If, like me, you have been led to believe that Chiswick House’s glasshouse collection of heritage camellias was its chief horticultural asset, then this needs redressing. For, lovely as they are, it transpires that the camellias are actually just minor walk-on characters in this West London garden with much greater stories to tell.
About half way through a tour of the garden last week it dawned on me that never had I been in a garden setting so infused with the gardening philosophies of its sequence of illustrious past owners. It was clearly a melting pot of horticultural innovation containing the first cameos of several important new garden movements.
Did you know, for example, that the opening up of a sweeping vista from Chiswick House down to an enlarged lake and cascade by the architect designer William Kent for the then owner the third Earl of Burlington in 1733, is considered to be the earliest manifestation of what became the hugely influential English Natural Landscape movement? This was later personified on countless important English estates by the work of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton.
Or that the recently restored rose garden was probably the first in existence in the UK? It was commissioned by the colourful Duchess Georgiana (political activist, gambling addict, philanderer) early in the 19th century after a visit to her close friend and confidante Empress Josephine’s Jardin de La Malmaison.
Or that the main avenue through the garden served as an artery linking it to 30 acres of land bought by the Horticultural Society (later to become the RHS) in 1903 to become their main garden nursery? It was for trialling the exciting new plants being brought in from across the Empire by the Victorian plant hunters, before its move to Wisley in 1903.
In its salad days, in the 19th century, it was rented for many years by the then Prince of Wales, Prince Albert, to entertain his London guest in so-called ‘breakfast parties’. They were held in the afternoons (complete now with the customary exotic animals including elephants and giraffes) and were so popular that they were the forerunner of Royal Garden Parties now held at Buckingham Palace (so another first for Chiswick).
With such a wealth of heritage features, both Chiswick House and its 65-acre garden are Grade-1 listed, and are currently managed by the Chiswick House & Gardens Trust, on behalf of English Heritage and London Borough of Hounslow. The main challenge for the Trust and their head gardener Rosie Fyles, is to decide which and how far of the many layers of the garden’s 300 years of history to peel back and showcase, alongside developing new initiatives to engage and involve local community groups and charities. No mean feat and one which, in my opinion, they have achieved brilliantly.
As, over recent years, Chiswick has been quietly undergoing yet another renaissance. During the 20th century Chiswick House and Garden had started to drift away from its roots as a pleasure garden for aristocrats. It was used as a mental health clinic and retreat in the first half of the last century, before falling into the ownership of the Ministry of Works during WWII. Following a Heritage Lottery Funded restoration in 2010 the garden is now re-inventing itself as a fantastic community resource with health and well-being at its heart.
It would have been tempting for the garden to rest on its laurels, and simply showcase its historical features pickled in aspic. But a plethora of community groups are now welcomed in to learn about food production, including herbs and mushrooms, supported by a long-standing army of around 200 volunteers. On the day we visited there was a school group, a yoga group, numerous walkers and a wedding being planned (what a fabulous venue!).
The lucky, lucky inhabitants of Chiswick (and anyone else) are allowed free access to the majority of this polymath of a garden to wander, picnic and walk their dogs, with the only ticketed areas being the House itself and the Walled Garden. The latter is well worth its modest fee as I don’t think I have ever seen such a inspiring example of a no-dig, organic system of cut flower and veg production. It’s all beautifully laid out and labelled – it’s the first ‘no-dig’ vegetable patch that has actually convinced me that it’s time to try this system at home.
There is still more restoration work to do in this fascinating garden. Recently discovered manuscripts at Chatsworth House (with whom Chiswick House has strong links having both been owned by Dukes of Devonshire at one point) have revealed that an erstwhile mystery triangular garden with the main obtuse wall angled to maximise fruit-ripening on its reverse side, was originally planted with pear trees. The only access to this overgrown secret garden is through a small wooden door, and the Grade-I listing on all its surrounding walls, precludes bringing in any sort of mechanised clearing vehicles, so restoring it as a pear orchard presents challenges.
Undaunted, I think we were all delighted with Rosie’s response when asked how she was going to tackle the rampant nettles, bindweed and elder trees that had taken over the area ‘I was thinking I might try pigs…’
But what of those famous camellias? Well, there is indeed a beautiful collection of very well-kept camellias in the two wings of the conservatory. They were excitedly installed here when they were first discovered and brought back from China by plant hunters, and were thought to be too tender to survive the UK climate outdoors. But, as we now know, they are actually fine outdoors, and only remain in the Chiswick glasshouse for historical purposes, a reminder of how horticulture is, and always has been, a process of discovery, learning and evolution.
I was lucky enough to have a guided tour of Chiswick House Garden by Rosie and two of her helpful staff, Stephen and Lauren, who brought the garden’s fascinating history to life for me. But there is also a wealth of information on the Chiswick House and Garden Website (a worthy winner of the Garden Media Guild’s 2022 Website of the Year award) and I beg you to read up a bit ahead of your visit to help you appreciate what a unique garden this is.
The garden will be part of the London Open Gardens on Sunday 11 June (the only garden in Hounslow taking part) when your ticket will include free entry and a guided tour of the vegetable walled garden. Otherwise opening times and tickets can be found on the Website.
Many thanks to Rosie Fyles and her team for unlocking the secret history of this fascinating garden and to Luke Batchelor PR for organising the visit for us.
NB If you’re not already a subscriber and you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.