Book Review: Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

Victoria Summerley takes us on a journey around Cotswold gardens and Hugo Rittson-Thomas provides the photographs to accompany the text.

All gardens are linked to people. The more famous include Great Dixter and Christopher Lloyd, Sissinghurst and Vita Sackville-West, and Hidcote and Laurence Johnston. In my review of Victoria Summerley’s “Great Gardens of London” I bemoaned (a bit) the impersonality (and Victoria responded to that). In this book, the illustrations of most gardens include the people associated with them which, for me at least, adds that personal element which contributes so much to making the garden what it is.

I’ve often found that in a book like this the author describes some significant feature or other but there’s no pic to look at. Here the photographs are spot on and really do complement Victoria’s engaging descriptions.

Of the 20 gardens covered, six are not open to the public at all and the majority of the other fourteen are only open on one or two days a year as part of the National Gardens Scheme. So it is appropriate to call them “Secret”.

I’ve often been told by a garden owner that one of their big worries is what will happen to the garden after they’ve gone. There are gardens in this book on which lavish sums were expended in years gone by but which then became neglected until rescue by the current owners. At least those gardens are now, in this volume, documented so that, whatever might befall in the future, there will be some record of them.

This isn’t just a book about “what is” but also “what was” and “how this came to be,” putting each garden into its context.

And the history of many gardens is fascinating. At Abbotswood, near Stow on the Wold, Mark Fenwick, who bought the place in 1901, imported tons of acid soil from Somerset to cover the Cotswold limestone in order to grow lime-hating plants. On his death in 1945, Henry Ferguson (of tractor fame) bought the estate and used his tractors to excavate a lake.

Then at Colesbourne Park, the Elwes family have been in residence since 1600 and the garden has been described as “England’s greatest snowdrop garden”. We learn how that came to be. It’s perhaps fortunate that the current generation of Elwes are keen on snowdrops.

The photographer for this volume is Hugo Rittson-Thomas whose own garden (not open to the public) is featured, although it might be more accurate to refer to it as his wife’s garden. This is a story of a derelict house and a wilderness garden being resurrected and the photographer’s skill demonstrates how it has been developed to fit in with the surrounding landscape.

In the chapter covering the 20th Garden, Westwell Manor, Victoria Summerley writes of the creator, Anthea Gibson, that she seemed “to have a sense of fun.” Head Gardener David Baldwin remembers

“We used to be able to time how long it took for the car to arrive at the house for the weekend, and then for Althea to appear in the garden. It was only a matter of seconds.”

Anthea Gibson
This is what I mean about the value of “people pics”. Don’t you agree that this one perfectly captures Anthea Gibson’s sense of fun?

Sadly, Anthea died in 2010 but I wish I could roll back time and visit the garden when she was there. I’m sure it would have been a fun afternoon.

And there’s a co-incidental sense of poignancy here too. Victoria used to be the Executive Editor of the Independent newspaper and, as I finished this little review the news broke that the newspaper will shortly cease to be printed on paper and will become online only. And the i newspaper (of which Victoria edited the Saturday edition) has been sold. The thought “What will happen after I’ve gone” doesn’t just apply to gardens.

I just hope she’s got another book in the pipeline.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

  1. Glad you enjoyed the book. Good write up. But maybe you are feeding us a bit too much?

    1. There’s been a large element of catching up and playing around. I’ll soon settle into a weekly or maybe fortnightly rhythm. Three posts a week is overkill but it gives me the benefit of stats – working out the best day and the best time to post. For some reason, Mondays look best. So I’ll leave Sundays to you, ok?

  2. Good review – really gives a feel for the book. Going on Birthday list. Thank you.

    1. It’s a good book. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it (as I think you’re familiar with the English way of spelling things!)

Comments are closed.