Last week’s post on the Geological Gallery at Biddulph was, I hope, something of an insight in to the mindset of James Bateman its creator in the mid-19thc. Today’s is designed to look at the gardens he created there, partly because both he and his wife were passionate about plants but partly as a reinforcement of his belief in a divine creator or as modern parlance would have it, an intelligent designer.
Biddulph was intended to reveal not just the variety of creation across the globe but also its variety through time. The Batemans reshaped the landscape to suggest the geological processes which had formed the plants native environments, and then presented the earth’s story from the days of Creation – using fossilised tree ferns in the garden for example – to the rise of the civilizations of Egypt, China and western Europe.
One of the main reasons this was possible was the Wardian case, which, because it allowed live plants to be carried safely and securely on long sea voyages, had opened up the world to western plant collectors. Working with Edward Cooke, the Batemans turned 15 acres [6 hectares] of poor quality land into a showcase for this vast range of newly introduced plants. The result was an extraordinary complicated confection of spaces and planting that defies any simple description.
Almost equally amazing is its survival. The Batemans only lived at Biddulph for about 30 years and it was sold out of the family in 1871. A fire destroyed the core of the mansion in 1896, and in 1921 the rebuilt house and estate were donated for use as a hospital. Institutional use is often an effective death-knell for gardens, but one as intricate and high maintenance as Biddulph was especially vulnerable.
Luckily as John Sales recounts in Shades of Green there was a sympathetic attitude from some of the health officers and 3 dedicated gardeners who maintained what they could to the best of their ability despite austerity, vandalism and a disdain for what was seen as such an unfashionable style of garden. Even so it could so easily all have swept away leaving us with nothing but some written descriptions, images and a few archaeological remains.
As late as the 1980s its future was in doubt, but after the National Trust became involved, and Peter Hayden wrote Biddulph Grange: A Victorian Garden Rediscovered, his account of the garden and its history, things began to look up. It even featured on a stamp in 1983.
See Shades of Green, for a very readable account account of the extraordinary lengths that were taken during the restoration work.
So if, as I said earlier, Biddulph defies simple description where does one start? After some thought I’m going to begin with Edward Kemp’s descriptions in Gardeners Chronicle in 1856 and 1862, and try to weave in the changes, and more particularly the restoration decision-making process to explain what can be seen today. Unfortunately there are no illustrations of any sort in the 1856 series and apart from a map, very little else in the 1862 group either.
Kemp begins with something that is no longer there. The fernery that led to the front of the house, but a fernery the like of which most of us will never have seen. It was “a little rocky dell, entirely artificial, but presenting a most natural appearance; the rocks being piled up as high as 10 or 12 feet in some parts, and most beautifully closed with mosses and ferns, …[and] … evergreen shrubs”. It came complete with a stream. In a sign of the Victorian obsession with collecting native ferns “Nearly the whole of the British ferns, and a few of the hardy exotic species are bought together and find their fitting position in this charming little nook.”
The whole of the front approach was cleared when the house became a hospital,and not restored when the mansion was sold as apartments. What is now open to the public is the main part of the garden on the south side of the house.
Opening is nothing new. The Batemans opened Biddulph to the public every Friday in the year [except Good Friday], and on Mondays in the summer months. Parties were welcome by arrangement on other days – except of course Sundays. “An entrance has been contrived by which they can admitted at once into the heart of the grounds without going through the house or passing in front of the any of its principal windows.” This was the Geological Gallery which I wrote about last week..
For the family, and Kemp on his visit, there were views from the main rooms and several doors onto an Italian style terrace. From there the ground dropped sharply away to a series of complicated and interconnected formal Gardens created in the 1840s. These were later altered, and later still completely obliterated being turned into grass terraces, so that by the time the National Trust took over and decided to recreate them they had to start almost from scratch. The alterations and clearance had been so thorough that there was even little archaeological evidence of the original design.
