27 JULY 1996, Page 41


Thank God for the Trust

Ursula Buchan

Gardens are so fragile, they rarely long outlive their creators. The relentless dynamic of growth and change can turn a single year's neglect into irreversible decline. Yet their Plants and green spaces, their walls and their buildings bear the imprint of this country's social and aesthetic history. Which is why we should thank God every day that the Nation- al Trust exists, to catch important gardens When they fall.

As is the fate of all high-profile organisa- tions, especially those with a large member- ship, the National Trust is never without its critics. But the central fact remains that, Without it, 163 gardens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland — some of the finest we have made over several centuries would have been reduced to rank weeds, or transformed by concrete or tarmac.

Although the Trust has looked after gar- dens as adjuncts of houses since 1907, the first garden to be accepted on its own mer- its was Hidcote in 1948. Since then, the Promise of care in perpetuity has encour- aged innovative gardeners to consider the National Trust as the natural guardian for their gardens, provided that they could stump up the necessary endowment. Now, there is not always even the need for that: Croome Court has been a recent recipient of large tranches of Heritage Lottery Fund- money. Some donor families — the Aber- conways at Bodnant, the Fairhavens at Anglesey Abbey and the de Rothschilds at Ascott, for example — have retained a direct interest and say in their garden's development, to the general benefit.

The Trust's great strengths are these: its advisory gardens panel can plan for the very long term, a substantial asset, particu- larly after widespread disasters like the great storm of 1987; it can, in its four gar- dens advisers and many head gardeners, draw from a deep well of expertise, a state of affairs which many private garden own- ers must envy; and it usually has just about enough money. For most of us who have to garden in a chaotic, hand-to-mouth way, that is one of the most winning features of the Trust. We may not be on top of our own pocket handkerchiefs but the NT seems equal to its countless acres. This has been achieved by clever planning and the use of machinery, for most of the gardens are pitifully understaffed by the standards of earlier generations.

The chain of command is comparatively simple, for a large organisation. The gardens panel is composed of outside experts, who are, by common consent, knowledgeable and committed; it is chaired by Lady Emma Ten- nant (who was brought up at Chatsworth). The panel considers points of general policy, such as possible acquisitions, and liaises with the four gardens advisers, whose chief is the scholarly and most engaging John Sales. The gardens advisers work with head gardeners, donors or Historic Buildings representatives, and property managers, to formulate work and development programmes and monitor standards in the individual gardens. The head gardeners are, and always have been, a sparky and capable lot, who have often left their mark on Trust gardens. The future training of top-class gardeners is assured by the Trust's own apprenticeship scheme.

The enormous variety of gardens and donors, is evident in Stephen Lacey's new book, Gardens of the National Trust (The National Trust, £29.99), the first since Gra- ham Stuart Thomas's bpok of the same name in the 1979. Since that time, a num- ber of large gardens, exacting in their restoration requirements, have come into the Trust's possession, including Biddulph Grange, Calke Abbey, Stowe, and Prior Park (which opened to visitors for the first time on 18 July). And there have been great strides made in the archaeology, sur- veying and care of historic gardens since then, as well as a shift in attitudes about the best ways to conserve them.

This book is a work of great industry cov- ering, as it does, 140 of the gardens. The author has succeeded in that most difficult of tasks, making gardens interesting on the printed page. He handles the plant names well, with enough to intrigue but not so many as to bore. There is fascinating infor- mation on history, soil, rainfall, climate and even staff numbers. He is fortunate that the photographs are exemplary (drawn from many sources), and the reproduction of them excellent.

Because so many gardens are described, however, the entries sometimes seem trun-

cated, scarcely more than travel guide length and format. Some gardens are not illustrated at all, while others have only one picture, which gives no sense of the garden. (Hinton Ampner has a close-up of a mag- nolia; Waddesdon a Victorian photograph of the small dairy garden!) And, although there is much written about the gardens' creators, there is scarcely a word about the influence of those sparky head gardeners.

I do not believe that there has yet been a book which explains fully Trust policy on gardens to the general reader and it is a pity that Stephen Lacey, an acute and dis- interested observer, had no space to attempt it. To date, there is a single essay on the subject in the fascinating, but rather academic, centenary volume, The National Trust, The Next Hundred Years. -Policy on garden acquisition, donors, upkeep, restoration, conservation, financing and future, not to mention attitudes towards taste, planting and garden development, seem to me of general interest. Trust gar- dens and parks draw far more visitors, who are not members, than the houses do; with- out being told, how can those visitors divine the Trust's aims and sufficiently value its achievements?

Ursula Buchan's. most recent book Gardening for Pleasure is published by Conran Octopus at £20.