Warwickshire is a county rich in history, one that has constantly recycled the legends of its heroes. Its emblem is the Bear and Ragged Staff – a heraldic motif taken from the Earls of Beauchamp – and the county’s most famous son is celebrated on road signs as the shire is entered: Warwickshire is ‘Shakespeare’s County’. Stratford, encouraged initially by David Garrick’s 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, has achieved a tourist industry with no less than five gardens connected with the playwright. Rather earlier, in the fourteenth century, an eerily dramatic sculpture of the county town’s legendary hermit-knight, Guy of Warwick, was carved from the red sandstone at Guy’s Cliffe. He broods now in a masonic lodge within the ruins of the Cliffe, below which once formal lawns are choked in bamboo and cavernous boathouses quarried out of the rockface, like mini basilicas, await pleasure boats which will never return.
In 2000 a Tudor Knot Garden was planted at Lord Leycester’s Hospital in Warwick, and as late as 2008 a recreated Elizabethan-style parterre garden was laid out below Kenilworth Castle as a more permanent reminder of one run up in months for the Virgin Queen’s 1575 visit to her favourite courtier and probable lover, Robert Dudley. Historic revivalism is also apparent in several eighteenth-century landscapes laid out around Edge Hill by the gentleman amateur Sanderson Miller. He made a speciality of revived medievalism – Georgian Rococo-Gothick – and either designed or advised at Radway Grange, Farnborough House, Upton House and Honington. These graceful parkscapes were enlivened by temples and viewing terraces aligned on the wider landscape. Arbury Hall, the county’s most evocative country house, flattered by reflections from its lake, is another mid-eighteenth-century essay in Gothick.
So the county is characterised by a deep sense of nostalgia for the past and a traditional approach to garden design. However, modernism peeps briefly through the island flowerbeds in the Jerwood Sculpture Park at Ragley Hall, and amongst the grasses at the Sculpture Trail in the fields behind Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Whereas these last feature twisted metal and abstract forms, Felix Dennis has created at Dorsington a garden that is peopled with consciously figurative bronze statues of his personal heroes – Billie Holiday faces Stephen Hawking and Chuck Berry strums his guitar close to Rudyard Kipling, a monkey sitting on his shoulder.
Redcliffe Press, Bristol (Expected publication date, Spring 2011)