I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many daffodils in flower. Wordsworth would have been in heaven if he’d seen them. In fact if it wasn’t for the fact they’re growing in open woodland I’m sure the yellow would have been visible from space. But I wasn’t in the Lake District “wandering lonely as a cloud” where I saw this golden host but in Dorset.
I’d been away for a few days and called in at Kingston Lacy, just outside Wimborne. Had I managed to get there a couple of weeks earlier the view would have been of about 6 million snowdrops, spreading from the original planting more than a century ago. A few weeks later and the scene would have been awash with bluebells.
I had been to Kingston Lacy once before -decades ago – shortly after the National Trust took over and to be honest thought it rather dull and uninspiring. It probably was. Today it is anything but and the daffodils and snowdrops were just an added bonus to what is becoming a real “must visit” garden.
The photos are mine unless otherwise credited
During the medieval period, Kingston Hall was part of an extensive royal estate within the manor of Wimborne, but like many others it became surplus to requirements and was often let or granted to others including the de Lacy family, earls of Lincoln.
The Kingston Hall estate was bought by Sir John Bankes, Attorney-General to Charles I in 1636 and he also acquired the stronghold of Corfe Castle, the gateway to the isle of Purbeck and about 8,000 acres. After the fall of Corfe to the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War, the castle was slighted and the family moved their principal seat to Kingston. There was an abandoned mediaeval House, derelict since the end of the 15thc, the remains of which are now a scheduled ancient monument. But rather than try and rebuild that they commissioned a new mansion from the fashionable architect Roger Pratt in 1663. It was built of red brick with stone facings and surrounded by extensive formal grounds.
Unfortunately drastic repairs were needed in the 1730s when structural collapse threatened the house. The roof was rebuilt without Pratt’s cupola and balustrade.
Further garden works, including the planting of new trees and the removal of others to open up vistas, together with purchase of statues, new tubs for exotics, and lead flower pots were carried out in the 1720s and 1730s.
A large scale survey was carried out by William Woodward in 1773-5 before the enclosure of much of the surrounding land. It shows the formal gardens, with a walled parterre probably comprising gravel paths and a statue in each quarter. There were gardens on either side of this, a walled exedra with statues or urns and a walled entrance court. Lots of avenues are shown, one of which in lime still survives. The grounds were then remodelled in the 1770s and 1780s, with the formal gardens and avenues apart from the lime avenue swept away. The parkland was enclosed, new service buildings put up, the main road diverted, new drives and approach roads laid out and the entire village of Kingston demolished in the process.
Kingston Hall was inherited by William John Bankes in 1834 and shortly afterwards he ordered a major remodelling by his friend Sir Charles Barry. The roof was rebuilt again, and a cupola and balustrade, similar to those of the original house, were re-installed. Barry also encased the brick house in a layer of stone and lowered the ground at one end of the house to create a new grand entrance loggia overlooking a new Italianate parterre. Apart from that the garden owes little to Barry as his other schemes were not implemented.
The existing parterres were replaced by a wide flat area decorated with vases and other ornaments including six copies of Italian well-heads, some bronze lions and tortoises modelled on Bankes’s own pet. There are surviving drawings by Bankes himself for these. Shortly after Barry’s work on the house was finished Bankes changed the name from Kingston Hall to Kingston Lacy.
William John Bankes was a great traveller, collector and pioneering Egyptologist. He’d actually met Barry at Abu Simbel in Egypt, and it was on the same trip that Bankes acquired the obelisk from Philae that now stands in the middle of the great sweep of lawn in the front of the house. It was removed from its fallen position by Giovanni Belzoni in 1819, and stands on a platform of granite brought over from Leptis Magna in modern Libya and given to Bankes by George IV.
Bankes recorded the hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions on the obelisk which later played a significant part in unravelling the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The obelisk finally reached Kingston in 1821, and although the Duke of Wellington, another of Bankes’s friends laid the foundation stone in 1827 it took another 12 years to get the entire monument completed . Click here for an account of Bankes’s travels in Egypt in 1815 and 1818.
