Robinson Treehouses

This post started out as another “serious” look at the history of treehouses but has ended up a bit more off-beat than usual , somehow managing to include mentions of a well-known children’s book, a Disney film, donkeys,  bars in the skies, the French rock star Johnny Halliday and a mistress of the Prince of Wales. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Carrying on with the “proper” garden history from last week …the “natural” landscape garden of the 18thc seemed to have no place for  treehouses preferring instead  temples and other paraphernalia of classical antiquity, but these too fell out of fashion as more romantic  ideas about “wild” nature and landscape began to assert themselves.

So what happened next?

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Treehouses of the Renaissance and after…

I was recently sent a book about treehouses for my birthday and it was a subtle reminder that we’d inherited the remains of one here in France when we bought the house 15 years ago and even laid the boards for another in a willow tree  over the lake. Alas the best laid plans of mice and garden owners gang aft a-gley as Robbie Burns didn’t quite say, and the treehouse’s base still sits unfinished.  Having looked at the book though maybe one day !

I was  pleased – as well as surprised –  to see that one of the authors was Paula Henderson a historian I admire and whose work on early modern gardens has been  groundbreaking.   I had no idea she was interested in treehouses and wondered what  the possible connection was between them and the  Tudors. You don’t somehow imagine Henry VIII sitting in an oak tree or Elizabeth I clambering up a ladder for the view.

Of course I ought to have known but as I flicked through the section on treehouses of the past the penny quickly dropped….

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Holkham continued…

We left the story of Holkham last week in the middle of all the activity that was taking place at the end of the 18thc under the aegis of Thomas Coke, the reforming MP and agricultural improver.   He continued his development of the landscape and the estate with the help of   Humphry Repton, and the architect Samuel Wyatt until his death in 1842.

Later in the 19thc another major transformation of the landscape took place which reinstated much of the formality around the mansion, and which proved that completely contradictory approaches to garden design can work stunningly well.

The base of the Leicester Monument

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Where do I start in trying to describe Holkham?  And it’s not just me. Historic England’s  Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest says : ” Because of the complexity of this site, the standard Register entry format would convey neither an adequate description nor a satisfactory account of the development of the landscape” and then proceeds to give a 2300 word brief summary of one of the the largest and most significant landscapes parks in the country.

The Holkham Hall estate is on the north Norfolk coast, near Wells-next-the-Sea and is enormous to put it mildly. The scale almost has to be seen to be believed. The walled park around the house  stretches about 3km east to west and 4 km north to south, and covers an area of  over 1200 ha.   While its landscape of pasture, woods and water look entirely natural they are  largely a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed the  estate’s  development much of which is recorded in Holkham’s extensive archives reads like a roll-call of the great and good in garden and architectural history.

It was laid out between the 1720s and 1760s by Thomas Coke, [later earl of Leicester] with the  help or advice  of Lord Burlington, William Kent, Colen Campbell and Matthew Brettingham. Later Lancelot Brown, William Emes, Samuel Wyatt and Humphry Repton, all had associations with the site whilst in the mid-19thc more work was carried out  by William Burn, William Andrews Nesfield, Samuel Teulon and Thomas Sandys.


So a trip to see Holkham was bound to be eye-opening!

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My post  a couple of weeks ago about Pteridomania seems to have created quite a lot of interest, which goes to show that ferns still manage to capture our attention in a big way, although probably still not as much as in the 19thc at the height of the fern fever craze.

But all good things come to an end, or at least slow right down, and so it was with fern fever. After WWI like so many other  specialised forms of gardening, upkeep of ferneries became more difficult because of labour shortages and the expense of maintenance .

Luckily while most of the simple fern gardens have simply just disappeared,  a surprising number of specially constructed ferneries still survive,  although, judging by the number of ruins and the amount of documentary evidence, they are a mere fraction of the number that must have existed.

I’ve just picked out a few to illustrate their range and variety – and have concentrated on three success stories.

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