A couple of weeks ago, as the lockdown started to lift and gardens began tentatively to re-open, I was taken to Hyde Hall, the Essex garden of the Royal Horticultural Society. I’ve been several times before and have always come away slightly disappointed but this time things felt different. Partly obviously because it was good to be back outside after so long being confined to the house but also because Hyde Hall is developing into a much more interesting garden. That’s quite strange since according to Matthew Wilson, the former curator “There probably shouldn’t be a garden at Hyde Hall, given the challenges and complexities of the site, soil and climate. The fact that there is gives hope that even the least promising site can be gardened.” [FT 25th May 2018]
The photos are mine unless otherwise stated.
Hyde Hall had been a working farm, albeit somewhat ramshackle, when it was bought by Helen and Dick Robinson in 1955 who had just returned from Trinidad where they’d help run a citrus farm.
The house was a typical Essex farmhouse probably dating back to the 18thc, although records show there was a house on the site at least as far back as Tudor times and possibly since Domesday. It had about 340 acres of farmland but not much of a garden. According to Brent Elliott’s The Royal Horticultural Society: A History  there was “a ryegrass lawn with a central rose bed, a clump of pampas grass, a horse-pond, a derelict orchard …and a slag-heap full of domestic rubbish.”
It sat on top of a gentle hill, at 150 feet above sea level not that far from the Thames estuary and highly exposed to the winds with just 6 trees around it and certainly no shelter-belts or windbreaks. The area’s annual rainfall is amongst the lowest in Britain, with only half the national average, most of it falling in the winter. The soil is heavy Essex clay, difficult to work in winter and concrete hard in the summer. You can see why Matthew Wilson thought it was an unlikely spot for a successful garden.
Helen Robinson was not deterred. Perhaps her young age – 36 – or her training as a teacher helped. She began clearing areas around the house and planting them with whatever was available, including a parcel of 60 trees bought cheaply at auction in a local market. It was arduous and time-consuming work but, with some assistance from their pigs, the refuse, brambles and scrub were eventually removed. In the process the brick floor of an old, possibly Tudor, stable was discovered and cleared, becoming central to a new garden.
They began to improve the soil and created herbaceous borders, a basic geometric rose garden on the lawn in front of the house and a bog garden with gunnera and iris round the pond.
Experiments with mass plantings of flowering cherries were not so successful since cherries don’t particularly like heavy clay. The pair carried on in this piecemeal way for about 8 years, and then in 1963 they began visiting the RHS flower shows in Vincent Square and these proved a game changer, laying down the foundations for gardening to become a passion.
The Robinsons discovered a love of rhododendrons but without the conditions in which to grow them. Their attempts to do so became a steep learning curve but eventually worked and in the process they created a woodland garden with magnolias and camellias as well. A few years later they branched out into Malus and Viburnums, assembling good collections that were later awarded national collection status. [The Malus collection formed the basis for a long article in The Garden in April 1995]
In the mid-1960s the Robinsons were invited to contribute to some BBC gardening programmes and through them met many specialist nurserymen and women, as well as high-profile gardeners including Percy Thrower and Geoffrey Smith who became advisers and friends. Gradually Helen Robinson became a serious plantswoman learning to adapt and cope with the conditions with which she had been presented. Her ” indefatigable drive turned Hyde Hall garden from a wasteland to a paradise” [2004 obituary in The Times ]
Within a few years they were opening the garden to the public to raise money for the Gardeners Benevolent Fund and by 1974 when they retired they had established a garden with a reputation that they did not want to see disappear. The solution was to set up the Hyde Hall Trust in 1976 and it was the trustees who in 1992 offered it to the RHS as their third garden after Wisley and Rosemoor.
Acceptance of Rosemoor and Hyde Hall gardens was, as Brent Elliott points out in his history of the RHS, part of a deliberate attempt to diversify and become less Surrey/London oriented. The RHS saw their new acquisition as an opportunity “to demonstrate gardening practice appropriate for the area of clay soils, low rainfall, minimum input and sustainable gardening as opposed to the high cost and high maintenance of the society’s other gardens Wisley and Rosemoor.”
By the time the RHS took over, the garden extended to some 24 acres [10ha], including 16 acres [6,5ha] of lawns and borders on the hilltop, where the car park was also situated. Almost all the rest of the land was still working farmland and there was, as an article in The Lady reported later, “little inducement for visitors to venture down the hill, a shame since the landscape is beautiful, gently sloping and with far-reaching views across unbroken countryside.”
