The garden today

At the public debate on the future of Hadspen garden held in Caryford Community Hall in March 2009, hosted by Niall and Penelope Hobhouse, one certainty emerged: the future garden should and would be a productive one. To this end, the notion of allotments was considered and the floor asked ‘who would have a plot?’. Robert and I put up our hands. In April 2009 Niall asked us ‘are you serious about an allotment?’ and, if so, to provide a functional brief. We proposed a plot which would grow old varieties of vegetables, not known in supermarkets, and gain in taste and quirkiness what is normally sacrificed for quantity and homogeneity. It is not so much an allotment rather, as Niall puts it, ‘an incremental colonisation of the garden area’. Four plots have so far been allocated, to be gardened by Penelope Hobhouse, Michael Nicola and Jenny Hyden. This blog records our progress in the garden.

The design competition for the walled garden in 2007 attracted some controversy and over a hundred entries. More details can be found at the Hadspen Parabola website, linked on the right. However, the letter below from Niall Hobhouse to the competition entrants brings the plan for the garden up to date.

——

Open Letter From Niall Hobhouse
Dear All
I am writing to all the shortlisted entrants of the Parabola Competition, and to everyone else who was directly involved in the Competition, to provide an update. I am sorry that I have been so out of touch, but over the last two years a lot has been happening outside the wall – and very little inside it.
My main purpose now is to draw a firm line under the Competition itself by telling you that, last Spring, Sarah Price, who was one of those originally shortlisted (and is working with Libby Fellingham, as Price Fellingham) suggested an altogether different approach to the garden, both inside and outside the Parabola. I liked this very much, and expect to be able to take the concept forward over the next few years.
Price Fellingham are working in partnership with the Florian Beigel and Philip Christou, of the Architecture Research Unit (who meantime have been designing the extension to the old Gardener’s House, and its immediate landscape) on the detailed development of an extensive new garden landscape at Hadspen.
This combination has already been very productive, and we would prefer to wait before trying to describe a project that is now evolving very fast. In any case, I feel that I owe it to everybody to steer away from further discussion until there is something very concrete to show for all the talk.
Nevertheless, I did think it would be useful to take this opportunity to explain why I feel the Competition did not achieve all that I hoped it would, and to acknowledge some of the mistakes I made as it unfolded. The new design team is trying to address many of these problems directly.
My brief for Foreign Office Architects- worked out with Nori and Sandra Pope- was for a grid of paths that would help a gardener/plantsperson think about the design of the whole of the walled enclosure. In essence, the Competition was a job advertisement for a gardener who would live at Hadspen, and do very much the same thing as the Popes had done for fifteen years – but with fresh focus, and a blank canvas.
We were all of us a little unprepared for the energetic public discussion (and to some extent, for the hostility) generated by the original ‘call’ for Submissions. The garden-design practitioners, and many journalists, felt the FOA paths took the fun out of competing at all; at the same time, the increasingly abstract tone of the correspondence on the Web quite reasonably put off many practical gardeners, who just wanted to get on with the planting. At all events, I did eventually agree that everybody should ignore the FOA paths in their submissions if they wished.
Faced with what became a very disparate set of approaches, including many that ignored the request for a concept in favour of literal planting plans, the judges went at their task vigorously and cheerfully.  I believe that the  fifteen shortlisted entries represent the best of the one hundred and twenty we received – and only ones which were truly conceptual in approach, whether they used the FOA paths or not.
But it has to be said that I was back where I started: in search of an active and imaginative gardener. Perhaps I should have stuck to my guns on the zig-zag paths.  I am convinced that FOA’s proposal was a thoughtful and powerful response, at least to the job I had asked them to do; any good gardener has an unlimited capacity to colonize, and to improvise with whatever is already on their site.
In the context of the entries we received – both good and bad- any kind of ‘show’ garden ( for private or for public enjoyment) did not feel appropriate, or even that interesting. Such designs would (at best) have extended at a domestic scale the overly insular amenity of a large house. I felt the same way about the various proposals that treated the Parabola wall, or the space it encloses, as a form of Land Art. These would have required me to abandon the  the walled space for any of its familiar uses; and seemed too questionable (and too ephemeral) a sacrifice of the place that had become for most people- almost by default- the ‘point’ of Hadspen.
In parallel to this reaction, it became clear that I had been too restrictive in excluding from the competition Brief both the history of the garden at Hadspen, and the landscape of parkland, fields and trees beyond the wall. I now feel that any new garden needs to reflect, and to extend, the patterns of cultivation and use across the whole of the Estate.  Although my interest has become much  broader than in just finding a future for the garden, any future there ought to  start with the active production of plants for use, and – as elsewhere at Hadspen- by different people engaged in many different forms of husbandry.
What interests me is an approach by which the Parabola, and the area around it, can become the place in which the different activities of the Estate – cultivation (agricultural and horticultural), woodland, livestock and the enjoyment of the landscape – can be brought together. As much as anything, this requires that the disparate scales of all  these activities should be merged convincingly in the one spot. It is surprisingly close to the way in which a walled garden of this kind worked when it was first built, even if the present day uses to which it is put have changed beyond recognition.
This is part of what I meant by the need, in any new gardening project, to recognize on the one hand the presence of the larger landscape, and on the other something of the recent history as an ornamental garden – a destination in itself, where the wall and planting both largely excluded anything beyond. I have grown very doubtful about doing anything that works to reinforce such physical – and conceptual – boundaries.
Over the same period, we had been making some progress in the areas close to the garden, and in the woods, with new management regimes and new buildings. It has become pleasantly clear that there is a very strong local constituency that would like to be involved in the future uses and enjoyment of the landscape of the Estate, and particularly of the Parabola itself. If no single gardener was to be found then why not (and much better, perhaps) find several – all working at their own scales, but with similar commitment?
The most useful thing that I learnt from the progress of the Competition itself, but also from Nori, Sandra and my mother, is that the word ‘garden’ has to start out with a rich and varied life in use only as a verb; in any particular place, this must happen before it can be convincingly used as the noun to describe the place There are already several different teams ‘gardening’ inside and outside the Parabola; for the moment these are a disparate, and cheerful, collection of verbs. Nothing like a noun is yet in evidence, and I am very content for the moment that this should be so.
This isn’t as fanciful as it sounds. As I say, the Competition was for me an agonizingly abstract rehearsal of the tension between the kind of gardening that is done for its own sake, and the kind that is done to make memorably enduring places. The point, finally, is that this is an issue which will never be resolved in the theoretical ether, but sometimes can be on the ground.
In the spirit of the original Competition, the new proposals remain very definitely a concept – to be developed. I am not sure yet how, or how quickly, we will do this in detail; it is already clear that the process of sustained experiment requires the collaboration of other gardeners and designers along the way.
If I don’t yet have a new garden, I hope that I have begun to understand dimly what making one requires; I am very grateful for your engagement, and for your patience.
Very happy Christmas.
Niall
Christmas 2009

