I had planned to do another of my slightly off-beat approaches to a Christmas post – and was looking at Shirley Hibberd’s monograph on Ivy for inspiration – when into my inbox came a post from a fascinating botanical blog run by Manchester Museum’s Herbarium.
Since 2014 its been hosting an Advent Botany series looking at the obvious and not-so-obvious stories of plants and their relationship to Christmas, [my favourite so far has been about elfs] and of course there was one about Ivy based around Hibberd’s book.
What was I to do? The answer came a few days later when I took a class who’ve been looking at early 18th gardens this term to Chiswick House.
It wasn’t the answer I had expected, and certainly not one I’d hoped for but it was one that I think would have had Lord and Lady Burlington turning in their graves. So read on to find out more about the perils of having Christmas in the park in the age of austerity…
Chiswick is a historic house and garden of the highest international significance which are now under the stewardship of an independent trust, Chiswick House and Gardens Trust working with the London Borough of Hounslow and English Heritage to look after it. This obviously requires massive funding and the trust have been very successful at finding and using money well. The gardens are in good shape, there’s a lot happening, and the place is usually thronged with people having a good time, so it’s normally a great place to go… showing how even the greatest historic sites can be multifunctional without losing their essential spirit: their ‘genius of the place’.
But something seems to have gone wrong. What greeted me [apart from the tea and cake in the nice new cafe] was a sight of such sheer unadulterated tackiness that I was temporarily lost for words – which is not my usual state! And then when I recovered my aplomb the words I did use were not really printable in a respectable blog like this.
Walking round almost every historic feature was obscured whether by a Chinese pavilion, a school of leaping dolphins, or by large gaudy plastic flowers, birds and animals. They appear to have been dumped at random all round the gardens. None had any relation in any shape or form to their surroundings. Luckily the house was spared a Santa descending from the library window or a sleigh and reindeer sliding over the roof – presumably because it’s in the care of English Heritage who have not yet succumbed to what seems an almost incessant tide of commercial park abuse. Actually I think I’d have preferred to see Santa and his reindeer on the house. It would at least have had some seasonal connection and might have made the shades of William Kent smile.
Now if you dont live within easy reach of Chiswick, maybe you live near Kings Heath Park in Birmingham, Roundhay Park in Leeds, Philips Park in Manchester or the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. If so “their stunning landscape grounds” have also , according to the organizers of these events “been cherry-picked” and “filled with giant fairytale-like lanterns, depicting elaborate Christmas scenes.”
I have no doubt that Chiswick needs the money. I have no doubt either that there are many who will say such displays give pleasure to a lot of people, and they are probably right. Nor have I any doubt that given our philistine approach to our heritage and green heritage especially that this is unlikely to stop any time soon. What I do doubt is that it has to be so blatant, insensitive and disconnected to its site.
I’ve also seen the on-line videos and photos of them lit up, and of course, they do look better, and sometimes spectacular. But they could have been put absolutely anywhere with the same effect.
At Chiswick there are nearby sports fields for example where they would have been equally at home, or if it had to be on the historic estate site then the eastern side around the cricket pitch wouldn’t have impinged too much on the historic core of the estate… and it would also be perfectly possible to light the trees and buildings in the historic areas as is done in many other places and actually enhancing rather than detracting from them.
This is not meant to be an attack on Chiswick. Far from it…[if it reads like that maybe it’s shock at their temporary loss of sense of appropriateness and taste] instead it’s to sympathize with them. We have all seen the increasing commercialisation of what is now known euphemistically as “heritage assets”. That phrase in itself speaks volumes about the change in approach. Assets are there to be squeezed, exploited and made to pay for themselves.
No-one disputes I am sure that some more business-like attitudes have proved useful or even necessary for some sites. Opening a cafe, licensing a shop or using some space for commercial purposes doesn’t have to be bad. Far from it. But while such things once provided additional funds for what might have been considered nice extras, just as the hospital fete once provided luxuries for patients, these days it seems to be expected they will provide some of the core funding, which is the equivalent of the hospital holding jumble sales to provide disposable gloves and blood supplies. Oh for the days when the V&A could advertise itself as “An Ace Caff with nice museum attached” and it was thought to be wildly clever and amusing.
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew has just converted its Museum into a cafe – no doubt for “sound” financial reasons – and as they charge £27.50 for afternoon tea I’m sure the finances will soon be sound. It’s yet another part of Kew’s answer to endless funding shortfalls, and perhaps it was the least bad way of dealing with the latest crisis – or the euphemistic drive for “financial sustainability”. This is not an attack on Kew but again to sympathize with the management there. Of course for Kew this is not a new state of affairs. When the gardens were first taken over by the government from the crown in 1840 William Hooker, its great first director was kept permanently short of money too. At least now Kew has some freedom to raise money to replace what its lost grants, and it might explain why its executive board is now largely made up of marketing, financial and management experts rather than scientists and horticulturists.
