Its original purpose was to grow medicinal herbs as a training facility – the river provided handy transport for plants and people. In 1680 an Irish apprentice Hans Sloane (later knighted) began his studies at the Garden. Little did the Apothecaries realise he would become its saviour and set it on the path to 21st century survival. The Irishman would later found the nearby Cadogan Estate, lending his surname to golden real estate such as Sloane Square and Sloane Street. Oh, and there’s even an upper class caricature that borrows his surname: Sloane Ranger.
Horticultural historian Sue Minter relates his rise to fame and fortune: “After qualifying in 1687 Hans Sloane travelled to Jamaica to serve as private physician to the 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Two years later, he returned to London armed with a special recipe for milk chocolate and the compound was quinine – a medicine capable of preventing and curing malaria.” He purchased the Manor of Chelsea (which included the Physic Garden) in 1772. As a thank you for his training, he rented the Garden to the Apothecaries in perpetuity for £5 a year. The same rent is still paid to his descendants.
Paths radiate from a centrally placed statue of Sir Hans Sloane. Despite the Garden’s relatively small size – 1.6 hectares – it is a cornucopia of historic delights from the 18th century Pond Rockery, the oldest in Europe, to glasshouses built in 1902 of Burmese teak. One of the glasshouses, The Cool Fernery, rejoices in Pteridomania, or fern madness. The Chelsea Physic Garden is now home to 5,000 different medicinal, herbal, useful and edible plants. On that note, anyone for Piedmontese peppers, aubergine caponata and braised artichoke in the restaurant marquee?
That explains the pile of CDs on the drum table in the entrance hall. And the drum kit in the library. He’s an eclectic musician; his CV ranges from producing songs for Amy Winehouse to writing ballads for the Scottish Ensemble.Ned was once drummer for Neneh Cherry. His new album, Staffa, was the highest entry by a living composer in the Classical Charts. “Half my working life is taken up composing; the other half, I’m an estate manager.” Bignor Park is the home of Ned, his elegant wife Clare and their two daughters, Flora and Polly. “In 2006, two momentous events happened in my life. The first was a happy one: the birth of my second daughter Polly. The second was sad: the death of my father one month later.” That meant a change of title (form of address) and a change of title (address).
“We have undertaken major conservation work on the estate with funding from Natural England,” he relates, “restoring acres of heathland, planting new hedges and encouraging the rare Field Cricket. We now have one quarter of the UK population of the European Field Cricket. We’ve also created a wildflower wetland. I remember as a child the lovely cry of the lapwing. We are trying to encourage it back again.” There are 120 hectares of forestry and 320 hectares of organic farmland. And fortunately a few hectares left over for ornamental gardens. A million miles from anywhere. Although a surprising 90 minute drive from London.
“Bignor Park is a medieval development originally attached to the Arundel Castle Estate,” according to Ned. “The current house was designed by the Belgravia architect Henry Harrison in the 1820s. It cost £30,000. The architect complained he didn’t make any money out of it! His client John Hawkins brought back some rather wonderful Grecian marble reliefs from his Grand Tour. They hang in the loggia. My great grandfather, the 2nd Viscount Mersey, bought Bignor in 1926. His father was a divorce and maritime judge – quite a combination! – and presided over the Titanic and Lusitania inquiries.” Beyond the entrance hall lies an enfilade of reception rooms: the library | the drawing room | the dining room. They’re incredibly smart. Chic not shabby. “My grandmother came from Bowood –she booted out the old furniture! The Robert Adam drawing room doors are from Lansdowne House.”
As for the poet: “Charlotte Turner Smith lived at Bignor as a child,” explains Ned. “Being a female writer was exceptional for that time. She is considered to be the first ever properly confessional writer of poems and novels.” Married off at 15, after giving birth to 12 children she separated from her feckless husband. Not before she joined him for a sojourn at His Majesty’s Displeasure in a debtor’s prison. Leaving behind the halcyon days of Bignor Park, Charlotte gained plenty of material, no words remain unsaid, for her Sonnet XXXII To Melancholy:
‘When latest autumn spreads her evening veil,
And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale:
For at such hours the shadowy phantom pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eyes;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night-wanderers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity’s own Otway I methinks could meet.
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!
O Melancholy! – such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
And sooth the pensive visionary mind!’
From late 18th century Romance to early 21st century romance. “We aren’t in the business of conveyor belt weddings,” Clare confirms. “What we want people to do is come and have Bignor as their home for the day, whether it’s a marquee on the croquet lawn or a party in the restored stables. Our marvellous Events Promoter Louise Hartley is on hand for bookings.” A breezeless Indian summer’s evening may, just may, add to the colonial air of this most romantic of Regency houses. Such grace, such calm, the smoothest of recesses and gentlest of projections offering fullness of form and precision of proportion. Then there’s Bignor village at the end of the driveway, so chocolate boxy (of the Godiva variety) it’s good enough to eat. Togetherness and nowness, living in the past, present and future.Bignor Park is quite simply the most romantic place in the South Downs.
