Category Archives: Garden-visits

Russians in Scotland!

Russians in Scotland!
Russians in Scotland!
Russians in Scotland!
Russians in Scotland!

I recently had the great pleasure of hosting a tour for a group of garden lovers from Moscow. I gain huge joy from doing these tours. I love to see how well my Russian visitors (all highly knowledgeable and experienced gardeners) respond to the wonderful gardens that Scotland has to offer; and equally I love how the Scottish hosts respond to our visits. Russians are very open and unreserved, they are curious and ask many questions, and most of all they are highly appreciative. Here are just a couple of images of my lovely group, taken at Greywalls (with charming head gardener Neil Davidson) and at Stobshiel, both in East Lothian.

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation

Today I had been due to accompany a group of Russian visitors on a tour of the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, the creation of American architect Charles Jencks and his late wife Maggie Keswick. Sadly my Russians didn’t receive their visas on time and had to cancel their trip, but I decided to go along without them.

The name “Garden of Cosmic Speculation”, as Charles Jencks has written, came about because its creators used it as a spur to think about and celebrate some fundamental aspects of nature. He writes: “Many of these are quite normal to a garden: planting suitable species which are both a pleasure to eat and easy to grow in a wet, temperate climate. And others are unusual: inventing new waveforms, linear twists, and a new grammar of landscape design to bring out the basic elements of nature that recent science has found to underlie the cosmos.”

This unusual garden – if that is indeed what you would call it – is the creation of two scientific minds. As a linguist rather than a scientist, I was never going to understand it on the same level as Jencks and Keswick, but there is nonetheless much to appreciate here. Some of the most famous installations, such as the Black Hole checkerboard and the Universe Cascade, left me rather cold… but there are more subtle features, such as the gentle landforms that give a protective embrace to a row of old trees, that I found quite touching.

This is a place that deserves time and thought. The best time to visit it is certainly not on the one day of the year when it is open to the public (thousands of people and a loud pipe band do not aid quiet contemplation).

(Further reading: “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” by Charles Jencks, published by Frances Lincoln.)

Russian gardens: Private garden near Moscow

Russian gardens: Private garden near Moscow
Russian gardens: Private garden near Moscow
Russian gardens: Private garden near Moscow
Russian gardens: Private garden near Moscow
Russian gardens: Private garden near Moscow
Russian gardens: Private garden near Moscow

This one-hectare garden, by British designers Sally Court and Helen Billetop of CGD Design, is only three or four years old but is rapidly maturing. It is located just outside Moscow, in the wealthy residential suburb of Barvikha. Early one sultry morning at the end of May I met up with Larissa, the head gardener, who drove me out of the city along the main highway to visit the garden. Thankfully we were driving against the tide of the commuter traffic that makes life such a misery for Muscovites. As we finally turned off the busy roads and into the countryside, the cool air of the forest came as a blessing.

Russia had just emerged from a particularly long, cold winter; the final snows had melted only a few weeks previously. Yet suddenly the temperature had rocketed to thirty degrees and showed no sign of falling. Such extreme weather conditions are fairly typical for Russia, representing challenging conditions in which to create successful gardens, as many British designers are now discovering.

The client had asked Sally and Helen for a traditional English garden, and in many respects this is what has been achieved. Adjacent to the house, for example, are the formal elements of a rose garden, glasshouse and potager that would not be out of place outside any English country house. However, as I started exploring the informal gardens leading down to the waterside, I realised that to describe this as an English garden doesn’t really do it justice. The fact that the garden is located in the middle of a forest and on the edge of a lake immediately gives it a very Russian context. What I love is how Sally and Helen have created a soft and relaxed planting style that is reminiscent of the English cottage garden tradition, whilst maintaining a feel that reminded me very much of some of the great Russian country estates of the ‘silver age’. This is largely because much of the original forest has been left undisturbed within the garden – here are pines, birches and other typical Russian trees. The stream and the lake at the bottom of the garden add to the Russian feel, reminding me (albeit on a smaller scale) of Turgenev’s estate at Spasskoye-Lutovinovo. The ‘English’ design and planting elements have been adapted to suit this environment. To my mind it is a very successful combination of English and Russian styles.