Luckily the National Trust were able to find enough physical evidence to recreate the Mosaic Garden which had been laid out using coloured minerals such as sand, crushed terracotta and yellow “grog” (waste from the nearby potteries) as infill in the simple parterre design.
Elsewhere they used Kemp’s written description as a guide to re-envisage Bateman’s original designs. Kemp haddescribed the parterres as “devoted to bulbs, basis plants and any other rare thing that individual fancy may select.” By 1862 what had previously been designated a bulb garden had been set aside as “Mrs Bateman’s Garden”, “admirably placed for privacy” and which “affords every sort of facility for lady gardening.”
Beyond these formal gardens, in 1856 “the eye ranges … to the site of the proposed Fountain, and beyond it to a small sheet of water many feet lower down,… This has an irregular outline and the masses of shrubs are well arranged, and there is a picturesque island.” Nowadays the eyes range over Italy, a loose take on a formal Italian Renaissance garden, which were becoming increasing fashionable in the mid-19thc through the work of designers such as Charles Barry and William Nesfield.
What could not be seen from the house or terrace was the Dahlia Garden which ran parallel to it. It was dug out of the slope perhaps to hide it from the terraces above, and its layout bears a strong similarity to the earliest known herbaceous borders at nearby Arley [owned by Maria Bateman’s brother]. The beds are stepped and are given a strong structure by being backed and divided with clipped yew hedges.
In full flower, using historic varieties wherever possible, this is probably the most memorable planted feature of the gardens, but, as in Bateman’s day, could easily be bypassed when out of season. [To see how the planting is organized take a look here]. At some point the whole area was filled in and only “rediscoverd” in 1988. The Shelter House that terminates the walk has also been reconstructed.
Next in 1856 Kemp described a small enclosure that forms the Egyptian court. Mainly grass and edged in yew “a little more character is given to it” originally by pyramids of yew in the centre standing “on the middle of slightly raised mounds”. It was crossed by a path that led to “a handsome Egyptian arch of stone” and then “a long gloomy stone corridor in the Egyptian character.” This may have been inspired by the Egyptian exhibits at the Great Exhibition, but it also bears similarities to the mid-19thc vogue for catacomb burials which often had Egyptian architectural overtones. Like them Biddulph’s version of Egypt is “eclectic” rather than “authentic.” For a detailed look at this see Manchester Museum’s article on Biddulph’s Egypt.
By 1862 Bateman had installed two pairs of stone sphinx and there were two yew obelisks [in both golden and green forms] as well as a substantial yew pyramid on top of the tunnel. What appealed to Kemp most was that “The appearance of the whole court is unique in being thoroughly excluded from the rest of the grounds, and entered upon suddenly in both directions, it contributes to that change of scene which must always be delightful.”
Proceeding through the corridor Kemp found it “terminated by a lofty apartment” which although unfinished [was] because it also opened onto a Pinetum going to be decorated principally with pine and fir wood, as well as “a good deal of coloured lighting”. This was planned to as “a refreshment room for occasional rural fetes to be given to school and other children.” Nowadays the passageway is terminated by a statute of the Egyptian god Thoth in the form of an ape suffused by light filtering through that coloured lighting.
Kemp noted “the transition from the Egyptian corridor and the apartments attached to it to the Pinetum is immediate and probably as telling as anything else about the place.” His comments hold true today. “From the dimness and confinement we emerge at once into a southern exposure, with a fine winding walk, in the front and a very large group of pines etc on either side; Knypersley church tower 3 miles distant making the central point of view.” This was the world in its early days.
Today’s visitor turning round after having left the Egyptian corridor and perhaps expecting to see another Egyptian arch or something equally bizarre probably does a double take. There is no mini-Karnak or Luxor but the facade of a half timbered cottage “in the old Cheshire style having quarter rings of stained timber showing amidst the usual plaster.”