Open letter from Niall Hobhouse

Dear All

I am writing to all the shortlisted entrants of the Parabola Competition, and to everyone else who was directly involved in the Competition, to provide an update. I am sorry that I have been so out of touch, but over the last two years a lot has been happening outside the wall – and very little inside it.

My main purpose now is to draw a firm line under the Competition itself by telling you that, last Spring, Sarah Price, who was one of those originally shortlisted (and is working with Libby Fellingham, as Price Fellingham) suggested an altogether different approach to the garden, both inside and outside the Parabola. I liked this very much, and expect to be able to take the concept forward over the next few years.

Price Fellingham are working in partnership with Florian Beigel and Philip Christou of the Architecture Research Unit (who meantime have been designing the extension to the old Gardener’s House, and its immediate landscape) on the detailed development of an extensive new garden landscape at Hadspen.

This combination has already been very productive, and we would prefer to wait before trying to describe a project that is now evolving very fast. In any case, I feel that I owe it to everybody to steer away from further discussion until there is something very concrete to show for all the talk.

Nevertheless, I did think it would be useful to take this opportunity to explain why I feel the Competition did not achieve all that I hoped it would, and to acknowledge some of the mistakes I made as it unfolded. The new design team is trying to address many of these problems directly.

My brief for Foreign Office Architects – worked out with Nori and Sandra Pope – was for a grid of paths that would help a gardener/plantsperson think about the design of the whole of the walled enclosure. In essence, the Competition was a job advertisement for a gardener who would live at Hadspen, and do very much the same thing as the Popes had done for fifteen years – but with fresh focus, and a blank canvas.

