My favourite garden in London is very sadly currently out of bounds to the public because of covid19, although I have just taken advantage of the slight relaxation of the lockdown to walk around the outside. But if I can’t get inside I can at least, as a poor substitute, write about it. It’s an Edwardian extravagance of the first order: a wonderful mix of the impressively grand and the elegantly romantic, and shows just what could be done with a bit of vision and a lot of money! Its also a case study in how quickly even a well-built and well-maintained garden can fall into disrepair and be threatened with destruction, but fortunately, also how with a bit more vision and a lot of money it can once again surprise and delight the visitor.
The images are my own unless otherwise stated. I’d like to thank Susan Darling for her help in getting some of the other images and for fact-checking my post. Any errors, as they say in books, are mine not hers!
The Pergola stands high on Hampstead’s West Heath and was the creation of two extraordinary men, William Lever, the son of a Lancashire grocer and Thomas Mawson, the son of a Lancashire builder. Lever worked in the small family business but had a flair for advertising and marketing and gradually expanded the company’s range of products before in 1884 creating Sunlight Soap. This was a runaway success and within 2 years he had bought 56 acres of land for a new factory and associated workers housing. This was to become Port Sunlight. Soap made Lever very rich and he spent a lot of his money on gardens by Thomas Mawson.
Mawson had also started out in 1884 running Lakeland Nurseries with his brother. This too was successful and gradually he moved into undertaking garden design as well. Working initially in the north-west his commissions eventually ranged over the whole country with Lever being one of his best clients. Mawson also worked on the gardens at Thornton Manor, his country house near Port Sunlight and his Lancashire moortop retreat Roynton Cottage, better known these days as Rivington. He was to go on to become an extremely influential figure not only in garden design but also town planning and landscape architecture.
In 1904 William Lever bought Hill House, a large property dating from 1779, on one of the main roads that crosses Hampstead Heath in north London. Apart from the road frontage it was almost entirely surrounded by public open space that had been saved from housing development a few decades earlier. Lever had the house completely remodelled and added large wings to the central block.
A terrace was also added to the garden front in 1905 but it faced onto steeply downward sloping land at the bottom of which were the utilitarian garden buildings including greenhouses and potting sheds. Worse still the passing public could peer into the grounds from the right of way which ran past.
The answer was massive amounts of re-landscaping in the true meaning of the word. Mawson drew up a plan to raise the level of the gardens by some 20-30 feet and create a series of terraces. This coincided, whether by chance or deliberate forward thinking, with the extension of the underground system to Hampstead. The tunnelling produced vast quantities of spoil which had to be disposed of somewhere so Lever was actually paid to have all the material he needed bought up the road to Hill House. Once there an army of labourers, without any form of mechanisation, gradually built Mawson’s design to life.
His masterstroke was then to add an Italianate pergola to the outside boundary, which provided a viewing platform looking down and over the Heath at the same as restricting the views upwards and inwards by the great unwashed British public. It also incorporated a rather splendid conservatory. Supporting the first stretch of the pergola was a brick arched walkway which opened onto a range of greenhouses which supplied the kitchens, but which at the same time meant that none of them was visible from the house or pleasure grounds.
The first part of the work was completed in 1906. But this was only the beginning. In 1911 William Lever was made a baronet and as if to celebrate he bought the neighbouring house, Heath Lodge, and knocked it down, asking Mawson to add its grounds to the gardens of The Hill. This was easier said than done. There was no direct link between the two because of the public right of way which ran along the boundary between them and which had once allowed the public to gawp into Lever’s garden. Even allowing for that, the gardens lay at an angle to one another and were on different levels. Once again Mawson came up with a brilliant wheeze.
He took down the conservatory and replaced it with an open-sided structure, with stone columns and an elaborate tent-shaped open”roof” of oak. What this allowed him to do was to re-direct the alignment of the pathways without anyone really noticing. Like Admiralty Arch and All Souls Langham Place it appears to work as a perfect eye-catcher from which ever direction it is approached but conceals the irregular change of direction which would otherwise jar the senses.
The path then crossed the right of way on an elegant stone bridge linking the two gardens absolutely effortlessly and without the visitor really even being aware of what was happening. Even today the casual visitor would not necessarily notice they were on a bridge crossing a busy footpath because there is so much of interest to keep their attention focused on the garden and planting around them.
Once the public path was crossed Mawson added, from my personal viewpoint, the best bit of the whole garden.
This was a long extension to the pergola at a slightly lower level that ran along the boundary to a viewing terrace and small belvedere looking west towards Harrow-on-the Hill where the church over 6 miles away served as a focal feature.
Sadly this view is becoming obscured by tree growth outside the garden, but it is still just possible to see the church.
The extension and the belvedere can be seen clearly at the bottom of the above plan of the garden, with the garden of the former Heath House starting in the bottom left corner.
Although quite narrow the columns of this extension were covered with a wide range of mainly scented climbing plants which provide a lot of shade. On one side of this colonnade was the open heath, just separated by iron railings, which provided a suitable green backdrop.
