Review of The Historic Gardens of England: Staffordshire published in the December 2009 edition of the Bristol Review of Books by Sue Shephard
If you make a pit-stop at Hilton Park service station in Staffordshire near Spaghetti Junction, you are unlikely to know that behind the embankment lies a moated house surrounded by dense shrubberies in which lurks a derelict Regency conservatory. It is another romantic ‘lost’ garden waiting to be found by Garden Historian Timothy Mowl as he explores the gardens of England, county by county.
Staffordshire is Mowl’s tenth book to date, with Somerset and Warwickshire in the pipe-line. It has been an amazing labour of love which has occasionally earned him the inaccurate soubriquet of the ‘Pevsner of historic gardens’. Unlike Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s scholarly and impersonal gazetteers of architecture, Mowl’s rich knowledge and infectious passion for garden history and the people who created them, carries the reader effortlessly through scholarly research and critical appreciation of a vast and eclectic range of English gardens.
These gardens range from Elizabethan formal layouts to grand Georgian landscapes, from wildly decorative rococo to exotic Victorian, from eccentric Edwardian to exciting modernist. Mowl and his researchers have personally explored every garden and delved into numerous archives to discover a wealth of stories about the history and creation of these gardens; details about their design and individual purpose, about the period in which the garden owners lived and of their extraordinary passions and ambitions.
This newest volume, on Staffordshire, is packed with fascinating and extraordinary gardens. Mowl describes Staffordshire as an ‘exceptional county, characterised by the whims of a succession of garden eccentrics.’ In the eighteenth century, for example, at Enville Hall which now has a forlorn air of decay and loss, there was once a picturesque Georgian landscape circuit including pavilion, rotunda, Gothick boathouse, Chinese temple and bridge, rustic cottage, cascades and woods laid out by the Earl of Stamford ‘for the sheer delight of his visitors’. Later, James Bateman, a keen Victorian garden-maker created his own ‘world in a garden’ at Biddulph Grange where he built rockeries and planted gardens which reflected the current fascination with exotic places such as China and Egypt using newly discovered plants acquired through collectors from many parts of the world. One is surprised to discover at Alton Towers, which modern readers will associate with terrifying rides in its Theme-park, that it was always a pleasure ground and was already accessible to the public as a tourist attraction by the mid nineteen century. Later, Clarice Cliff the famous Staffordshire potter, found inspiration for her decorated plates and bowls in the flower garden which she nurtured in the 1930’s with her employer and later husband Colley Shorter, a wealthy Stoke merchant.
Individual county volumes in the series The Historic Gardens of England are not just for the local reader. Anyone interested in gardens and the historic and social context in which they were created will find both interest and inspiration in Mowls’ lively and erudite text and beautiful photographs.
Bristol writer Sue Shephard is a food and garden historian. Author of ‘Pickled Potted & Canned – the Story of Food Preserving’ and ‘Seeds of Fortune – A Victorian Horticultural Nursery’. Her biography ‘The Surprising Life of Constance Spry’ will be published by Macmillan in April 2010.