Hidcote Manor lies in the very heart of England in that quiet green country-side on the borders of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. It was bought in 1907 by an American, Colonel Lawrence Johnston, who at once set about planning and planting a garden there which was to found a new school of gardening in England.
The site was not promising. True, it had lovely views over Alfred Housman’s coloured counties, but it offered few of those ready-made features which can be so helpful to the gardener who is planning his garden from scratch, such as old stone walls – oddly enough, for Hidcote is near the Cotswolds. The site was bare and exposed to all the winds of heaven. There were some good beech trees, one fine cedar, and little else. Lawrence Johnston was a courageous man and full of imagination when he studied, like Lancelot Brown, the capabilities of the terrain and remained undaunted.
How was it then that Johnston was so successful, and made a garden which whithin a few years was to be something of a sensation in gardening circles? First, he planted windbreaks, for the site was very exposed; and the hedges he planted were different fron any that English garden-makers had ever planted before. There were yew hedges, it is true, but there were less conventional hedges as well. There was a hedge of copper beech, glowing dark red in the sunshine. There was one of silver euonymus (spindle) and a hedge of mingled yew and box, with the matt and shining greens in contrast. The most spectacular of Colonel Jognston’s hedges at Hidcote was a tapestry hedge, his own invention, in which yew, holly and beech are combined, to show in summer a marbled surface of several greens, and in winter one of greens splashed with foxy brown. Was his inspiration for his tapestry hedge the motley appearence of almost any English hedgerow? It probably was, because Lawrence Johnston had the gift of grouping quite ordinary plants together and creating a very special picture.
The second novelty in the garden at Hidcote was the way the hedges were used: not, as was usual at that time, to line an avenue or shut off some unpleasing view, but to create outdoor rooms, walled with closely-clipped leaves but open to the sky. This was a new concept in gardening – especially in 1907, the hey-day of long vistas, of the wide croquet lawn and, first and foremost, of the herbaceous border.
The garden at Hidcote is planned rather like a house with a central hall or passage-way and rooms, each with its own character, opening to left and right.
The visitor to the garden enters through a courtyard under the walls of the house. These walls, of the beautiful dove-0coloured stone of the Cotswolds, are hung with climbers: in season, the purple and gold flowers of the Chilean potato tree (Solanum crispum), exotic cousin of our own potato, light up the scene, while a dark corner is illuminated at a lower level by the yellow buttercup flowersof the Hypericum patulum which was first raised at Hidcote, and which today bears its name. Nearby a lofty bush of Hydrangea heteromalla shows its lacy flowers. Through another gate, and the visitor is in the main part of the garden itself, with the high cedar toewering before him – the cedar which was the only ready-made feature that Lawrence Johnston originally found.
To describe each of the smaller gardens-whitin-a-garden at Hidcote in detail would demand a slim volume rather than a few pages. But these are some which the visitor should specially look for. The pool garden first. This is surrounded by hedges of close-cropped yew-streaked with the scarlet of the climbing flame flower (Tropaeolum speciosum). Almost its whole area is taken up by a lily pond, of which the surrounding walls are raised, bringing the level of the water with its floating lilies, and flashing fish, to an almost companionable level.
Another garden at Hidcote is planted in shades of silver and gold, with the lily flowers of Yucca filamentosa rising above the frothy green lace of Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and tall evening primrose (oenothera) nodding shoulder high at the path’s edge. As the visitor brushes past them he feels among friends. Round the corner is yet another garden with the tall spires of the peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) echoing the shape of the pyramid-shaped yews amongst which they are planted.
In the rose garden there is a collection of old shrub roses, of which the French names are always so charming – Reine des Violettes, Coupe D’Hebe and Boule de Neige.
Another part of the garden at Hidcote is completely different. No flowers. No shrubs. No roses to lay their sweetness on the air. But it is an area which only a gardener with an artist’s eye could have conjured – a large, perfectly proportioned stretch of turf, which Colonel Johnston called his Theatre Lawn. At the far end, on a rising grassy platform, stand, in solemn consultation, some spreanding beech trees. If we have likened the enclosed gardens of Hidcote to rooms in a house – this lawn must surely be the ball-room, with its dance floor of smooth turf, and its orchestra platform, or stage, at one end. It is simplicity – the reliance on scale and on emptiness for its effect – that the Theatre Lawn at Hidcote displays to the full, the planning genius of that great gardener, Lawrence Johnston, who came to love England, and made his home there.