On the other side the land fell away down to the large sloping grounds of the now-demolished Heath House. There once again Mawson carried out extensive landscaping. Steps descended from the colonnade which was supported by a high brick wall, while the ground in front was levelled.
A new upper terrace was created , and Mawson also added a recessed seat rather like a seaside shelter, built into the retaining wall. This commands views over the newly levelled area and then over the whole lower garden which fell away sharply below it. In front of the seat Mawson installed a long formal rectangular lily pond. The landscaping work on what was the site of Heath House and is now the public garden known as The Hill Garden was interrupted by the Great War.
In 1914 more opportunities appeared when Cedar Lawn the house on the south side of the Hill came up for sale. Sir William, as he was by then, bought it and it too was soon demolished with the grounds being added to his existing garden. Mawson now planned another extension to the pergola. [To give some sense of scale this made it as long as the tower at Canary Wharf is tall] It ended in another viewing platform and pavilion although again because of the outbreak of war this work was not finished until 1925 just months before Lever, by then Lord Leverhulme, died. During these years he had also added a library wing and a massive ballroom to the main house taking it to over 60 rooms.
After Leverhulme’s death The Hill was sold to Lord Inverforth, [formerly Andrew Weir], a Scots shipping magnate who was minister for munitions during the Great War. Renamed Inverforth House it became his home until his death in 1955 when he bequeathed it to Manor House Hospital, a private hospital funded by trade unions.
There is one photo of the gardens during Inverforth’s time, showing the gardener working in the kitchen garden below the pergola. If anyone knows any more about him or the garden during this time please get in touch.
But despite the neat and orderly appearance of the garden in the photograph its clear that post-war under Inverforth, and even more so under the hospital, the grounds did not get the attention they deserved or indeed did the buildings. Following a long period of neglect London County Council bought the pergola and the gardens which had once been those of Heath Lodge. These were opened to the public in 1963 as the Hill Garden.
But even the LCC and its successor the GLC were not in a position to maintain the built structures properly and to help safeguard it English Heritage added it to the list of Historic Buildings at Grade 2* in 1978.
When the GLC was abolished in 1986 responsibility passed to the City of London and they discovered the bad news. Not only had large parts of the structure collapsed or were completely submerged by climbing plants that had been allowed to run rampant, but the surviving massive oak timbers used by Mawson were either rotted or warped beyond repair.
There was also stonework broken or missing and to make matters worse, when a preliminary attempt at restoration was begun even more bad news was discovered. Subsidence was undermining the whole structure and some parts were in danger of collapsing down the hillside.
Luckily the City Corporation was sufficiently conservation-minded – and wealthy – to attempt a proper restoration project. The pergola superstructure was replaced with a mix of green and air dried oak although since over 2000 cubic feet was required – the equivalent of about 300 mature trees – this had to be imported from France as there wasn’t enough native timber available here. Next they rebuilt stretches of the boundary walls and built supporting embankments for yet more, repaired damaged brick and stone work, replaced balustrades, and improved drainage, all the time following Mawson’s original scheme as much as possible. Although the records are sketchy there was photographic evidence from contemporary magazines and his own books, and where there wasn’t, decisions were made as far as possible to other examples of his work style and materials.
The hospital closed in 1998 and, as is the way of the world, eventually Inverforth House, by now Grade II listed, was sold for luxury housing. It was divided into two houses and seven apartments but with the site now under separate ownerships ways also had to be found of securely dividing the pergola from the grounds of the mansion without completely destroying the visual connections between the two sections.
This has largely been achieved by treillage – ornamental trellising – based on designs by Mawson – although for security reasons this has had to be done in metal rather than wood. At first this appeared incongruous but only because visitors had been used to seeing both onto the heath and into the garden grounds around the house. The latter was now only possible in glimpses but the closing off was very well done, and once the planting had begun to scramble up and over it almost appeared to have been designed that way. There are also still places where a clear view into the now private gardens is possible, so I don’t think Lever would have been happy that the scheme he designed to stop the public looking in was not exactly the same structure that allowed them to do just that.
After all the structural work had been completed, it finally came to replanting. Although Mawson’s own plans and planting schemes have not survived there was a description in Gardeners Chronicle in 1912 which details many of the plants that adorned the colonnade and pergola columns. A few like the wisteria had survived all the neglect and ravages of time but elsewhere that list formed the basis for the replanting.
It was decided there was no real point in rebuilding the greenhouses, or recreating the former kitchen garden. It is an awkwardly-shaped site with only two possible entry points so instead formal gardens were laid out on the site with large planted pots, and a geometric arrangement of beds planted with specimen trees and a well-chosen mix of herbaceous plants and shrubs, very much in the spirit of the original planting although perhaps with a more modern twist.
The Pergola is often described as one of London’s secrets. I think it probably still was when I first discovered it in the late 1970s, but now its much better known, regularly attracting art photographers, but somehow it seems to be able to cope with the attention without losing its special charm. I confess that its nicer when its virtually deserted as Lever must have known it. Even so, while he might be annoyed that the public now has free range over his private domain I think there can be little doubt that he would be more than pleased by the care which has been taken to bring back the spirit of his creation and hold it in suspended time, one hopes for perpetuity.