The restoration of the Formal Garden at Hestercombe 1973 to 1980 Part 2
The condition of the gardens
The Lutyens-Jekyll garden in 1973 was by no means ‘lost', but it was slowly slipping into dereliction. The form of the garden remained intact, although all the statues, urns, benches and other artefacts had been sold off by the Crown Estate in 1953.
The northern end of the garden, beside the house, is cut out of rock, with the southern end retained by a bastion wall and filled with the spoil from the upper part of the garden. The fill material was loose and badly compacted, so that the man-made levels were subsiding on the clay sub-soil, creating constant pressure on the brick and stonework and undermining the pergola and rills in particular.
The surfacing and steps in the Dutch Garden were in particularly poor condition. The garden is raised, built by Lutyens to disguise a rubbish dump, and like the other artificial terraces within the garden was suffering badly from subsidence.
The staircases surrounding the Orangery were slipping and the paving of the Rotunda tilted, creating an odd effect juxtaposed with the level surface of the water in the pool. The stonework of the retaining walls and coping were crumbling away, and it was estimated that the hamstone balustrading would last only another few winters before frost and weathering destroyed it altogether.
The garden's iconic rills were cracked and leaking. Half built over man-made terraces and underlaid with puddled clay, the stonework had worked loose over time and the mortar disintegrated. In the earlier part of the century, a gardener's boy would spend one week each year caulking the surfaces and making the pools watertight, but this work had been neglected for many years. The rectangular water tanks at each end had also subsided and become silted up.
The main flowerbeds of the Great Plat were kept neat, and the lawned areas were immaculate, but the surrounding borders were full of overgrown shrubs and weeds were gradually encroaching.
Some plants threatened to overrun others: the Rose Garden rill was full of mimulus, while buddleia smothered the upper terraces of the Grey Walk, and red and white valerian romped gaily through the stonework and beds.
The East Rill was choked with flag iris, and both rills were infested with nettles and ground elder. Over the years, they had also been used as a dumping ground for garden waste. A mix of overgrown shrubs, including mahonia, forsythia and Ribes speciosum filled the rill terraces.
Hestercombe's gardeners, Wilf Perry (who began in 1970) and Jim Stagg (who arrived in 1973), were charged with the task of clearing the garden and preparing the beds prior to replanting.
‘Most of the beds had small holly trees in them, up to 14 feet, and brambles growing out of them - everything was growing, bar flowers!' recalls Jim.
‘It was awful,' agrees Wilf. ‘Shrubs were cut all fashions and they were full of ivy. We had orders to clear it all out.'
A thick mat of bergenias occupied the central beds of the Great Plat and the water tanks at the end of the rills. So prevalent were they, that one visitor took chief fire officer Leslie Johnson to task for growing ‘cabbages' in the Plat.