We were all of us a little unprepared for the energetic public discussion (and to some extent, for the hostility) generated by the original ‘call’ for submissions. The garden-design practitioners, and many journalists, felt the FOA paths took the fun out of competing at all; at the same time, the increasingly abstract tone of the correspondence on the web quite reasonably put off many practical gardeners, who just wanted to get on with the planting. At all events, I did eventually agree that everybody should ignore the FOA paths in their submissions if they wished.

Faced with what became a very disparate set of approaches, including many that ignored the request for a concept in favour of literal planting plans, the judges went at their task vigorously and cheerfully. I believe that the  fifteen shortlisted entries represent the best of the one hundred and twenty we received – and only ones which were truly conceptual in approach, whether they used the FOA paths or not.

But it has to be said that I was back where I started: in search of an active and imaginative gardener. Perhaps I should have stuck to my guns on the zig-zag paths.  I am convinced that FOA’s proposal was a thoughtful and powerful response, at least to the job I had asked them to do; any good gardener has an unlimited capacity to colonize, and to improvise with whatever is already on their site.

In the context of the entries we received – both good and bad – any kind of ‘show’ garden (for private or for public enjoyment) did not feel appropriate, or even that interesting. Such designs would at best have extended at a domestic scale the overly insular amenity of a large house. I felt the same way about the various proposals that treated the Parabola wall, or the space it encloses, as a form of land art. These would have required me to abandon the walled space for any of its familiar uses; and seemed too questionable (and too ephemeral) a sacrifice of the place that had become for most people – almost by default – the ‘point’ of Hadspen.

In parallel to this reaction, it became clear that I had been too restrictive in excluding from the competition brief both the history of the garden at Hadspen, and the landscape of parkland, fields and trees beyond the wall. I now feel that any new garden needs to reflect, and to extend, the patterns of cultivation and use across the whole of the estate. Although my interest has become much  broader than in just finding a future for the garden, any future there ought to  start with the active production of plants for use, and – as elsewhere at Hadspen – by different people engaged in many different forms of husbandry.

What interests me is an approach by which the Parabola, and the area around it, can become the place in which the different activities of the estate – cultivation (agricultural and horticultural), woodland, livestock and the enjoyment of the landscape – can be brought together. As much as anything, this requires that the disparate scales of all these activities should be merged convincingly in the one spot. It is surprisingly close to the way in which a walled garden of this kind worked when it was first built, even if the present day uses to which it is put have changed beyond recognition.

This is part of what I meant by the need, in any new gardening project, to recognize on the one hand the presence of the larger landscape, and on the other something of the recent history as an ornamental garden – a destination in itself, where the wall and planting both largely excluded anything beyond. I have grown very doubtful about doing anything that works to reinforce such physical – and conceptual – boundaries.

Over the same period, we had been making some progress in the areas close to the garden, and in the woods, with new management regimes and new buildings. It has become pleasantly clear that there is a very strong local constituency that would like to be involved in the future uses and enjoyment of the landscape of the estate, and particularly of the Parabola itself. If no single gardener was to be found then why not (and much better, perhaps) find several – all working at their own scales, but with similar commitment?

The most useful thing that I learnt from the progress of the competition itself, but also from Nori, Sandra and my mother, is that the word ‘garden’ has to start out with a rich and varied life in use only as a verb; in any particular place, this must happen before it can be convincingly used as the noun to describe the place. There are already several different teams ‘gardening’ inside and outside the Parabola; for the moment these are a disparate, and cheerful, collection of verbs. Nothing like a noun is yet in evidence, and I am very content for the moment that this should be so.

This isn’t as fanciful as it sounds. As I say, the competition was for me an agonizingly abstract rehearsal of the tension between the kind of gardening that is done for its own sake, and the kind that is done to make memorably enduring places. The point, finally, is that this is an issue which will never be resolved in the theoretical ether, but sometimes can be on the ground.

In the spirit of the original competition, the new proposals remain very definitely a concept – to be developed. I am not sure yet how, or how quickly, we will do this in detail; it is already clear that the process of sustained experiment requires the collaboration of other gardeners and designers along the way.

If I don’t yet have a new garden, I hope that I have begun to understand dimly what making one requires; I am very grateful for your engagement, and for your patience.

Very happy Christmas.

Niall

Christmas 2009

Robert labeling tomatoes on 8 June, the day they were planted
Robert labeling tomatoes on 8 June 2009