This is not the place to rant about the value of botanical science in its own right, or even its longer term potential commercial or environmental value when we are governed by cynics who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. One hopes that even they realise there is a limit to how far we go or how long will it be before the board are driven to turn the pagoda into the RipyouoffBank helta-skelta, Queen Charlotte’s Cottage is put on airbnb and the Palm House converted into a solarium and spa?
The problem is that this is neither a new problem or an unrecognized one especially in publicly funded green spaces, as Uncertain Prospects a recent publication by The Gardens Trust points out. Its introductory paragraphs sum this up: In 1993, the Garden History Society and Victorian Society published “Public Prospects: the historic urban park under threat”, part of a wave of concern about the crumbling condition of the nation’s public parks. Its photographs of burnt-out boathouses, lakes choked with litter, weed-infested flower beds, vandalised statuary and boarded-up toilets still make grim viewing. Nearly a generation on from “Public Prospects”, many people can barely credit that parks were once in such dire straits.
However, there is increasing evidence that a new downward spiral has begun. Since 2010, cuts of 40% and more to parks budgets have seriously undermined the progress of the previous twenty years and threatened to put much of it into reverse. For those parks which have not benefited from investment (by far the majority), the situation is even more alarming. There is clear evidence of reduced maintenance, increases in litter, graffiti and vandalism, closure of amenities such as toilets, removal of play equipment, reduced on-site staff presence, and loss of skilled personnel at all levels. It is time for the alarm-bells to be rung once more.
But the same problem can be seen in private sites too. Apart from Rousham name a single important garden or historic venue that doesn’t have a cafe and shop which provide not just a welcome break for the visitor but valuable and necessary income for the site. Whereas people might quibble about paying £15 entry fee they don’t seem to complain as much about paying the same for lunch or tea and cake.
These days in Britain its the cafe that wags the dog. And if its not the cafe its the “event”.
Thank goodness that friends groups are taking up arms against the endless round of concerts, circuses, farmers markets, and even Christmas markets that last from mid-November to January. Leicester Square in London’s West End to name just one has virtually disappeared for weeks on end.I digress: this post was supposed to be about Christmas in the park! Given that commercialization rules the day how have other historic parks and gardens responded to austerity? Kew has thankfully managed better than Chiswick. Although the whole “Christmas experience” at Kew has been outsourced too it isn’t that terrible. There are some impressive bits of ‘sculpture’ and lights in the trees, as well as lots of small refreshment places. But like the Christmas funfair – and the helta-skelta [which is not in the pagoda – yet] they have been more sensitively placed and the grass and tree roots wherever possible protected from thousands of feet marching over them.
I wonder what Sir Joseph would have made of it?
Elsewhere, now that there is open all year policy in most properties, the National Trust clearly sees Christmas as a big opportunity to get people to part with their money. Many places host Christmas events inside the house – and increasingly in the gardens too. It may not be austerity but there is still an underlying demanding financial imperative. The Trust’s push to continually increase visitor numbers has some potentially frightening overtones. Houses risk becoming theme parks and gardens will surely follow suit.
A few sites can cope. Waddesdon, for example has an extensive network of wide paths and drives and has successfully hosted winter light shows for several years but for many sites it is probably too much.
I was at Saltram near Plymouth in September and it was crowded. Visitor numbers there rose drastically from 85,000 in 2014/15 to 125,000 in 2105/16.
In the same period Stourhead’s numbers went 405,000 to 423,000, Lyme Park’s from 117,000 to 145,000 and Powys Castle’s from 126,00 to 157,000. Staff almost everywhere are planning to deal with further substantial increases. And now the gardens at Saltram and Powys, along with many others are being lit at Christmas. Great in many ways but when will the garden ever have time to recover, and once all the furthest corners have been taken over for trails and playgrounds to keep the pressure off the sensitive and historic areas what happens next?
The same is true for many English Heritage properties too. Brodsworth, Walmer and Osborne are all hosting illuminated extravaganza, as are many of the great private houses. Blenheim, for example, is transformed, perhaps not always for the better, but it is a large site and can probably cope.
All this may make me appear a killjoy and grinch. Actually I’m neither [although I will admit to being Scrooge] I love light displays – the Durham and London festivals of light are absolutely brilliant and bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets in bitter cold weather. And I’d be happy to see them in historic landscape settings if they enhanced people’s understanding and enjoyment of the place without inflicting major damage. What would even stop me being Scrooge is a recognition that historic parks and gardens are valuable works of art in their own right … and not even our penny-pinching masters would treat the Mona Lisa, Monet’s waterlilies or the Haywain or [insert the name of your favourite painting] this badly, would they?
I’ll be back next week in a better temper! Until then Merry Christmas!