The sheer scale of the planting here is breathtaking, as is the level of maintenance that goes into it. Larissa works seven days a week during the peak season and oversees a small team of staff who keep the garden looking in tip-top condition. There is not a single weed to be seen – definitely not a feature of traditional Russian gardens, which tend to be much more relaxed in that respect.

The garden has already won several awards and has been featured in the Russian ‘Dom i Sad’ (House and Garden) magazine. But it is still a work in progress; indeed, the owner has just purchased an adjacent acre of land which CGD will be developing in the near future.

Gardens of Scotland - Shepherd House (part 1)

Gardens of Scotland - Shepherd House (part 1)
Gardens of Scotland - Shepherd House (part 1)
Gardens of Scotland - Shepherd House (part 1)
Gardens of Scotland - Shepherd House (part 1)
Gardens of Scotland - Shepherd House (part 1)
Gardens of Scotland - Shepherd House (part 1)

I’m delighted that I’m going to be spending the next 12 months photographing Shepherd House Garden at Inveresk, just outside Edinburgh. Shepherd House is one of the finest small gardens you’re likely to see (it was one of only two in Scotland featured in the late Rosemary Verey’s book “Secret Gardens”). I feel very privileged to live so close to it, and I was a regular visitor even before this photography project commenced.

The owners of Shepherd House, Sir Charles and Lady Ann Fraser, took over the one-acre property more than 50 years ago, and the garden has been evolving under their loving care since then. What started off as a wilderness and their children’s playground has become (without the aid of any professional garden designer) a glorious combination of individual gardens linked by a central, nepeta-flanked rill under rose-covered arches.

Lady Ann is an accomplished botanical artist, whose work has been awarded a Silver, a Silver Gilt and in 2010 a Gold Medal for her paintings by the Royal Horticultural Society. She is represented in many private collections in the UK and USA. All the plants that she paints – tulips, irises, hellebores, snowdrops and poppies – have been nurtured in her own beautiful garden.

Here is a small selection of images from the start of this one-year photography project. I’m now just waiting to photograph the garden’s annual profusion of tulips…

Gardens of Scotland - Inveresk Lodge

Gardens of Scotland - Inveresk Lodge
Gardens of Scotland - Inveresk Lodge
Gardens of Scotland - Inveresk Lodge
Gardens of Scotland - Inveresk Lodge
Gardens of Scotland - Inveresk Lodge
Gardens of Scotland - Inveresk Lodge

I’m fortunate enough to live within a mile or two of several lovely gardens, including a couple that belong to the National Trust for Scotland. One of these is Inveresk Lodge Garden near Musselburgh. Strangely enough, given its proximity, I have never visited this garden during the summer months and have therefore never seen it at its ‘best’; it’s only during the winter months that it occurs to me to visit it. I can’t say why this is, but whatever the case, it’s a rather lovely place to wander on a frosty winter’s day.

This hillside garden has suffered from lack of investment in recent years, and indeed recently the NTS had threatened to close it. Local volunteers do their best, but there’s an impression that they barely have enough capacity to maintain it, let alone re-plant or re-invent it. It used to be a well known and well loved garden – in days of yore it had a rose border designed by Graham Stuart Thomas – but the magnificent Shepherd House garden just across the road snaps up most of the visitors, leaving Inveresk Lodge as merely an afterthought. (More of Shepherd House later.)

The upper terraces at Inveresk are comparatively formal, but once you descend to the pond and the River Esk at the bottom of the garden things become more relaxed – this is natural woodland and wetland, full of bird life and with attractive views across the fields to the Pentland Hills. Around the meadow pond, the bullrushes on a frosty morning are particularly attractive.