Developing the garden was a slow process as Sir Simon Hornby, the RHS president, explained at the 1995 AGM, “…because of the expense…the need to plant shelter belts… the need for drainage” and the difficulty of finding “a first-class Curator.” They appointed a gardens committee to advise while Elisabeth Beasley was appointed as the landscape architect. [ A google search did not yield much further information about her so if anyone knows more please let me know]
The overall scheme for Hyde Hall was drawn up in 1996 by Colvin and Moggridge and the first round of decisions quickly made. The infrastructure needed drastic and rapid improvement, more woodland shelter had to be planted, and a new access road was needed. Year one of the plan was all about the stuff you don’t see but without which the garden wouldn’t work long term, such as sewers and drainage, while Year 2 was primarily devoted to education and publicity. The plants had to be catalogued, mapped and labelled. The Tudor Barn became the restaurant, paths were planned and laid out across the site, a visitors centre and plant centre built, a library created, and of course, given its relatively inaccessible location a car park was planned. Planting couldn’t really happen until most of that was done.
Snippets about progress appeared in The Garden at regular intervals and show the way in which the Robinson’s design and planting had to be altered to cope with the forecast of increasing visitor numbers. 1996 saw Hyde Hall welcome 42,000 visitors and By 1998 the number had grown to 53,000.
At the same time much of the Robinsons planting began to fail or be overshadowed and so was replaced. The heavy clay suited roses but by 1998 disease and poor drainage began to spoil even them. Matthew Wilson is quoted by Brent Elliott as saying that after rain “you could jump and see the ground wobble ten feet away.”
A new formal rose garden was designed, with box & yew hedging surrounds and dotted with pyramidal supports of box-sectioned steel. 75 rose cultivars were planted but they were not wonderfully successful and in 2003 they had to be replaced, this time with 34 varieties of David Austin English roses. A rose rope walk was also constructed to demonstrate training and pruning techniques.
Alongside this a new herbaceous border flanked the main lawn within a structure of yew hedging designed by Pam Schwertz and Sybille Kreutzberger of Sissinghurst fame.
Colvin and Moggridge’s plan also included a dry garden. This coincided with the “discovery” of xeriscaping which had arrived from the US but also incorporated the increasingly fashionable concept of the Mediterranean garden.
In partnership with the local Essex and Suffolk Water Company it became the perfect opportunity to promote water conservation and to showcase what was possible working with, rather than against, the site conditions.
Matthew Wilson, the curator, drew up the planting plans with advice from experts, notably Beth Chatto whose own inspirational garden is not far away.
There was insufficient suitable soil on site so mounds of rubble from a demolition site were introduced as subsoil which were in turn covered with gritty topsoil. A total of 260 tons of Glabbro, ” the least environmentally dodgy rock” was bought down from Scotland and placed to form “natural” looking outcrops. [Glabbro is an igneous rock left on the surface by retreating glaciers, usually crushed for road-stone].
Finally, in the early spring of 2001 planting using just small specimens, mostly from just 9cm pots. Plants were laid out by eye and intended to look as if they had simply self-seeded. They were then surrounded by a thick gravel mulch while seeds of annuals such as Nigella and Escholtzia were mixed with sand and simply scattered about. More bulbs were planted that autumn and the following spring until there were some 5,500 plants from 850 species and cultivars. There was – and is – no watering except for new plantings, and after that everything relies on rainfall alone.
The Dry Garden established itself very rapidly, and by its third year looked as if it had always been there. It was also the least labour intensive area of the garden needing only an annual tidy up of dead foliage etc in the early Spring and the removal of unwanted seedlings. There is a full account of its construction in The Garden for August 2003.
It proved so successful that in 2011 it was doubled in size, taking over the site of the former shop and plant centre.
Paths were planned to allow visitors to get up close to the plants without feeling they are causing damage or they’re breaking any rules.
The whole approach encouraged experimentation with the plants grown, often running counter to received wisdom. So although 70% are generally reliably hardy, a further 20% are borderline and perhaps depend on microclimates, whilst the last 10% is usually considered to be tender.