In 1841 Bankes had to go into exile after being caught for a second time in flagrante delicto with a guardsman in a public` park. He fled to Europe, but continued to collect and send back objects for both the house and garden until his death in Venice in 1855. Work on the house and gardens continued in Bankes’ absence under the supervision of his sister Anne, Lady Falmouth (d 1864) while his brother George managed the estate.
It was George’s grandson, Walter, who inherited in 1869 who became the next major influence. on the estate. Like many others of his generation he caught orchard-mania and fern fever and his large fernery still survives. He was also interested in technology and the kitchen garden, at quite a distance from the house, was equiped with all the latest gadgets. It had such high standards that the royal gardeners were sent by Queen Victoria to see how things were done. He also built the red brick stable block behind the house, now the home of the NT cafe and shop.
Walter’s wife, Henrietta, was another keen gardener who added the Japanese garden and worked with the much under-rated William Goldring on the herbaceous borders and the sunken garden. After Walter died in 1902 Henrietta continued his work, adding new entrance lodges, a church and estate cottages. Their son Ralph inherited in 1923, and after his death in 1981 not just the house and immediate grounds, but the entire estate which includes a dozen farms, Corfe Castle, and 6 miles of coastline on Purbeck and about 8,500 acres, was gifted to the National Trust, the largest bequest they have ever received. The house is listed Grade I and the gardens and parkland at Grade II.
These days the house is approached through the parkland, with the car parks quite close to the house and reasonably well hidden although clearly visible from the air!
As with all major properties which attract large numbers – 410,000 in 2019 which puts its easily in the top ten NT sites – parking for visitors has the potential to be a longer term problem.
The gently undulating parkland remains mainly pasture and surrounds the house on virtually all sides, apart from the formal gardens to the south-east. It is home to a herd of Red Devon cattle introduced originally by Walter Bankes, and retains many magnificent clumps and specimen trees, including few late 17th/early 18thc survivals. There are also thick boundary plantations round virtually the entire estate, where the Trust have now laid out a 3 mile woodland circuit walk.
The modern visitor then enters the area around the house via what could be described as the servants entrance, arriving in the small rose garden which sits between the late 19thc stable block and the other service buildings which date from the late 18thc at the back of the house.
From there a path leads past an armillary sphere and then through herbaceous borders laid out to designs by William Goldring, to the southern side of the house, and the open expanse of grass that runs down to the Philae obelisk.
Beyond that is another obelisk erected for Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1897. Nearby is an Egyptian sarcophagus also bought back by William John.
Country Life in 1900 argued that “a perfect unity of character exists between the house and the garden. The terrace is extremely rich and beautiful, and it is supremely delightful to look thence over the lawns, to note the beautiful trees and feel the fragrance of the flowers. There are beautiful urns of bronze upon highly wrought pedestals. Upon the south lawn sheltered by the long, overhanging limbs of noble cedars of Lebanon, or strewn with the blossoms of the venerable limes, are disposed large vases of various forms and rich materials.”
The formal gardens areas round the house still had winter protection around the various urns and statues but the parterre, already looked colourful with spring bulbs. It was designed in 1899 by CE Ponting, and what isn’t immediately obvious is that the pattern has been laid out to be seen from the loggia of the house, so the spacing between the beds gets wider the further away, giving a false sense of perspective. Continuing the visual axis from the loggia and through the parterre is an avenue of cedars.
Another line of cedars lines the main path which leads south east from the house to the other main planted areas of the garden, each one planted by the Bankes family to mark the visit of an important visitor. These have included trees to commemorate visits by amongst others the Duke of Wellington, Edward VII, Kaiser Wilhelm and Prince Charles.
Just off this main path, and still close to the house, is a wonderfully shady Fernery dating from the late 19thc It is screened from the main lawn area by clipped box and yew, and from the parkland by a 17thc brick wall, and sits on the site of a much earlier wilderness which can be seen on Woodward’s 1775 estate plan.
