I was quite shocked to see them discretely standing there.  I thought they needed lots of sun!  A 1911 article in The Gardener’s Chronicle notes a “palm garden” where subtropical planting was grouped, including palms, dracaenas, yuccas and phormium.
Palm garden, 1911.
Picture courtesy of RHS Lindley Library
Palms, May 2014

 

Fossicking around the greenhouses again, I spotted a detail I’d overlooked before, which gave a clue as to what they were used for.  Along the top of the three feet high wall where the glazing would’ve rested, there was a series of evenly spaced gaps, approximately five handspans wide.  This brought to mind the vinery I’d seen in the Victorian kitchen garden at Audley End, where the vines were rooted in a bed outside and trained in through holes in the wall to climb up the inside of the glass roof.  The thing that made me doubt this possibility was the width of the gaps – my vague recollection was of narrower apertures, and I wondered if they’d really be that wide.  The 1874 article I later read described two vineries, one for early grapes and one late.  Both were fifty feet long, fourteen feet wide and thirteen feet tall.  That seemed about right.  The head gardener at the time was Mr. Gough, who was praised for the “health and vigour” of his vines, which he attributed to the application of Gishurst compound.  The main kitchen garden, however, was a mile away at Fryars, another of Bulkeley’s mansions. 

Fountain with belvedere in background, 1911
Picture courtesy of the RHS Lindley Library
The lily garden, 1911.
Picture courtesy of the RHS Lindley Library

A temple-like belvedere still stands.  The vista that it once afforded is now obscured  It included a fountain which has to be hunted for.  The lily pond that had its own portion of garden, girded by a yew hedge that canary creeper snaked through, is now reduced to a circular lip in the ground.

        
Fountain, May 2014
Lily pond, May 2014
The thing that had puzzled us most about the gardens were the numerous structures we saw dotted about. There were at least twenty, all rectangular and about waist height.  Many had nails in the chamfered tops of the double-width walls,and most had walls opposite their entrance.  Beside each was what looked like a boot-scrape.  For a long time, we’d presumed these were garden related and we pondered, then dismissed, a list of possibilities, however unlikely.  During this last visit, we spotted some old pictures in a pub, The Liverpool Arms.  The grounds and its layout were fresh in our minds from a wander there the day before, and it dawned on us that these half-buildings were superimposed

Puzzling structure

on the garden irrespective of consideration for beauty or horticultural necessity.  They ranged over the area where the terrace garden would have been, and beyond the belvedere and around the fountain and lily pond.  We realised that they must somehow be linked with the miltary, as troops were billeted there in WW2.  The function remains mysterious but we’ve contented ourselves with the speculation that they may have been used to store explosives.  My friend is passionate about fireworks and suggested a wall opposite an entrance could have been a “blast wall”, and the “boot-scrapes” a place to discharge static electricity before entering the building, similar to fireworks factories which have a metal (usually copper)plate outside entrances for that purpose.  I later discovered an ecology survey and bat report which confirmed these structures were of military origin, but we’ve no verification of what they were used for.

The portico with grafitti, 2010

Fuzzing through these remnants were the wild plants, be they native or of cultivated origin.  Dominant within the mansion husk itself, and forming a main understorey shrub in the immediate vicinity was Lecesteria formosa.  These now hide the grafitti we saw in 2010 of climbers scaling the columns of the portico.  Riding high, a fern had managed to take root in a first floor girder.  In the dappled shade where the evergreens hadn’t stretched their limbs were the herbaceous plants of woodland and its fringes, such as sanicle, red campion and wood avens.  Above these, broad-leaved secondary woodland is developing, including an Ulmus species which I’m guessing is wych elm due to its “shouldered” leaves resembling those of the hazel.  As the tree cover is over 30% now, Baron Hill can no longer be categorised as parkland. An ecological report conducted in 2008 noted the site is undermanaged, so value for wildlife may become diminished.  Since then, the area has become even more overgrown.  I find this a fascinating state in itself – what balance might nature strike, if any?

There had been talk of converting the mansion to luxury flats but this idea seems to have fallen by the wayside.  If these gardens were ever restored to a former glory, I’m not sure I’d find them as interesting as I do now.  It’s not really that I find ruins inherently more appealing, but that the historical garden style is not my cup of tea.  The nearby Plas Cadnant, a 19th century garden recently brought out of dilapidation, is one that I find as entrancing now as I’m certain I would’ve done if I’d chanced upon it in a ruinous state.

Sources:

25 Feb 1911, The Gardeners’s Chronicle

22 Jan 1874, Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener

Richards, Moorehead & Laing Ltd, Ecological Report for Baron Hill, 9 April 2008
Richards, Moorehead & Laing Ltd, Report on Preliminary Bat Survey, July 2008
see Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales website: http://www.coflein.gov.uk

Gerald Wilkinson, Epitaph for the Elm (Hutchinson of London, 1978)

http://www.kew.org/science

 

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