A Garden Museum for Everyone

InstagramCapture_7353c7a6-c860-4d6b-bfed-8caa94748756Several years ago I lived in Edinburgh. Few British cites can compete with its beauty – nope, sorry Brighton! – and one of the biggest pleasures this fine city afforded was strolling down the hill towards the New Town (another fine example of grand Georgian designs) past the Queens Gardens, sprawling, lush and immaculately tended – and also, controversially, private, accessible only to those lucky few who lived in a property on the square and thus enjoyed the privilege of owning a key to these once public pleasure gardens. I always used to think of this as a classic example of typically cloistered Edinburghian selfishness.

Nowadays I live on the Sussex Square crescent – England’s largest – and am one of those few who get to enjoy the very same unfair privileges in the Kemp Town Enclosures, as they’re rather snootily named. The irony of this shifting perspective isn’t lost on me, but equally I’m very glad that the city has a few green spaces fully open to the public, 24 hours a day.

How many times have you wandered through the Pavilion Gardens without really (*cliche incoming*) stopping to smell the flowers? I don’t know about you, but it’s always a firm fixture on my route to Brighton Museum or just through town, and while I always enjoy it, I probably have not really given it enough thought in the past. And let’s be honest, Brighton is not exactly overburdened with pleasant green spaces, so why not take the chance to fully appreciate this verdant little patch of paradise on our doorstep?

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That’s precisely what I did this week when I tagged along for a garden tour and a very civilized cream tea with The Head Gardener Robert Hill Snook, who looks after the garden with one part time assistant and a team of 15 skilled volunteers. Just a few days earlier the garden had got a fair old drubbing by one of those unseasonably dramatic storms, troubling the branches of one of the aspen trees, but today summer was most certainly in evidence.

Robert greeted our small group at the main Pavilion entrance and took us around the garden, filling us in on its history, design, features and plantings, while also dispensing some handy gardening tips on hardy plants that thrive in the coastal sea environment for the budding home gardeners assembled.

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The Pavilion Garden was created by John Nash in the picturesque style. In other words it was deliberately designed to frame these remarkable buildings and reveal a series of views to maximise the effect of seemingly discovering it anew, as you turn a corner.

The garden emerged during the Regency era at a time when the concept of landscaped gardens was still very much in its infancy. It’s not a typical Regency garden, so you won’t find any striped lawns, mazes or mannered topiary peacocks here. Instead it’s been largely inspired by nature itself, with the New Forest being one particular reference point.

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As you’d expect, it’s managed entirely organically, with most plants offering a single flowerhead, making it much easier for the bees to pollinate them – and despite their declining numbers in general, there seemed to be no shortage of them here.

Of course some of the wildlife that inhabits the gardens also bring challenges, such as the Wood Pigeons and Collared Doves who seem to enjoy munching away on the blossom of Lilac and May Blossom trees. Predictably the garden also suffers a little for staying open round the clock, when humans commit occasional acts of nocturnal vandalism.

What was more surprising to learn is that it’s an entirely authentic 1826 garden. This means you’ll find only plants and trees available at that time. In fact, Robert described it as a ‘garden museum’, explaining that the various ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs exist for sound conservation reasons to protect some ailing and ancient trees.

Reinforcing its museum credentials, the garden also hosts the national elm collection. One of the stars of the show is the huge 130 year old Weeping Wyeth Elm, while the garden’s oldest tree is an English Elm dating back to 1776, its trunk now hollowed and protected by wire meshing.

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Robert also pointed out the phased natural effect. The closer you get to the buildings the more floweriferous and colourful the blooms become, while the everything gets greener and more natural-looking on the fringes.

The Regency period also saw the beginning of the plant hunting era and the garden reflects this with a number of varieties of exotic plants from India, China and the far east including Tree of India (Koelrentaria Paniculata), Rosa Chinensis Mukabilis, and Abelia Chinensis.

Then there are the other signs of life in the garden which lend it character and elevates it from being a museum to being more of a living, organic creature. The families and students picnicking in the public stretches of the garden, the groups of foreign exchange students milling outside the Pavilion entrance, the clarinet and glockenspiel duo playing their hypnotic, seemingly looped lullaby for all eternity.

The Pavilion Gardens Cafe is a favourite spot for many of course, with its elegant art deco curves and cream colours it blends in effortlessly with its rather more extravagant neighbours. The cafe itself is a former seafront tea kiosk transplanted to the gardens in 1941. Nowadays it’s enlivened by its single baby topiary elephant. I learned that he was one of several which were auctioned off for charity several years ago.

Mr Herbert Tennent's seafront kiosk on Brighton Beach near the West Pier, 1930s.
Mr Herbert Tennent’s original seafront kiosk on Brighton Beach near the West Pier, 1930s.

I have to say that I somehow felt vaguely Colonial sitting on the Royal Pavilion Tea Room’s terrace enjoying a delicious cream tea. From here you get an excellent vantage point to look over the gardens in all their splendour. Perhaps this is a trace of deferred guilt for the private gardens I get to luxuriate in on a regular basis?

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So while I enjoy the privacy of my own gardens, I’m glad that everyone gets to share these – and taking this tour only makes you appreciate them all the more.

Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence

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