In the final days of 2016 I visited Swiss Garden for the first time since 2012. I was a part of the design team that helped to restore the Regency garden back to its intended historical design and spent a good year of my career analysing the history of the garden and putting forward proposals that were historically accurate.
The project has always had a place in my heart as it was the first major project that I was a part of as a landscape architect. The garden has a magic about it too. It was designed in such a way that you could quite easily get lost, with every turn you take helping you to discover another section of the garden.
What I find unusual about this garden is its composition. The garden was never intended to be a collection of flowers to please the eye. Instead the garden was designed using six key elements: mounding, water, evergreen vegetation, lawn, path and ornamentation. Lord Ongley wanted the garden to have the feel of a Swiss landscape (hence the name of the garden), but in particular wanted his guests to feel transported to the foothills of the Swiss Alps. For more history on the garden click here: http://www.shuttleworth.org/story-of-the-swiss-garden/
The garden is created, it is thought, to be viewed in the form of a journey with vistas opening up that are framed by carefully placed mounding, evergreen vegetation and water. None of the vistas direct your attention to points of interest outside the boundary of the garden and all views are inward-looking. I think that this contributes to the fairy-tale feel of the space, as mentioned by a guest to the garden in 1832. Many historic landscape designs encapsulate long distance views to ‘borrowed landscape’ but here, even the country mansion has been blocked from view.
By following the intended historical route around the garden, every folly or ornament will be seen up close. Your first sight of many of the large follies will often be a long distance framed view across a lawn or pond. The landscape discourages you from walking directly to the points of interest, teasing you with long distance views first and then distracting you with ornamentation that is close by, thus leading you around the path. In Lord Ongley’s day, the Swiss Cottage would have been the dominant feature of the landscape and commands views from 3 directions. Arguably the best feature in the garden, the Grotto, is in the centre of the garden but is hidden behind moulding and vegetation. Only its protruding glass cupola can be glimpsed through gaps in the vegetation as you walk around. The delight of entering the Grotto is reserved as one of the final surprises the garden gifts to you. This really is a garden designed for entertainment.
When you take a long look at the design itself, it is a stroke of genius. Ornamentation is key to the success of the design and makes your journey worthwhile and special. You can see in the adjacent plan that 4 features (Duck island, Aviary, Night and Morning vase and Swiss Cottage) are arranged in a near perfect diamond shape that works around the long established Oak trees. Mounding and/or vegetation has been added between where there would be diagonal viewpoints. However, between opposite points a view is established over flat ground and is often framed by metal archways or carefully placed trees.
The paths meander through these points of interest and you will notice that as you follow the path, you are treated to a long distance view and then subsequently a view of a feature up close. The plan below shows some of the key views in the garden. You will notice that there are views to the west and the east of the Swiss Cottage and up to the terrace. Similarly there are views that link the glass cupola of the Grotto, the Indian Kiosk and the Overlook. Vistas link the garden together and make you want to find the next jewel the garden has to offer.
No original plans of the garden have ever been found, so we cannot say if this was all intentional or if there are any elements that are missing from the space. We know that there are elements that were added later in the garden’s history by Joseph Shuttleworth and subsequent to this, but we cannot know exactly what Lord Ongley’s Regency garden design was like or if the previously mentioned features were brought together on paper or directly proposed on site between 1824 and 1832. I would have taken considerable work and vision to be able to create this large and complex garden in only 8 years. Even Alan Titchmarsh would struggle with that…
I must admit, it was lovely to visit the garden again and to see that the restoration has been a success. 26,000 plants have been planted to restructure the shrubberies and a number of overgrown or diseased trees have been felled. But most importantly, the garden is in safe hands and has been restored by the people that know the garden best. Kevin Hilditch and his team know the modern day challenges of the garden as well as the depth of history that makes the garden what it is today. As such, the management of the garden is structured over a long timescale and takes into account the mounding, water, evergreen vegetation, lawn, path and ornamentation to ensure that anticipated views are correct and remain open. Some big decisions had to be made during the time that the garden was closed for refurbishment, but all decisions have been made to ensure the history of this, the best preserved Regency style garden in the UK, is structured as it was intended, as a playful space designed for entertainment, enthrallment and enchantment.