An intricate piece of garden design, drawing on the fashion for architectural gardens in the early years of the twentieth century, Hidcote's immaculately preserved Arts and Crafts style continues to earn it a place amongst the leading gardens in England. High on a plateau in the Cotswolds between Chipping Camden and Stratford-upon-Avon, near the little village of Mickleton, the site has distant views across the counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.
Its ten acres of gardens with hedged rooms and complex design of avenues and vistas offer glimpses of colour and design through every entrance. The garden provides the opportunity for a wide variety of interest in its gracefully interwoven combinations of topiary, planting, avenues and water features, at any time of year.
The Hidcote Estate was bought in 1907 by Mrs Gertrude Winthrop, who came from a wealthy New York family, and she continued to travel there frequently, enjoying the high society. The garden at Hidcote was established by her elder son, Lawrence Johnston (1871-1958), and developed by him over a period of more than twenty years. Johnston had a keen interest in gardening, and was elected to membership of the RHS in 1904.
The garden he created at Hidcote drew largely on the ideas set out by Thomas Mawson in The Arts and Crafts of Garden Making, 'a series of apartments, rather than a panorama which can be grasped in one view'. The garden was opened to the public for a few days each year during the 1930s and 1940s, and after World War II, Johnston who was by then in his seventies and living in France, offered Hidcote to the National Trust. In 1948 it became the first garden accepted under a Gardens Fund set up jointly by the RHS and the National Trust.
The Manor House was built in the seventeenth century as a farm house, and when Mrs Winthrop acquired it, it had lawns with a large cedar of Lebanon, a summerhouse and a Kitchen Garden. A great deal of work was carried out on the house and garden in the years leading up to the First World War, but it was in the 1920's that Lawrence Johnston began to develop the gardens more extensively, becoming involved in plant-hunting expeditions with similarly wealthy garden enthusiasts. Major Johnston had retired from a Military career in 1922, at the age of fifty, and was then free to devote himself to the development of the gardens at Hidcote. He was in that year elected to the elite Garden Society, a gentlemen's club of leading gardeners, established in 1920, which included Sir George Holford of Westonbirt and Mark Fenwick of nearby Abbotswood. There was competition among affluent garden owners in the early 20th century to be the first to have spectacular and exotic plants and in the 1920s, Johnston became involved in sponsoring and taking part in plant-hunting expeditions. In 1922 he went to the Swiss Alps with fellow Garden Society member E.A. Bowles of Middleton House and in 1927 organized a three-month expedition to South Africa with other gardeners including George Taylor, later director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The following year he travelled to Kenya, and in 1930 to China, bringing back plant varieties some of which remain at Hidcote such as a yellow Hypericum from Mount Kilimanjaro.Johnston read widely garden literature, borrowing books from the RHS library and Thomas Mawson's beliefs can clearly be seen put into practice at Hidcote. His recommendations of formality in the gardens close to the house, merging into the natural landscape by degrees attach the house gradually to its wider landscape, are in line with those of other architects of the period, such as J.D. Sedding. Mawson wrote: 'Art is well directed in arousing curiosity, always inviting further exploration, to be rewarded with new, but never a final discovery'. He recommended working outwards from the house and firstly 'discovering and framing those features visible from it which have in them the elements of the picturesque', whilst still taking care with the treatment of the balance and symmetry of the scheme as a whole.
At Hidcote the long vistas allow for picturesque views while discovery of the new and exciting elements of the garden is made possible with a complex interconnecting series of rooms with multiple entrances and exits.There is no set route around the garden and a first time visitor may find this confusing at first, but it is a part of the appeal, providing an encouragement to explore the interconnecting rooms like a maze. The entrance is through the house, where the northern gated courtyard with clematis, viburnum and wisteria trailing up the face of the building, give only a small hint of what lies beyond. Emerging from the house on the opposite side is the Old Garden which existed when Johnston arrived. It includes the East Court Garden, a small parterre courtyard, the Maple Garden, enclosed by yew hedges and named after the bronze acers, and adjacent to this the White garden, a delightful little symmetrical enclosure with stylised topiary birds. Here the white tulips are succeeded by floribunda roses, phlox and nicotianas, where the white is set off by the dark green of the surrounding yew topiary.