It was completely overgrown when the NT took over and took a long time to clear the narrow windy paths than meander round rock edged raised beds, a pool and an impressive cast-iron fountain. Apart from a large collection of ferns it is also full of snowdrops, which were sadly, just coming to the end of their flowering period. There are over 40 different varieties which are in the process of being identified. And after the snowdrops finish it is home too to a national collection of over 30 sorts of wood anemones.
On the other side of the main path is an unusual feature: a sunken garden with a series geometrical beds, currently full of spring bulbs, laid out to designs by William Goldring in 1899-1904 for Henrietta Bankes. I’m usually a great admirer of Goldring’s work but this particular feature strikes me as rather anomalous in this setting.
Further south down the path, on the eastern side, is the entrance to the lime avenue. This dates from the late 17thc and is the sole survivor of the avenues laid out by Sir Ralph Bankes. The trees are tall, and closely planted which has encouraged epicormic growth around the base of the trunk.
Epicormic buds are laid down when the young leading shoot first begins to grow but normally remain dormant unless the tree is stressed by something like sudden environmental change, thinning, crown die-back, heavy pruning, or change in the water table. Then whatever you do they carry on growing and cutting them back only encourages faster new growth. Nowadays the Trust has instituted a pollarding regime to prolong the life of the trees, and have decided to leave the basal growth. It does make for an interesting look. The avenue is underplanted with snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells.
Turning down it the visitor at this time of year begins to see the sea, or rather ocean, of daffodils, spreading out in all directions. The far end of the avenue runs into Nursery Wood, which was once what its name suggest, an area for growing trees to be transplanted elsewhere in the parkland. From the late 19thc Walter and Henrietta converted it into an arboretum introducing a mix of deciduous and evergreen ornamentals. It too is carpeted with daffodils but also has large numbers of delicate snakes head fritillaries. It also houses a large collection of hybrid azaleas and rhododendrons and a national collection of Lily of the Valley.
The main path now leads to the 7 acre Japanese Garden developed by Henrietta Bankes after she had visited the 1910 Japanese Exhibition at White City. It is the largest Japanese garden in the country and she sourced some of plants from Japan. However like almost all of the Edwardian-era Japanese gardens it is an interpretation rather an attempt to be absolutely authentic .
Like much of the rest of the garden it had fallen into considerable disrepair. There were no plans or photographs and hardly any other documentary evidence available on its origins .
Beginning in 2005 modern archaeological techniques established the position of the tea house, paths and the general layout and since then restoration, or perhaps more accurately recreation, has been taking place. It was said by the NT manager at the time to be “the garden equivalent of putting together a giant puzzle”. Not everyone approves the result, but like its Edwardian predecessor it is not trying to be “authentic” but an anglicised version of a Japanese garden.
The Cherry Garden has been replanted and boosted by the a gift of 100 trees by the Sakura project – a Japanese initiative which is donating cherry trees to parks, gardens and schools across the country. Three varieties of cherry were selected including Taihaku – the Great White cherry- which had become extinct in Japan but was famously reintroduced to Japan by Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram in 1932.
Kingston Lacy has also joined Blossom Watch the National Trust’s major celebration of cherry blossom, which hopes to emulate Hanami, the ancient Japanese tradition of viewing and celebrating blossom as the first sign of spring.
The final surprise, and Kingston Lacy is full of them, is outside the obvious boundary of the estate. There is a kitchen garden that lies across a country lane, beyond the Japanese Gardens. It was the pride and joy of Walter and Henrietta where they showcased the latest technology to produce the finest produce and flowers.
Of course World War One saw the end of that, the gardens quickly declined and many of the glasshouses collapsed. However in 2009 the Trust decide to begin a restoration project and bring it back to life.
They attracted a lot of attention by importing pigs to clear the ground, but slowly the gardens and the buildings are resuming their former glory, First plantings of vegetables will take place this year although there remains a long long way to go. You can read more about it on the NT website. But congratulations to the Trust and its garden staff at Kingston for what’s been achieved so far