Surprises happen. Ian Le Gros, the then curator reported in The Garden in July 2013 that Agave americana is one of the ‘borderline 20 percent’ that succeeded far better than expectations.” We used to plunge individuals in containers for summer and take them in every year (cursing their spikes as we did so, as plants got ever heavier to lift). In 2004, we left them outdoors all year, and most have been there ever since. Certainly they have a weather- beaten look about them come spring, with soft rotting leaves needing removal, but this is purely cosmetic as they continue to grow happily.”
The flowering of the Dasylirion [left]was a more recent success story.
In 2007 a completely different sort of garden opened. Hidden away in a sheltered spot to the side and behind the house, an area planted by the Robinsons was completely reconstructed as a plantsman’s garden and named in their honour. It opened in 2007 and contains an extensive range of rare and unusual species, including more than 150 different perennials and many kinds of ferns planted in sunken dells crossed by two oak bridges and backed by a 3m high gabion wall.
Admittedly it is labour intensive in maintenance terms rather than the category of gardening that the RHS wanted Hyde Hall to espouse. However it is the exception and everywhere else [with the exception I suspect of the amazing new world food garden ] the aim is sustainability and less labour/maintenance intensive. There is a short video walk round on youtube.
Despite all these developments Tom Turner thought Hyde Hall “still disappointing. Writing in 2009 he thought “The planting is much improved but the underlying spatial structure is, as it always was, dreary.” Nevertheless he recognised it was popular in the same way that “McDonalds is a very successful restaurant chain.” He then goes on to make a strong argument for a “plenipotentiary Resident Designer” because “Making a good garden is a hands-on job. You need drawings but you cannot do the job with drawings alone. You have to live in the garden, to see it every day of the year and to have the requisite authority to change the layout and the planting.” Maybe the RHS heard him, because my impression is that the last 10 years have seen a continued upping of the quality of the gardens, even if, at times, it still feels a collection of good but disparate parts rather than an integrated design
For example 2009 saw the creation of two new courtyard gardens next to the visitors centre. The first is supposedly a cottage garden, wonderfully colourful and exuberant, almost chaotic, although given the scale and planting that I saw it would be attached to a pretty impressive cottage.
Next door separated/connected by a shared hedge is a Modern Country Garden consisting of blocks of perennials with dividing/unifying structures of yew and Pyrus salicifolia (silver leaf pear).
Although the RHS suggest that visitors will see and visit these as they come through the entrance my experience was exactly the opposite. Once through the entrance it was the sweep of the main path that caught the eyes and led us upwards to the hilltop.
We didn’t find these gardens until on our way out and to be honest I”m glad we did it that way round – because it ended the visit on a real high note.
Development hasn’t stopped. The most obvious recent change is the new Hilltop complex opened in 2018 and designed by Cullinan Studio, who seem to have developed a specialism in places connected with gardens. They also designed the new library at Kew, the new entrance at Edinburgh’s Royal botanic Gardens and a treetop walk for the NT in Leicestershire.
A circular Global Growth Vegetable Garden, 50m [165ft] in diameter and planned by Xa Tollemache opened in 2017. Arranged around a huge octagonal greenhouse thats rises to 7m [23ft] and is divided into four planting zones rather like early botanic gardens such as Padua, representing food plants from Europe, Asia and North and South America.
A large linear Winter Garden opened in 2018. That’s a real response to the need to keep visitor and their spending power flowing in. It straddles the Millennium Avenue – a feature of the original masterplan – of oak and ash. Apart from the usual run of plants that peak in interest during the coldest months there are also a series of sculptures by David Watkinson exploring the gradual decay of a leaf.
And perhaps the most exciting new venture of all is the Sky Meadow which is intended to open up 50 acres of field planted as a perennial meadow, complementing and contrasting with the rest of the surrounding rolling landscape. Planting began last year and not just with native wild flowers but, perhaps taking a leaf out of the work of the Sheffield Landscape school with hundreds of species from across the world Africa, including Agapanthus, Gazania, Echinacea, Panicum, Euphorbia and Kniphofia. It will take the idea of landscape gardening to a new level.
So, despite agreeing, up to a point with Tom Turner, that it can still feel like a collection of many rather disparate parts, it’s now possible to see where Hyde Hall is going. There will always be a bit of a mismatch between the original hill top site and the expanding “outskirts” of the garden but it is they, and their relationship with the open horizons of the Essex landscape, which will be Hyde Hall’s future and make it a great modern garden…and I dont think the Robinsons would have minded one iota.