I’ve been doing quite a bit of soul-searching over the six months we’ve been back in the UK. Well, perhaps soul-searching is a little overly dramatic, but just trying to work out how we want to live this next chapter of our lives.
Do we live in central London, so it’s convenient for Paul’s work and all the activities this amazing city has to offer? Or do I need more trees? And if we get a house outside London, where do we go and what do we look for? We really have too many options available.
But my need for trees is – pardon the pun – growing and hence the country house hunting is ramping up. But there is a dilemma. Views or house? House or views?
Generally, when we garden we’re just working with what we’ve got. We can’t easily change the views and we have the house we have, so we put in some of our favourite plants and go from there. But we’re currently in the lucky position of renting a place in London and having time to find just the right thing. Except we’re not sure what that is.
Part of me wants to embrace the history of England and find an old, characterful, heritage-listed house and attempt to create a Sissinghurst-style garden around it. And part of me wants the views of Broughton Grange as the back drop to my garden, providing soothing scenes from the house even on dark, damp days. And whilst these desires are not entirely mutually exclusive, view-friendly houses on the top of hills aren’t the best for delicate herbaceous borders and how long would we be waiting for a sheltered, heritage house on the top of a hill that meets all my contemporary wants for lots of light, an eat-in kitchen and ensuite bathroom, whilst being within a commutable distance, at a price we can afford?
A visit to Ascott Estate with my mum, sister and nephews last month was a potential opportunity to explore this dilemma. The original part of Ascott house was built in 1606, the year of the first recorded landfall of Europeans on Australian soil. So quite a bit of character. And the views over the Vale of Aylesbury – including the village where I grew up – are incredibly green and far-reaching for being so close to London. So which won out at Ascott? The house or the views?
I think for me, the views had the edge. But I soon realised this revelation wasn’t particularly revelationary. The house wasn’t my ideal type of period house and the garden around the house didn’t particular inspire me, so was it really a fair contest? It seemed to tell me that there is no ‘best’ answer to the house/views question and all that can be done is to look at each property on its own merits and after that, probably ignore any analysis and go with gut feel!
Gut feel is perhaps how we put a value on a ‘sense of place’. Does this particular house feel unique and distinctive and special? Or is it those views and the setting that gives you goosebumps?
I’m hugely excited to be exploring the idea of ‘sense of place’ for my Masters dissertation over the next year. We started this module with a workshop on Saturday and I’ve already indulged in far too many hours consuming wonderful books from the RHS library. How amazing it is to actually be able to justify reading all those books I’ve always wanted to have time to devour!
Sense of place is such a vague, loose, airy-fairy idea, with an extraordinarily diverse range of definitions; where a definition has been attempted at all, that is. My mission is to pin this down to something more tangible; something that helps us create those goosebump-inducing gardens a little more consistently.
From my reading so far, the first revelation is the difference between sense of place in Australia and the UK. Australia is all about natural scenery. I’ve travelled relatively far and wide and, for me, Australia’s natural sense of place is the strongest I’ve seen. It is so incredibly distinctive and unique. Where else has twisted, scribbly gums and bouncing marsupials, or anything like its own equivalent? But the UK is pretty good on its historical and architectural sense of place. Just so much has happened in this country and the stories that have been left in its trail really are hard to beat on the goosebumpometer. Oh, how ironic it is that Australia is highly urbanised and the UK more rural!
Perhaps this tells me we should be focussing on the house whilst we are here and find a property with a view on returning to Australia. Or perhaps that’s just a useful perspective, given that we have just found a house that we feel is very special, in a very ‘non-viewy’ location. Paul is going to have the first conversation with the agent today, so it’s early, early days and we all know how fraught the UK house-buying process is, but it’s a start and we can hope.
One of the big questions, if we do end up with a heritage property, is how sympathetic the garden should be to the architectural era. At Ascott, the garden still feels decidedly Victorian, having been laid out in the late nineteenth century and staying true to that era over a hundred years later. I’m not sure I’m so keen on this style, but is the historic value worth preserving?
I don’t believe gardens should be museums, but I’m interested in the connection between history and a sense of place. Maybe the Victorian style at Ascott isn’t so appealing because the house is not Victorian in style? Or perhaps I would prefer it if there was more of a mix of the new and the old. Keep the old structure and in fill with more contemporary planting, moving further away from the brash carpet-bedding idea, but within an historic framework.
And I guess the answer is that each property needs to be looked at individually. There aren’t set goosebump-inducing solutions that apply uniformly at every site. But I do hope my dissertation enables me to propose some ideas that help steer us in the right direction. To find principles that any gardener can work to on any site, and a definition that’s a bit more concrete to hang our hats on.
I’ll leave you with a gorgeous quote from Andrew Pfeiffer, a landscape architect from New South Wales, whose book, ‘A Sense of Place’ is proving particularly difficult to put down:
“If [gardens] fail to give pleasure then, I suspect, they ultimately fail to qualify as gardens.”
Giving pleasure is surely the number one objective of all gardens?