Mavis Batey: from codebreaker to campaigner for historic parks and gardens
- Written by Sarah Jackson
The beginnings of activism
Mavis had long taken joy in the natural landscape, escaping to the Shirley Hills beyond Croydon as a child. In Oxford, she fell under the spell of the influential William Hoskins, author of Making of the English Landscape, and joined the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE).
She was on the Executive Committee of the Oxfordshire branch of the CPRE at a time when the county's historic landscapes were at risk from development and the CPRE took a lead in campaigning to protect them.
‘It seemed to me that the moment I'd got interested in these lovely landscape parks, they came under threat. The Ministry of Transport actually said that putting a road through Highclere Park would give the motorist something good to look at as they drove through!' she says indignantly.
Discovering Nuneham Courtenay
Mavis came to the history of gardens almost by chance when she and her family moved to the 18th-century estate of Nuneham Courtenay, which was owned by the University of Oxford.
‘We lived in the agent's house, right in the middle of a Capability Brown park, but it was William Mason's garden that really got me. We had to cut our way into it. It was all overgrown and garden ornaments were buried in the grass, but I knew at once it wasn't just an ordinary derelict garden: someone had tried to say something there, I knew at once it wasn't just an ordinary derelict garden: someone had tried to say something there,' she recalls.
Mavis spent the next few years researching the garden, and to her delight she found that it was not only part of garden history but of the history of literature as well. The garden turned out to have been inspired by Julie's garden in Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise.
Mavis was pleased to be able to establish that that Nuneham was in fact the village immortalised in Oliver Goldsmith's celebrated poem, ‘The Deserted Village'. Her article in Oxoniensa in 1968, ‘Nuneham Courtenay: an Oxfordshire 18th-century Deserted Village' revealed just how many villages had been removed in the making of landscape parks during the 18th century.
A Jekyll coup
With her family growing up, Mavis joined the Oxford Department of External Studies in 1970 as a part-time tutor in the history of landscape. She took part in Oxford American summer schools, taking students on tours of gardens and landscapes. This resulted in an unexpected coup at the end of the 1970s.
‘On one occasion we went round looking at Lutyens houses and Jekyll gardens, and they loved them, and I said "Well, we've got the gardens and you in America have got the Jekyll plans needed for restoration!" And, bless their hearts - it was the University of California - they had everything copied and sent back, and so suddenly I was confronted with this huge Jekyll record!' she recalls.
The Jekyll papers had been auctioned after the Second World War and bought by landscape architect Beatrix Farrand who had taken them to America, where they ended up at Berkeley. Now for the first time they were all available to English researchers on microfilm.
‘It was terribly exciting, all kinds of things we didn't even know Lutyens had done, but he'd sent Jekyll the plans so that when she couldn't get around she could design actually on the plan. There were some of the war cemeteries in France and even one of the Cenotaph, all in this great stack,‘ says Mavis. Richard Bisgrove looked after and administered them for the GHS for many years before a permanent home was found at the National Monuments Record.
The Garden History Society campaigns
Mavis's research on Nuneham brought her into contact with the GHS, which had been founded in 1965, and in 1971 she became its Honorary Secretary.
The protection of historic buildings had long been on the public agenda, but in the 1970s historic gardens simply did not figure on the official radar. Mavis and her colleagues realised that as well as being a learned society, the GHS would have to take on a campaigning role if historic landscapes were to be preserved for future generations. Important sites such as Petworth and Chillington were threatened by roads, and Audley End with the indignity of sewage works.
The GHS fixed on European Architectural Heritage Year in 1975 as an opportunity to achieve recognition for historic gardens in their own right. The Society set up a conservation committee in 1974, with Mavis at the helm, and lobbied on the Town and Country Amenities Bill then going through Parliament.
The resulting Town and Country Amenities Act (1974) was the first piece of legislation to recognise the concept of the historic garden in its own right, and to offer some protection for gardens as the settings of listed buildings.