Wednesday was escape day in north London – the first visit to a garden for many long months. Thank goodness it was sunny, although I think even if it had been pouring with rain the planned escape would still have happened. And to celebrate we went to the Gibberd Garden on the outskirts of Harlow. The town might not be the first place that springs to mind for a glorious day out but then maybe you haven’t been to the Gibberd Garden.
The garden was created mainly by Sir Frederick Gibberd the architect and the master planner of Harlow New Town between 1957 and 1984. It’s idiosyncratic to put it mildly but is considered such a significant contribution to garden design that it’s one of just a handful of post war gardens on Historic England’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest .
All the photos are my own unless otherwise acknowledged
Harlow was one of the sites around London identified in the Greater London Plan of 1944 for a new town. These were designed to ease overcrowding and poor housing conditions in and around London caused by war-time devastation, and to create new self-contained and balanced communities.
Its master plan was drawn up in 1947 by Gibberd, who made great efforts to respect and work with the existing landscape. Most noticeable is the amount of green space, partiuclalry the large green wedges which separate the town’s different neighbourhoods. One of these, the 164 acre Town Park planned by him and designed by landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crow, has also been listed by Historic England – another rare recognition for a post-war landscape.
The garden site is tucked away down a narrow country lane that leads virtually nowhere. It’s just a couple of fields away from the edge of Old Harlow and slopes down to a flood meadow alongside the Pince Brook. A small bungalow had been built there in 1907 by a barrister who obviously was a bit of a gardener too, since he planted an avenue of limes and installed a formal pool.
The next owner extended the landholding and built the concrete, yes concrete, gazebo, before in 1936 the property was sold to someone who started a smallholding. After they moved away it went on the market but lay empty for a number of years until it was spotted by Gibberd who bought it in January 1957.
By this time working on the development of the New Town was not a full-time job and Gibberd was working on several projects from his base in London. By opting to buy the estate and work on the Harlow project on two days a week – Mondays and Fridays he had an opportunity to do two things at once: create a garden at weekends largely with his own hands and cut the amount of commuting he was doing from L0ndon. Once there the place took a grip on him and while he kept a flat in London to begin with he eventually moved to Harlow permanently and remained there until his death in 1984.
Using the word estate perhaps implies classically columned mansion or Victorian gothic pile but the reality was slightly less romantic. I doubt anyone would have called the building beautiful or well designed and indeed Gibberd himself referred to it as “rather hideous” and applied to demolish it and rebuild. Permission was refused because the house was in the Green Belt but it says a lot about his love for the site and what he saw as its potential that he decided to stay and carry out as much remodelling as was possible under the circumstances. This included replacing the roof with more sympathetic tiling, drastically rearranging the interior, and, because by the 1960s glass technology had improved substantially, opening up new much larger windows. Later he said that he had “placed each for pictures of the garden, and made a garden for each of the windows.”
While he had to draw up detailed master plans for the town there was absolutely none for the garden overall. That didn’t mean no plans of course because his archive has lots of them but I think they were done for practical purposes and for record. As he said “One of the delights of being your own client is that you don’t have to prepare drawings” nor, which I think is an even better sentiment “you dont have to make up your mind; you can change it umpteen times… If it worked all well and good; and if it didn’t root it out and try something else.”
The lane that leads you to the site has high hedges in front of the house which, because it is set a little way down the hillside, means that approaching it from the courtyard entrance you look down on the roof and the small terrace in front.
As we walked along past the house into the garden proper several things struck me very quickly. The first was how shady this made the terrace and this part of the garden even though they face south.
Next was about the choice of materials for the paths and terracing. As I was soon to discover the precast concrete slabs with infilled panels of tiles, brick or stones were typical of all the hard landscaping and help give the place a really domestic rather than “institutional” feel.
The final “instant” thoughts were about the garden’s extensive use of objects for decoration and enhancement. It’s obvious from the moment you walk on-site. And by objects that I don’t mean just sculpture for which the garden is famous, with 90 pieces carefully placed all around, but more particularly the ingenious use – or rather re-use – of architectural elements and other repurposed materials. In fact I think perhaps for me it’s this recycling that is the gardens chief attraction and it’s noticeable everywhere.
Turning right off the path at the end of the house leads the visitor to another of what Historic England in its register listing calls “formal gardens” around the house. I confess that to me that like the word estate implies something far grander than the reality. Full of sculptures it’s centred round a narrow canal with a rather strange little sculpture/fountain which forms a focal point from the window in the end wall of the house.
