Striking a balance between restoration and innovation

The choice between restoration and innovation when redesigning historic gardens is a question of reconciling the site's past story and modern visitor needs, Hannah Jordan reports.

Trentham Estate - image: English Heritage
Trentham Estate - image: English Heritage

When a historic garden begins to get a little old and worn around the edges, head gardeners and garden owners can find themselves facing a conundrum. Should they restore to an original plan or use innovation to implement new and modern designs? Or should the two approaches be considered together?

It is a hotly debated topic among landscapers and historic gardeners and one that brought about a recent seminar, Innovation or Restoration - The Historic House Garden Dilemma, held by the Professional Gardeners Guild (PGG). Its president John Humphris says the issue of how to tie in new features with old in a historic garden is one that perplexes many.

Sympathy with the past

"A lot of gardeners are faced with this problem when they come to restore their site. I think that if it is going to be new and innovative it must be merged into the existing fabric of the garden and be sympathetic to what has gone before."

"There is, of course, a chance of losing the historic value and significance of a site depending on what you do with it. In some cases, there are no detailed historic plans so you have to do the best you can within the limits of the garden. But if you have plans you should stick to them where you can," he maintains.

English Heritage gardens and landscape team head John Watkins, who led the PGG discussions, says the most important thing before any decisions are made on improvements to a garden is to understand the site properly. "Think about the story its design is telling because you don't want to replace something you haven't understood with something lesser," he explains.

Watkins says in some cases sites simply need work to make them suitable for modern use. "Many gardens that are now open to the public were originally designed 150 years ago for a family and their friends. They weren't designed for thousands of people to walk around so you do need some elements of new design changes to make them fit for purpose."

New designs can bring fresh life to the historic environment, he adds, but it is vital to recognise when an existing design simply needs better maintenance rather than a complete overhaul. "All gardeners should constantly question their planting and changing things is part of good practice, but there is a difference between that and major garden design changes," Watkins insists.

Regular maintenance

With many of the UK's historic gardens open to the public, regular maintenance and indeed restoration work needs to be carried out to keep visitors returning and therefore revenues steady. But major restoration projects such as that at Kenilworth Castle or Wrest Park are only undertaken after thorough research and with the backing of a sound business plan, says Watkins.

The £100m regeneration project at Staffordshire's Trentham Estate is one of the largest contemporary restorations of a historic landscape seen so far in the UK. Funded by developer St Modwen, the project saw renowned garden designers Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf create magnificent new perennial displays in two areas of the garden.

Gardens and estates manager Michael Walker says there was room for both restoration and innovation on the site. "The case for restoration was clear where it related to the architectural bones of the garden, which were still very evident and important to retain. The case for innovation was also provided with an immensely exciting and relevant opportunity to recast the planting within the historic footprint of the garden," he explains.

Walker says that in historical terms the new planting schemes have added another significant layer to an already multi-layered landscape, and one that is as relevant today as it would have been in Victorian times.

The term "restoration" is often misapplied and misunderstood, according to Walker. He maintains that properly understanding gardens and identifying what is significant about them is vital to be able to make informed and authoritative choices. "We should not be afraid of making appropriate changes to our gardens so they continue to be relevant to those who will help ensure their sustainability," he says.

Head gardener at Harewood House in Leeds, Trevor Nicholson, agrees that there is room for both approaches and says innovation is about striking a balance that is sympathetic to the past but also recognises the need for gardens to grow in the future as places of historic interest.

"Time has a deteriorating effect on the physical features of a garden and there is an opportunity now of using today's craftsmen and women to design and restore using the significance of the garden to balance those aspects," he notes.

Nicholson adds that by recording features and keeping plans of a site, it can always be restored to its original design. With new regulations and planning procedures, he feels there is less danger today than in earlier years that history will be destroyed or heritage value lost through whimsical, unplanned redesigns. "We do restore things but we bring them back to life and give them value simply by doing that."

Case for redesign

But The Times gardening correspondent Stephen Anderton argues that restoration has become the default and says he wants to see more gardens undergoing total redesigns.

"We have wonderful examples of period gardens but there are plenty of other listed gardens that aren't top of the heap. Some have different overlays and restoration projects will choose between them but they won't put a new shape over the whole lot. It's just not very brave," he argues.

Anderton suggests that, excepting the major English historic landscapes, other large gardens would gain equal or greater contemporary value from being redesigned. "If we are not careful, there will be no evidence in the future of the work that is being done now on a large scale," he points out.

In the digital age people will always be able to access pictures of an original site, so there should be a greater sense of freedom to create something new, he adds. "As time goes by, gardens are going to have to work harder to stay economically viable. It's not that the old is uninteresting but people like to be intrigued and attracted back to something."

Harewood garden respects the past but allows innovation

Harewood's Himalayan Garden was developed from an area originally established as a rock garden by Princess Mary and the sixth earl of Harewood in the early 1930s.

The redevelopment began to take shape in 1999 with the production of a management plan that included a "statement of significance" for each character area along with guidelines on the principles of conservation.

Under head gardener Trevor Nicholson, who was inspired by study trips to the Himalayas, work began in 2005, finishing in 2009.

No planting plans of the original garden survive, but there were photos showing the planting, style and layout as well as dispatch registers and old plant labels.

The project was divided into small-scale projects, which gave the gardeners the flexibility to re-evaluate at various stages to achieve a sympathetic outcome.

Two main aspects were in need of development. First was the planting - the garden was overgrown with rhododendrons. The second was improving access to the collection while retaining the integrity, charm and character of the original garden, and privacy.

Nicholson says: "Overall, it has been a great success. The development respects the past but has allowed for innovation, which means not only does the garden relate to its original concept, but it is accessible for all our visitors to enjoy."

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