Book Review: Historic Gardens of Dorset

The title is almost misleading, not quite doing justice to the range it covers. The author, who teaches garden history at the University of Bristol, avoids the well-trodden paths (or pages) of the historians’ armchair approach, and instead offers an engaging guide, unearthing unsuspected treasures and setting them into context. Thus, Bindon Abbey must be reassessed, having ‘the only complete Tudor water garden in England’, whereas, ‘at heart, both Compton Acres and Abbotsbury are visitor centres with gardens attached’. We all knew this, but usually nobody says so.

It also brings things more or less up-to-date with recently made gardens, for example, Sticky Wicket: ‘a learning pilgrimage in aesthetic ecology’ – and one of the most sincere gardens in the country, setting aside the ‘twee’ bits. Also Penelope Hobhouse’s garden at Bettiscombe – ‘not for Penelope the artful potagers of Prince Charles at Highgrove or Rosemary Verey at Barnsley with their peony and pea confusion’, observes the author. It is the way he has walked the walks – through 87 of Dorset’s gardens – to gain a fresh overview, that has made this such a useful and readable survey. And I must make a trip to see Brenda Colvin’s work at Springhead, which is ‘not the usual Dorset manor house of semi-feudal domesticity and amiable, smelly labradors’. Refreshing.

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