Parallel with that is what is called on the plans now an “ambulatory”, but which on earlier plans was labelled “conservatory”. I also found another description of it as a “glazed sculpture house.” Sadly the superstructure has long gone.
But then by chance I found an old photo of it on the Garden Museum website because Lady Gibberd donated an archive of his work – and his gardening hat – to them in 2001.
Moving round the house to the north side, suddenly the garden opens up in a long view with steps down to a rectangular lily pool and beyond that the gazebo that I mentioned earlier. Although these two features were already in place when Gibberd bought the house he did carry out some alterations especially converting what had been a swimming pool into an ornamental one. The slabs around the pool are concrete and were hand-cast by Gibberd himself. He wrote ‘we use a lot of concrete in a variety of mixes. It weathers to interesting textures and colours, providing it is watered with a hose immediately after pouring.’
Beyond the right hand hedge there’s an avenue of lime trees that forms part of a second long axial view from the house.
At the end of the shrub-lined lawn the closely planted avenue with its narrow opening leads down to a sculpture by Mary Gorarra of a Swan and Cygnet which is surprisingly also made of concrete.
The avenue is the focal viewpoint from another large window that opens onto another terrace running along the north side of the house. This has some chunky painted concrete block pillars that support climbers including a massive wisteria that has been trained up [or maybe just allowed] to clamber up into neighbouring trees.
Interviewed in 1979 Sir Frederick made it clear that he saw garden-making like architecture as “the art of space”. He wanted a feeling of enclosure to alternate with a feeling of expansive openness. But it wasn’t simply small enclosures around the house giving way to larger more natural open areas away from it. Instead there was a considerable amount of earth moving, to emphasise or even create variations in level and divide the garden into “compartments or rooms” which were loosely divided by walls, thick hedges or more informal open planting of shrubs and trees. Many of these formed spaces which seem to have been deliberately designed for sculptures.
There are two much more open areas of the garden on the east and west side. On the west there are lawns, surrounded and divided by shrubs and specimen trees while standing right on the western boundary is the grandest bit of architectural salvage imaginable.
One of Gibberd contracts was the redesign of Coutts Banks headquarters on the Strand opposite Charing Cross Station. I recently wrote about the appalling proposals of the 1960s and 70s for the redevelopment of the whole of Covent Garden and its surrounds. The Grade 2* Coutts building, designed by Nash was supposed either to be demolished or have a road driven through it.
It was a long and hard fought battle to have these schemes turned down, but when they were Gibberd presented a design to gut the building, and install London’s first atrium office building with a central glass section to the centre of the Strand frontage. In the process all the Nash interiors were destroyed and a section of the facade including several Corinthian columns and associated urns were taken down.
But something good came of the vandalism. Gibberd said: “There was dismay on the Bank site when I asked for some of the columns and fragments to be sent to Harlow. Time would be lost dismantling them rather than smashing them to bits. Eventually a huge lorry equipped with a crane drove down my lane, demolished three trees and dumped a pile of huge fragments in a ditch opposite my entrance gates.” It took another five days and three men to put them up.
Having got them on-site “the temptation was to place the columns as the focus of a vista in the 18th century manner, but being only 22 ft high they would have been lost against the ash trees in the background.” So instead a pair of them were placed to one side where they can almost be missed if approached from the wrong angle but where they dominate from others. A set of four coadestone urns from the demolished pediment were “mounted… on blocks from the frieze to increase the scale and give them unity.” Despite their much smaller scale this grouping have almost as much visual impact as the columns.
Beyond the Temple lies an area of the garden only recently incorporated into the overall scheme. Liable to regular flooding it has been planted with moisture loving trees, notably willows and birches, and, I think, is going to be the home for more large scale sculpture. The first occupant is Krijn de Koning’s site-specific piece entitled Green / Blue.
The Pincey Brook forms the northern boundary of the garden and Gibberd installed a path that follows its banks. It has been widened at one point to form a pool, and the banks of this are covered with boulders from the construction of another of his projects, the Llyn Celyn Reservoir. Further downstream is a small cascade.
The brookside path skirts the central section of the garden that lies between the two large open areas. This more densely planted area is crossed with narrow paths and a small stream which providing damp growing conditions for a nice range of bog plants.
Amongst things the visitor following them goes past the end of the lime avenue and gets a chance to see the swan sculpture close up, with the scooped-out hollows of the wings making bird baths. It’s hard to believe that its concrete.
