Imagine a boggy gravel pit. Where most of us would only see the grey dusty desolation of the former scene of frenzied excavation at the quarry, a visionary in the form of Beth Chatto saw past the starkness, the stones and rubble and over the past 55 years she and her team has worked tirelessly to create the serene, lush and heavenly gardens now named after her.
The gardens are loosely split into various areas including the Gravel Garden, the Water Garden which leads through to the Woodland Garden and the recent addition of the Scree Garden.
From the very beginning, Beth Chatto decided to work with the environment and this was particularly pertinent since the gardens are located in the county with the lowest rainfall in the UK (famously less than in the Sahara desert!)
She longed to learn how to garden in these conditions and in the process help other gardeners of the future. The Gravel Garden was an inauspicious stone parking space for many years and I recall a visit here many years ago when a few cars were dotted around this rather glum piece of land and the ‘cafe’ was located in one corner. A tent ‘cafe’ barely held in place as the wind relentlessly tried to lift it to the sky! Nowadays a modern designed restaurant sits at the edge of the gravel garden with tables outdoors open to its views and wildlife – robins and blue tits were frequent visitors to our table.
Over the years the arid land has been transformed into its current beautiful Gravel Garden. Vibrant colours abound through the inventive and inspiring planting where also the textures of the plants and flowers are taken into consideration. As the sun comes out there is a real Mediterranean feel to this sun trap and I’m transported to the South of France!
A novice to gardening, Beth Chatto is self-taught although both her parents were enthusiastic gardeners and her husband, Andrew, had a life-long interest in the natural environment of plants. During her decades of work at Beth Chatto, she became close friends with some of the eminent gardeners at the time and in due course became an award-winning gardener. For ten consecutive years, she has won gold at the RHS Chelsea Flower show; she was awarded an OBE by the Queen in 2002, received the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour as well as accepting an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the University of Essex. Furthermore, she’s lectured worldwide and written numerous books on gardening. Even to this day at 96 she often comes out to the gardens!
The gardens have constantly evolved as her expertise has grown and in my opinion, the Water Garden is the jewel of all the areas.
Four ponds straddle the garden, linked by a gurgling stream which was dammed up specifically to fill the ponds. There is a powerful lush tropical feel throughout and there is a dominant celebration of the colour green – from the immaculate emerald green of the grass to the hundreds of shade of green of the rich foliage of the trees, plants and flowers. Colour is used sparingly and when in evidence has a transforming impact on the garden and on the flower, they stand out like never before.
The sense of harmony and tranquility is almost overwhelming, the effect immediate and real. As I enter a seeming state of transcendental bliss I let my senses absorb the delights as I nurdle* (wander aimlessly) around the Water Garden.
Nothing has been left to chance. Soft fragrances float on the gentle breeze, never overpowering, rather a warm hint of promise.
The stream provides a constant rhythmic backdrop to the walk, changing in pitch as I meander around, then in the hushed reverential near silence I notice the birdsong; what a jubilant chorus as they seem to compete for attention, their delight in life infectious. Only later looking over the videos I took on the day do I hear the distant roar of planes high overhead, at the time they were effectively tuned out!
It was not only my eyes which took in the varying textural forms, from the razor sharp, sword-like leaves, to the whimsical frilly grasses, to the variegated leaves of the ferns. My hands swish between some leaves here, some grasses there. My fingertips enchanted my the soft tender sensations, some tickling, some spiky.
Giant parasol leaves loom over me at one stage and proof again that Beth Chatto has achieved something remarkable here – these moisture-loving plants never associated with East Anglia are thriving. I bend to inhale the scent of the roses, I stretch up to spy the colours closer, I stand stock-still following the dragonflies darting over the lake and its irises, so fast in their dance, impossible to capture on camera.
Benches are logistically, romantically, placed around the gardens, often in the soothing shade to sit and contemplate nature and her amazing art. The play of shade and light is spectacular, the dark grasses a sharp contrast to the soft mellow sunlight stems taking on their own structural sculptural artistic form. Gazing, absorbing and reflecting I sit in silence…before I feel the eyes of others eager to enjoy the peace, to rest up and reluctantly I move on.
Peeling myself away from the sumptuous Water Gardens I wander through the Reservoir Garden, its large borders a miracle of colour and flowers and it’s hard to imagine this is the site of a former wasteland filled with scrubby bushes.
The woodland came to its own after the infamous hurricane of 1987 when trees across the UK, and especially in the South, were decimated with about 15 million trees felled by 115 mph winds. At Beth Chatto many new trees were self-seeded and those remaining include many oak trees over one hundred years old. The dappled light shines playfully between the tall canopies and below flowers adorn the ground, the damp earthy forest fragrance is reminiscent of many childhood bluebell wood walks.
Many thanks for accompanying me on this epic walk through Beth Chatto Gardens’ seven acres…however, it’s not quite over! A visit is never complete without looking at its renowned nursery with over 2,000 different species of herbaceous plants and bulbs and we came away with armfuls of plants including Cosmos and Veronicas.
*Please see the previous post.
NB. All photos ©Annika Perry, 2017