The Cottage Garden and its origins

We all know what a cottage garden looks like don’t we?  We might even be able to describe its main features, although a short  definitive account is quite elusive. So where does the phrase come from? When is it first used? I confess to being stumped when someone asked me recently. You’d think the answer was obvious but actually it isn’t.

I’m sure you knew there is a Cottage Garden Society – large and flourishing – so I thought they’d know if anyone does – but no. Their website doesn’t have  a definition of what constitutes a cottage garden, although there’s a lot about what are nowadays known as cottage garden plants.

So it was off to  Collins Dictionary which defines it as an informal style of garden which has beds planted with a great variety of traditional flowers. Michael Symes in his handy little Glossary of Garden History says it’s “a garden attached to a cottage where the planting is informal, apparently artless crowded with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees, with trailers climbers and creepers on the woodwork.”    It’s the “apparently artless” which gives away the fact that nowadays a cottage garden is another form of horticultural artifice.

It remains an aspiration for many. “What everyone wanted, from the Lady of the Manor to the humblest suburbanite, was a romantic cottage garden, a private bucolic retreat that would provide an escape from modern world.” (Penelope Hobhouse/ Ambra Edwards in The Story of Gardening).  But was it always so?  I suspect that most people wouldn’t aspire to it if they knew what it used to mean…

A Cottage Garden by Helen Allingham – but where does this style originate?

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Audley End’s Walled Kitchen Garden

The Walled garden from Google Maps

Another lockdown escape last week took me to Audley End, near Saffron Walden in Essex.  Although the mansion itself is still closed because of Covid restrictions the extensive grounds which were completely redesigned  by Capability Brown in the mid 18thc, were open. So too was the walled kitchen garden restored by English Heritage about 20 years ago. This includes two large greenhouse ranges: a vinery dating originally from the 1820s , and a rebuilt Orchard House dating from the early 1850s.

When Anna Pavord, the garden writer visited about ten years ago she wrote that “Nothing makes me feel happier than walking into a kitchen garden, especially a walled one. The real world disappears. Here instead is an ordered, productive microcosm. No climbing garden plant is more beautiful to me than a well- trained espalier pear; no herbaceous border sings more harmoniously than an old-fashioned vegetable border, snug inside its box hedges.”

Even on a chilly April afternoon all that’s still true at Audley End  today.

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The Gibberd Garden

Sir Frederick Gibberd in cast concrete by Gerda Rubinstein

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 .  

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The English Travels of Cosimo III

Apologies to regular readers for the false alarm about a post yesterday. I’m afraid there was a slip of the editorial finger when instead of saving the draft of next week’s piece I hit “publish”. It happens even to the best of us but you should have known it wasn’t Saturday morning!

Between 1667 and 1669 Cosimo de Medici,  the 26 year old heir to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, went on two long trips around Western Europe, which included a three month stay in England.   Arriving in Plymouth he travelled by carriage to London calling at  places of interest  on the way, and later visiting several other towns including Cambridge and Oxford.   Despite pretending to travel incognito he had a large retinue, including an artist to record the places he visited and a leading young Florentine scholar,  Count Lorenzo Magalotti, who acted as secretary and wrote an account of his journeys.

Now  in the Laurentian Library in Florence  the manuscript  relating to the trip to England became a popular port of call for the more erudite English visitor on the Grand Tour in the 18thc. As a result 200 years ago in 1821 it was translated into English and published. Copies of the illustrations were made by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and these  are now in the British Library.  While some parts of Magalotti’s journal are mundane others make fascinating reading and gives an extremely rare narrative insight into the everyday life of the post-Restoration court circle, and well as giving first-hand account of several gardens while  making occasional comaprisons with Italian ones.


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Lord Edward’s a-maze-ing portrait

Discussing this Elizabethan portrait in a lecture recently  I found myself describing the image in the background sometimes as a maze and sometimes a labyrinth and wondering if there is any difference between them?     

In any case what on earth is the maze/labyrinth doing in the background of an Elizabethan aristocrat anyway?

Which one is shown in the portrait and why is it there?


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