It is years since I went to Hidcote. I always found it strangely dry and soulless, but could never work out why. I know others found it similarly lacking in soul. Could never work out why. Perhaps partly to do with its rather disorientating quality; it is so easy to get lost, and can be a nightmare to get back to the entrance , or the tearoom or wherever it was you last saw the person you came with.
So, spurred on by having agreed to a piece for the Daily Telegraph about its centenary, I went again, for something like the first time in twelve years. And I must say, I found I liked it much more. Which probably says more about me than it does about the garden.
The garden has however has changed. The National Trust have been working on taking it back to how it was in the days of its creator, the reclusive Lawrence Johnston. Nowadays we’d probably call him autistic. He was famously difficult to get to know, his friends were all gardeners too, and he appeared to be happiest when talking shop with his head gardener. The garden at Hidcote was his obsession.
The Hidcote we have all got to know and love (or feel ambiguous about) is only partly Johnston’s. It got to be very run down in the 1950s, many of its garden ornaments were removed to other NT gardens. A mole tells me that Johnston’s collection of antique watering cans ended up with Alvilde Lees-Milne. Graham Stuart Thomas, NT garden supremo from the 1955, took it in hand. As with many other gardens, he made it his own; with lots of old shrub rose planting and a supporting cast of perennials. The more labour-intensive flamboyant annual and bedding planting of Johnston’s day was lost.
GST’s approach was arguably a rational one – it helped to reduce maintenance, but it meant that when so much of English gardening came to be ‘re-discovered’ in the 1970s and 1980s, the Hidcote which became popular was not the original version. The garden became, with Sissinghurst, the twin pastel pillars of English garden taste – a romantic and highly selective vision of ‘traditional’ English style. As Thatcherism took hold, the upper middle-classes retreated into their fantasies of a gentler time, in which the English country house garden was a central part of ‘heritage’.
Hidcote today benefits from a very high standard of maintenance,and planting which is definitely more adventurous. Johnston may have been a gifted designer, but he was first and foremost an obsessive plant collector. This passion comes through in the extraordinary range of habitats which the garden provides, not just ecological habitats, but visual ones too, as the garden style ranges from wild to formal. It is an immensely stimulating garden, with so much to see – the kind of place which you feel you have to keep on coming back to, as it is impossible to take it all in on one visit.