The Pinetum “insofar as it has yet been completed” was, thought Kemp, “perhaps one of the most successful and satisfactory things of the kind in the country. It is arranged on each side of a long walk which, in bold and easy curves makes a circuit of the pleasure grounds”. Much of the pathway had been excavated and the surplus soil piled up into irregular mounds on either side. It was on these mounds that Bateman planted his conifer collection in large groups of each species. These mounds were however not the comparatively low rounded sort seen in Loudon’s Derby Arboretum but much larger in scale – up “to 10 or 12 feet, and their faces diversified with an infinite number of little swells and depressions” and some “clothed for the most part with the common ling or Heather”.
This had the double purpose “of rendering these groups more picturesque, and of bringing the beautiful forms of the many sorts between the Spectator and the sky, without any intervening background.” Although on his first visit few of the trees were much more than 10 or 12 feet high, Kemp remarked that “the difference between the system of grouping here pursued, and the common method of spotting about the plant at comparatively regular intervals on a flat surface, is the most conspicuous and satisfying.”
The path eventually passes into the rhododendron ground via “a rude stone tunnel” with a “natural looking entrance arch, formed of two large irregular side stones and a keystone and flanked with rough walls over which Ivy and evergreen shrubs will hang down”. A side path led to “a grass glade of irregular shape which is laid down with grass for Bowling Green and enclosed with mounds of different heights offering various positions at aspects for the more tender and larger leaves species of pines including some of the Mexican sorts”.
The rhododendron ground was extensive and the collection “unusually rich” and mainly of “the rarer and better sorts”. Additionally “a little romantic Rocky Hollow called The Glen contained ” a very complete series of the Sikkim and Bhutan rhododendrons “laid out with” a high degree of naturalness, and therefore of artistic excellence”. He even listed many of the species growing there. But it clearly was not successful longer term and by 1862 was “more appropriately devoted to ferns and bog plants.”
The circuit path then “skirts the open lawn and a lake seen from the drawing room and finally returns to the terrace opposite the library window.”
Almost completely hidden in the very centre of the garden and still incomplete in 1856 was the Chinese garden, perhaps the most famous part of the whole ensemble today. It was designed primarily to showcase “the numerous Chinese and Japanese hardy plants with which our gardens abound,” but also to represent “those eccentric and somewhat grotesque efforts at the Gardening art in which the Chinese are said to indulge, and some crude idea of which has no doubt been familiar to everyone from childhood, in the old Willow-pattern dinner plate.” By the time Kemp returned six years later the garden was more mature and his description mellowed. [I began to include sections of it here but decided that China, as the garden is known, is so important that it merits a post of its own soon.]
As can be seen from the Sales Particulars of 1871 many other features were added. The most impressive was undoubtedly the Wellingtonia avenue, a “great straight walk at least half a mile long…with a rapid ascent at the extreme end where the rock that terminates it is surmounted by a flag pole.” Now the avenue is terminated by a huge stone vase surrounded by a yew enclosure.
The avenue was banked-up on both sides, and the slopes planted with mixed evergreens. The main planting was with deodar cedars and Wellingtonias alternating but with the intention of removing the cedars as the avenue matured, leaving the Wellingtonias to show to full effect.
Unfortunately what happened was that it was the Wellingtonias that were removed, and by the 1980s many of the cedars had either fallen or were in decline. The NT garden adviser, Bill Malecki, skilfully negotiated the removal of the remaining cedars and a complete replanting with Wellingtonias grown from Californian seed like Bateman’s originals, and these are now reaching a decent size.
The Avenue then originally continued beyond the top of the hill in “a ruder condition and ungravelled…through wood and thickets left in a state of wild nature.” The land beyond is now part of a separate country park so todays visitor has to return the way they had come.
Kemp feared, as do I, “that the difficulty of describing a place which is so full of intricacies, has been strongly felt; and the writer is conscious that in aiming to convey a distinct impression, he may have stumbled on in undue prolixity.” At least Kemp had the excuse that he had no illustrations to enlighten his reader!