An alternative route through leads to the the two storey gazebo.
The circular sculpture – technically a tondo- shows Sir Frederick in his office and Lady Gibberd weeding with the gazebo in the background. Sir Frederick commented: “I rehabilitated the Gazebo – made by John Blackshaw [a previous owner] and his daughters out of sand and gravel dug up on site. The thatch, a refuge for sparrows, was replaced by a concrete pyramid. John Blackshaw’s ingenuity was not just in the design of the Gazebo. He uses it to change levels.”
If you climb the spiral stairs made of the same rustic hand-made concrete they lead up to the seating area platform and give a view back to the hosue.
The floor inside is now made up of a hotch-potch of assorted tiles, whilst the century-old hand-made concrete columns have weathered beautifully.
Strolling back to the house from there and going past the pool the visitor would pass Queen Victoria lurking in a grotto-like recess in a wall that’s embedded with bottles and flints. Gibberd explained that ‘the bottles put air into the wall instead of concrete and they reflect the light.’
On the eastern side, in the other more open area of the garden the waterside path leads to the site’s most famous folly: a moated castle. Ostensibly made for his grandchildren it was, it seems, as much for his own amusement as well. It was he said “a defence against the neighbouring village of Sawbridgenorth which is expanding rapidly into the Green Belt – a process called by planners – ‘Village Infilling’. It is protected by a moat and drawbridge and manned by my grandchildren… it was made, with the help of a JCB and an intelligent driver….the mess was indescribable.”
The mount was made of the soil from digging out the moat and comes complete with drawbridge. The original log walls rotted and were replaced by an array of concrete cylinders. It was like all his projects carefully thought through, with detailed drawings in his own hand.
From the castle there’s a good view upon the long sloping lawn towards the house and also over towards the densely-planted central area of the garden.
Climbing the slope on this eastern side there are more sculptures before reaching the courtyard garden that lies tucked into the slope at the end of the house. Like the others it is full of an eclectic mix of sculptural pieces and salvage, some of which double as flower pots.
Surprisingly his own is the only private garden Gibberd designed, although apparently in his archive there are several for public institutions, including Coutts Bank where he included an indoor garden scheme for the atrium. In one way it seems a pity that his imagination and an eye for what used to be called ‘a pleasing prospect’ was not more widely employed but I suspect the reason that the Marsh Lane site is the success it is comes down to the fact that it was his and his alone. He wasn’t having to prove anything or sell an idea anyone other than himself or perhaps his wife. She reported that in this regard an extremely selfish man who created the garden to amuse himself, but that it was his passion.
During his lifetime Sir Frederick kept the garden strictly private, although he did open it for charity events and company parties when he seems to have enjoyed showing the garden to guests. But as a general rule he thought it was better that the visitor should explore and discover the garden for themselves rather than being led round it or through it. That’s why even today there are no labels, signs or marked routes.
He wrote about his approach to garden making on several occasions, including for the RHS journal The Garden in 1979 and also made an Omnibus programme for the BBC. There are no amazing revelations but rather a sense of a talented landscape architect and planner who realised that garden design was difficult. “Once you look at the garden as a design then it becomes an art form and a very difficult one. You are concerned with first of all … with form, colour, and texture and it’s all complicated because it changes over the season and it changes over the years. And I think it’s probably the most complex art and the most difficult art that I’ve certainly ever worked at.”
Sir Frederick left the house, garden, sculptures and his art collection to Harlow Council for the benefit of the town’s residents. Unfortunately there were legal disputes and the art collection had to be sold but eventually the property was sold to what is now the Gibberd Garden Trust with the help of a National Lottery grant. The House has been set out as it was during his lifetime and contains his library and archive. Other buildings have been converted to provide a small office and shop and of course there is a tea room run by really friendly volunteers.
The Trust face the same problems as any other historic garden, although perhaps in some ways, like Great Dixter or Beth Chatto’s they face it more acutely given the garden’s relative youth. What do you conserve? How do you maintain? What can you change or develop? Luckily Gibberd himself gave them clear instructions : “I don’t really think you can preserve a garden … it’s up to other people to develop it. I would hate to think that it would be frozen into this sort of design.”
Other interesting pieces about Gibberd and his garden can be found on an on-line article on the website of the Garden Museum, in the September 1979 issue of Concrete Quarterly, The Garden [RHS Magazine] April 1979, and an on-line article by Cynthia Boyd of Memorial University of Newfoundland.