The Old Garden is bounded by the old brick walls and is dominated by the huge old cedar close to the house below which grow grape hyacinths, scillas and anemones and later pink oxalis in the shade. Johnston put a semicircular seat by the cedar tree to terminate the vista. Two large herbaceous borders are planted with seasonal flower beds including narcissus, tulips, poppies, iris and roses, lavender and peonies, followed by dahlias and michaelmas daisies. Tender pomegranates are planted in oak tubs, as they were by Johnston.Turning right you get the first view of the vista through the heart of the garden, out from the walled garden towards Heaven's Gate. This vista crosses the Circle, passes between the Red Borders, up the steps and between the twin Gazebos, and finally through the formal Stilt Garden before reaching the gate. This gives some idea of its length and complexity, and was amongst the earliest parts of the gardens created by Johnston. To the north of this long axis, and aligned with it and the house lies the Theatre Lawn, a large plain exedra surrounded by a tall yew hedge with a dais at the far end, approached by a flight of steps and topped by beech trees. The size and simplicity of this garden contrasts with the densely packed rooms to the south and was designed by Johnston for quiet contemplation.
A gate from the top of the Theatre Lawn leads to the long Beech Avenue which runs off at right angles to the north, answering the Long Walk which gives a dramatic vista to the south, and balances the overall plan. These long avenues are the skeleton of the garden creating a structure around which the detailed rooms are created. Each vista ends with a gate: 'Gates may advantageously mark the end of a vista' encouraged Mawson, and Johnston used this device to excellent effect at Hidcote at the ends of the long axes of the garden, framing a view of the world beyond.The pretty Gazebos and the Stilt Garden were among the earliest part of the gardens created by Johnston, probably made during his period recovering from a shrapnel wound in 1915. The Stilt garden, French in style with pleached hornbeams, was used for games of boules. It was described in 1949 by Vita Sackville-West as 'Neat and box-like, standing on flawlessly straight little trunks, it has always been so perfectly clipped and trained that not a leaf is out of place'.
The Long Walk, running to the south, was laid out after World War I, an immense grass alley, framed with hornbeam hedges. To the east of this walk is Mrs Winthrop's garden, formal with a paved circle and a central sundial, surrounded by a high beech hedge, where cushions were laid out for seating in the summer. To the west is the Pillar Garden, with its tall topiary yew pillars emerging from colourful beds which include a riot of pink peonies and giant purple alliums in May. Further away from the house, the gardens move to less formal treatment with a wild, naturalistic Bulb Slope and a Rock Bank, while at the far end of the Long Walk, behind its high hornbeam hedges lies the Wilderness with wandering paths amongst cherry blossom, birches and maples, planned to encourage wild birds into the garden, and in the 1930s it included a pool with flamingos. Either side of the Long walk, the Stream garden, with rough paths of Cotswold stone wandering between swathes of brunnera and trilliums. This informal garden crosses the formal Long Walk, accessed by gateways in the hedge, encouraging the visitor to explore.
Approaching the house again more formal gardens can be found: the poppy garden is a yew-hedged circle, and beyond, the Bathing Pool garden, announced by topiary birds and perfect in its formality with a yew Palladian portico. Here a large pool with its central fountain of a boy on a dolphin catches the light, while the stone is again in formal contrast to the dark green yew. Beyond the theatre lawn are a pine garden, a Lily Pool and an Edwardian-style Plant House. Also on this side is the Rose Walk, best in May with alliums, lilacs and standard wisterias.This complex and varied garden is a unique testament to the commitment and dedication of its designer, Lawrence Johnston, and continues to be immaculately maintained by the National Trust. Before you leave, if you have time, take one last stroll to Heaven's gate to gaze between the cherub-topped pillars across the Vale of Evesham. It is worth it.