Cothay Manor, a star of Country House Rescue, is revisited by Postgraduate Diploma in Architectural Interior Design student Hermione Russell. Ever since her History of Art BA, Hermione has focused on country house architecture. “I’ve reimagined Cothay Manor, which dates from the 1400s, as a bed and breakfast in the countryside. I wanted to instil a sense of belonging into the interiors,” she explains. “I’ve sandblasted the beams of the low ceilings to make spaces appear more airy.” Her drawings reveal a contemporary reinterpretation of Edwardian notions of sweetness and light. Think Lutyens at Knebworth or later Aileen Plunket at Luttrellstown Castle. “The bedrooms are named after wild flowers,” says Hermione, carrying on a country house tradition. Take Dundarave, Northern Ireland’s finest estate on the market. It sticks to colours for the names of the seven principal bedrooms. The Blue Room, Pink Room, Green Room, Yellow Room, Red Room, Brown Room, Bird Room (which begs the question what hue is the plumage?). The 12 secondary bedrooms remain anonymous.
From the great indoors to the great outdoors. Postgraduate Diploma in Garden Design student Anastasia Voloshko’s exhibition is entitled Seam Maze Limassol Promenade. “Limassol is Cyprus’s most international city,” says Anastasia who has also studied interior design. “It’s a crossroads of different cultures and languages. My concept was to use the spectacular background of the sea and translate its deep mystery onto the land.” An organic flow of contours and materials emerges, connecting the rocky shore to the modern city. Again, a reinterpretation of traditional forms – a rock garden, pool, box hedging – creates a refreshed language, a new geometry for our times. “I am inspired by many things,” she ponders. “A nice mood, the sky, a song, a painting… sometimes my best ideas come out of nowhere!”
Two very different projects. Two very different voices. Yet both Hermione and Anastasia tell us, “Going to Inchbald was the best professional decision of my life!” Inchbald School of Design continues to equip new generations of graduates with the skills to create houses for gardens and gardens for houses and places for people.
First it was Farmleigh, then Lissadell, next it was Mount Congreve. Historic Irish houses lived in by the original families with intact interiors and gardens that could have been saved in their entirety for the nation. The Guinnesses’ former home Farmleigh was eventually purchased by the Government after its contents had been sold. Lissadell, once the home of Countess Markievicz who helped establish the Republic of Ireland, was sold on the open market and its contents auctioned despite the Gore-Booth family offering it to the State. At Mount Congreve, it is the gardens that have been saved. Its last owner, Ambrose Christian Congreve, struck a deal with the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey that in return for tax exemption during his lifetime, the gardens would be left to the people of Ireland. The house is still there, stripped naked of its phenomenal collection of furniture and art, still surrounded by one of the finest gardens in the country, if not the world.It took just two days in July 2012 for Mealy’s and Christie’s to auction off the entire contents. At the time, George Mealy explained, “There are lacquered screens and vases from Imperial China, rare books, Georgian silver, vintage wines, chandeliers and gilt mirrors and enough antique furniture to fill a palace. Everything is on offer. It’s a complete clearance of the entire estate. He did his art shopping in London. He got most of it through London because he had spotters for items that he might be interested in. Mr Congreve loved collecting. He loved nice things and he had unbelievable taste.” The result was a hard core property porn auction catalogue. Page after page of exotic beauty: the crimson library, the lemon bedroom, the Wedgwood blue sitting room, the large drawing spanning the full depth of the house: Chinoserie takes on Versailles.
Jim Hayes, former IDA director, records a visit to Mount Congreve in his autobiography The Road from Harbour Hill, “We were received on arrival by Geraldine Critchley, the social secretary and long-term assistant of Ambrose Congreve. The ornate hall was decked with a number of gloves, walking canes and a variety of riding accessories. We were escorted into a large drawing room, the walls of which were covered in 18th century, hand-painted, Chinese wallpaper. Three large Alsatian dogs lay asleep in the corner of the room. A liveried servant then appeared with a silver tray and teapot and antique bone china cups and saucers. This young man, of Indian origin, was one of the last few remaining liveried servants of Ireland’s great houses.” Sheila Bagliani, doyenne of Gaultier Lodge in County Waterford, recalls, “Gus, Ambrose’s Alsatian, had full run of the house.”
Now for some horticultural stats. 46 hectare estate. 28 hectares of woodland. 1.6 hectares of walled gardens. 16 miles of paths. 3,000 different trees and shrubs. 3,000 rhododendrons. 1,500 plants. 600 camellias. 600 conifers. 300 acer cultivars. 300 magnolias. 250 climbers. The stuff of rural legend, all piled high on the south bank of the River Suir. The manicured gardens end abruptly next to open fields, like a beautiful face half made-up. Awards include classification as a Great Garden of the World by the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts and a Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. Sheila Bagliani remembers, “Piped music in the grounds kept the 25 gardeners entertained while working. Ambrose also employed the Queen Mother’s former chauffeur.” Lot Number 492 at the auction was his 1969 shell grey Rolls Royce Phantom V1, price guide €12,000 to €18,000. It sold for €55,000. At his centenary lunch celebration, Ambrose declared, “To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy forever, make a garden.” His garden lives on in perpetuity, making the public happy.