Gardens of Scotland - Attadale

Gardens of Scotland - Attadale
Gardens of Scotland - Attadale
Gardens of Scotland - Attadale
Gardens of Scotland - Attadale
Gardens of Scotland - Attadale
Gardens of Scotland - Attadale

Attadale Garden, near Strathcarron in Wester Ross, is not somewhere that you can just call into spontaneously – you really have to want to go there. It’s pretty remote, and lies nestled amongst the mountains of the north west coast with views to the Isle of Skye. It’s essentially a woodland garden, but there are several different gardens within it; you wouldn’t really call them ‘rooms’, but they do link nicely together. The initial walk from the car park to the main house leads down a long, straight driveway by the edge of a field; this could have been an uninspiring start to a visit, but the owners and their head gardener have created an imaginative linear garden of pools, Japanese-style wooden bridges, sculptures and waterside planting which provides a taste of the pleasures to come. The other gardens all lie around the house itself. There’s a vegetable garden; a geodesic dome containing a collection of tree ferns; a Japanese garden; and a charming sunken garden, which was still full of life and colour when I visited in October. Here and there are other interesting touches, including slate sculptures and a giant sundial. To add to the experience, the owners have thoughtfully left laminated information sheets in key places to explain what you’re looking at – particularly helpful in the Japanese garden. And last but not least, there’s a ‘do-it-yourself’ tearoom. Lovely garden, highly recommended!

Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus

Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus

The Casa de Mateus, just outside Vila Real in northern Portugal, will be familiar to anyone who has ever drunk a bottle of Mateus rosé wine. The facade of the house features on the label of each bottle – despite the fact that no wine has ever been produced on the estate.

The house was designed by the Italian Niccolò Nasoni and is said to be a near-perfect example of Baroque architecture. It’s widely considered to be one of the finest country houses in Europe. The house and garden are open to the public, and often form the backdrop for concerts and other events.

I will leave the house to better qualified people to describe – but I can say that the gardens are a delight. There are some commentators who scorn Portugal’s Baroque gardens, but I haven’t tired of the style yet. (Perhaps it’s because the neatness and orderliness of these gardens reminds me of the state in which I was able to maintain my home until I got married.) I approached the Mateus garden the wrong way, as I later found out. As you enter the estate from the main road the trees give way to reveal a large pool – or rather, water tank – beyond which lies the house. The recognised route to the garden is to circumvent the tank and walk through a passage beneath the central, double-balustraded staircase of the house, which leads you onto the main terrace. But before I got anywhere near the house my eye was caught by a smaller stone tank way off to the right, and I headed off that way instead. I thereby approached the garden from the side, via a path between the old orchards and vegetable plots. The path is intersected by archways of box providing framed views in two directions: towards the house and towards the distant landscape. The smaller tank that had caught my eye turned out to be the irrigation tank for the productive part of the garden in years gone by (there are still some vegetables and fruit trees now, but not much to write home about).

I then descended to the lower gardens via the impressive cedar tunnel. This tunnel, wonderfully cool and welcoming on a hot day, is so dark inside that I failed to photograph it satisfactorily. This was an impromptu visit; my tripod was left behind that day, and hand-held exposure was impossible without going up to 3200ISO – something to be avoided in garden photography. But as they say, “always leave yourself something to go back for”. I shall return to photograph it another day.

Emerging from the cedar tunnel I entered the first of two lower parterres, which are separated by a tall hedge shaped in wave form. This first parterre contains box-edged beds, which at the time of my visit were filled with blue and yellow iris. The second parterre, beyond the undulating hedge, is much more formal in style. It’s a ‘broderie’-type affair: a concoction of low box hedges in various patterns – fleur-de-lys, crowns and curves – all laid over gravel. Linking the two lower gardens at one side is the stone retaining wall, festooned with fragrant climbing roses.

The main terrace, at house level, was the last part of the garden that I came to – and my favourite. This contains a beautiful fountain, together with the usual beds edged in box. There was comparatively little colour here when I visited other than lush green, but I will certainly return in the spring in order to see the magnolia and camellia in bloom. There were several gardeners at work, trimming and clipping – one of them using the tallest ladder I have ever come across to clip a high hedge. I regret not stopping to chat with them, but this was not an arranged visit and for some reason I felt shy. I later learned that one of the Mateus gardeners had been interviewed on a British television programme a few years ago, at the age of 104. There’s dedication for you.

