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July 2010

The gardening women of Chenies Manor

My first visit to Chenies Manor, sandwiched between Amersham in Buckinghamshire and the M25, and renown for its displays of tulips in the spring. In the summer, dahlias take over in the formal beds edged with beautiful old specimens of box and yew.

What I hadn't realised was just how many connections this venerable building and its gardens have with 'gardening women'.  In the late sixteenth century, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, nee Har[r]ington, knew Chenies through her marriage to the third Earl and frequently entertained leading poets of the day such as Ben Johnson at the house. There is even a rumour that A Midsummer's Night's Dream was written for her marriage. The Countess was known as a passionate gardener as well and influenced the layout of the gardens at Chenies.


Lady Anne Clifford also lived in part of the house during the late sixteenth century. Lady Anne later was to have great wealth and gardened on her various estates across Yorkshire and Westmoreland, making a large garden at Brougham Castle.


Since the late 1950s, Elizabeth MacLeod Matthew has devoted herself to recreating the grounds around this magnificent house, including introducing a grass labyrinth, a maze and a Physic Garden. She is quite correct of course that every house of this standing would have had a garden devoted to herbs for use by the apothecary who in many cases, was the wife.

On my way out I popped into the modest little shop selling the usual tea towels, local honey and mugs, and bought some small packets of seeds collected from the garden and carefully packaged in brown paper envelopes. It's lovely to take something away from one garden for your own. So I was delighted to be able to buy some seed of  Eryngium giganteum, or 'Miss Willmott's Ghost' which grows happily in the Victorian vegetable garden at Chenies (see its silvery spikes below).

I've written a great deal about Ellen Willmott in Gardening Women. She was an amazing woman and astounding gardener but perhaps everyone's favourite story about her is that she used to scatter the seeds of E. giganteum surreptitiously as she visited other gardens which is how it got its name. Did she ever visit Chenies Manor? It would be lovely to think that she did.


If this has given you a taste for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gardens, pop over to my other blog, A Gardening Woman to find out about one of my favourites, Wyken Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk.

A favourite gardening book republished


Delighted to report that Four Hedges - A Gardener's Chronicle by Clare Leighton, has been republished by Little Toller Books  (£10) with a new introduction by Carol Klein.

Clare Leighton (1898-1989) studied engraving at the Slade School of Art under Noel Rooke. Four Hedges became a best-seller for Leighton, a highly accomplished wood engraver, when it was first published in 1935.  It charts a year as she transforms a meadow into a garden in the Chilterns and is illustrated by eight-four enchanting woodcuts of fruit, flowers, tools and even a tortoise tucking into a dandelion! There is a leisurely style to her writing that is the perfect antidote to today's frenetic world. Read and relax.

NB: Fans of Vera Brittain's autobiography, Testament of Youth, may remember her devotion to Clare's older brother, Ronald, who was killed in action in 1915.

Who were Dartington Hall's women gardeners?

I'm just back from a weekend at Dartington talking about Gardening Women at the Ways with Words annual book festival.  And what an enjoyable weekend it was. Being more used to the parched earth of Suffolk, Devon's lushness even in the current dry conditions was a delight especially the beautiful gardens which surround Dartington Hall itself. I particularly loved the planting of the yellow and blue long border.


So it was a double delight to find out that it was two women who were brought the gardens to life in the twentieth century: Dorothy Elmhirst and Beatrix Farrand. Here are some snippets about them from the history of Dartington Hall.

"Dorothy Elmhirst and her husband, Leonard, were ultimately concerned with the creation of the gardens from 1925, when they purchased the Dartington Hall estate, until their deaths in 1968 and 1974.

"When they came here the grounds were neglected and overgrown with weeds. The shrubberies reflected Victorian taste, the tiltyard was a pattern of formal flower beds, but beneath the worn out surface lay an extraordinarily dramatic landscape setting - a coombe with terraces flowing into a wider river valley, whose folds drifted away southeastwards to the sea.

"It became a matter of freeing the form of the gardens from entanglement; there was never any question of imposing a design upon the landscape. The contours of the land were used to intensify the natural effects of height, depth and distance. Trees and shrubs were introduced to give structure to the compositions, lawns to emphasise space, evergreens to provide interest and texture through the winter.

"The great trees planted by the Champernowne family, owners of the estate for centuries before the Elmhirsts came, were cleared of undergrowth so that they might stand out in all their grandeur, and vistas were opened up to give greater sweep to distant views and to link the garden with the countryside beyond.


"Dorothy Elmhirst had a large hand in the choice of plant materials, especially so in the years following the last war when much of the filling in of the basic design was accomplished. She also had an extensive knowledge and love of trees, shrubs and plants, but to carry the work through she and Leonard had relied on professional help from both sides of the Atlantic.

"Most celebrated among their consultants was the American garden designer Beatrix Farrand who became involved in 1933, by which time the tiltyard had already been cleared and turned to its first use as an open-air theatre. Mrs Farrand brought order to the Courtyard and designed the cobbled drive that circles the central lawn, overcoming problems presented by awkward ground levels. The following year she began opening the garden out by creating paths and connecting links. Three Woodland walks were laid out and planted using Yew, Bay and broadleaved Hollies as background material for a rich variety of camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons."


Having got this far, you might like to pop over and sign up to our sister blog, A Gardening Woman, which has just been chosen in the most flattering terms by the online garden business, Dobbies, as their 'Blog of the Week'!

More women get RHS top jobs

Yesterday I wrote about the appointment of Elizabeth Banks as the new President of the RHS and it was lovely to see her on the BBC's coverage of the Hampton Court Flower Show last night with Joe Swift. But it shouldn't go unrecorded that two other top jobs at the RHS have also recently gone to women.

Sue Biggs will become the RHS's Director General from September.  Sue brings thirty years' experience in the leisure industry to the RHS as well as a passion for gardening.

And up at Harlow Carr, the RHS's garden in the North, Elizabeth Balmforth becomes not only the first female in the society's history to hold such a post, but at 34, also the youngest. Elizabeth trained at Hadlow College, in Kent and has been at Harlow Carr since 2003. Among other things, Elizabeth aims to promote the longevity of planting schemes, and to create new reflective bodies of water to ensure the garden can cope with flash flooding.

Horray for the RHS as first woman president is announced

RHS has their new first women President - Elizabeth Banks

I'm not often full of praise for the RHS with its rather wonky reputation for encouraging women so it's a delight to see that Elizabeth Banks has been appointed the new President of the RHS effective from 1 July.

Elizabeth Banks has run a highly successful landscape architecture practice for many years and was involved, among many other projects, with the development of the RHS's garden, Rosemoor, in Devon. I'm down in Devon this weekend speaking at the Ways with Words Literary Festival  at Dartington Hall. No time to visit Rosemoor I'm afraid but I'll definitely raise a cheer for Elizabeth Banks, the first RHS President in its almost two hundred year history.