Further information about the garden can be found in Helena Attlee’s book, Gardens of Portugal (Lincoln press).

(Incidentally, for any oenophiles out there, Mateus rosé wine with its iconic flask-shaped bottle went out of fashion after the 1970’s, but sales took off again when it was re-launched in 2002 in slightly drier form to suit the modern-day palate. Apparently it was one of the wines found stockpiled in the vaults of Saddam Hussein’s palaces after his downfall. We all know what good taste he showed in every other aspect of his life, so clearly there can be no finer commendation for the wine than this.)

Quinta das Lágrimas

Quinta das Lágrimas
Quinta das Lágrimas
Quinta das Lágrimas
Quinta das Lágrimas
Quinta das Lágrimas
Quinta das Lágrimas

Situated on the left bank of the Mondego River in Coimbra is Quinta das Lágrimas (‘Estate of Tears’), a luxury hotel set in delightful grounds. The gardens, which have recently been restored, are open to the public.

The origin of the estate is uncertain, but we know that it was originally a hunting ground for the Portuguese royal family. In the 14th century it became associated with the tragic love story of Don Pedro and Inês de Castro. Inês, a Spanish noblewoman, is said to have been murdered here on the orders of King Afonso IV of Portugal, Pedro’s father. The property benefited later on from close associations with the Botanical Gardens of Coimbra University, whose director was a friend of the owner of the Quinta; they used to exchange species. As a result of this relationship, Quinta das Lágrimas is essentially a botanical garden in itself, featuring rare and exotic trees from all over the world – including a couple of sequoias planted by the Duke of Wellington nearly two centuries ago. Most of the trees at the Quinta were planted in the first part of the 19th century.

The Quinta das Lágrimas hotel is owned by a well known Portuguese lawyer, who financed the restoration of the garden himself. It was designed by landscape architect Cristina Castel-Branco. This was the first medieval garden to be totally rebuilt in Portugal, inspired by illuminated manuscripts, tapestries and the literature of the day. The project was conceived by architect Cristina Castel-Branco, who says it is the first in Portugal to meet the requirements of UNESCO’s International Council on Monuments and Sites, which works for the preservation and study of parks, gardens and historical sites.

In selecting plants for the medieval garden, the restoration team restricted itself to fifty species that were used in the Middle Ages – that is, before the great Portuguese explorers embarked on their Discoveries and brought back all the exotic species that are familiar to us now. The garden has been planted with various medicinal and other plants that were known to have been used in monastery gardens of the day.

Snowdrops by Starlight - Cambo, Fife

Snowdrops by Starlight - Cambo, Fife
Snowdrops by Starlight - Cambo, Fife
Snowdrops by Starlight - Cambo, Fife
Snowdrops by Starlight - Cambo, Fife
Snowdrops by Starlight - Cambo, Fife

The annual ‘Snowdrops by Starlight’ event at Cambo Estate in Fife is now a fixture in my calendar. It’s not so much about the snowdrops themselves (you need to go during the daytime to see them in all their glory), it’s more about the atmosphere: the snowdrop woods around Cambo House become a magical wonderland created by light and sound. It’s slightly spooky, but in a good way, evoking fairies rather than ghosts! Here are some images to give you a flavour of what to expect (although sadly you’ve just missed your chance to visit this year).

Abbotsford walled garden

Abbotsford walled garden

I have been photographing the beautiful walled garden at Abbotsford, home of the writer Sir Walter Scott in the Scottish Borders. Many thanks to the head gardener, Bill, and his assistant Phil for letting me into the garden at sunrise and sunset. The garden isn’t open to the public at such unsocial hours, but it’s the best time for garden photography. You can see some of the resulting images below.

Walled garden at Abbotsford, Scottish Borders from Sheila Sim on Vimeo.