Saturday, 17 September 2016

Houghton Hall I: The Park & Gardens

On the Wednesday we had yet another jaunt.  We drove north into Norfolk, turning off the A10 at Downham Market we headed north-east along the A1122 crossing the Devil's Dyke and on to the market town of Swaffham. After a brief stop for refreshments we headed north through Castle Acre (we must return there sometime) and then along the ancient trackway known as PeddarsWay and through the Massinghams and Harpley.  Norfolk was looking very dry and dusty after the vivid, lush landscape of Wales. Turning off the A148 we found ourselves at the head of a wide avenue of chestnut trees leading gently downhill to a small village, New Houghton - just two neat rows of whitewashed cottages on either side of the road - that was established to house the villagers evicted when the park was extended southwards, leaving the village church marooned in the midst of the park and the villagers with a bit of a schlep every Sunday morning and afternoon.  Ahead of us a pair of great wrought iron gates also painted white.  We had arrived.  Houghton Hall home of the Cholmondelys, built by Sir Robert Walpole (1676 - 1745), 1st Earl of Orford, not as a result, but as part of his political ascent.
Through the gates we entered a well wooded park.  The drive swung gently in an arc to approach the Hall at a suitably picturesque angle; the park was originally laid out by Bridgeman in the early 1700s in the Baroque manner, and, as at Wimpole and countless other country houses, it was subsequently altered in the Picturesque landscape tradition.  The alterations were perhaps not as drastic here as elsewhere and three of the four main avenues survive.  The most important runs E-W through the 'state centre' of the house.  A version of Bridgeman's plan is illustrated in the 3rd vol of Colen Campbell's 'Vitruvius Britannicus'.  I've written 'version' because I suspect it does not show the park and gardens as they were actually laid out.
As the house was not open for another half hour we decided to do the gardens first then rather than have lunch.  It was quite the best thing to do.  There are two gardens at Houghton - one beside the house and the second created with the walls of the old kitchen garden, which with the stables is to one side and out of sight of the house. The new gardens were started in 1991 and are the work of the then head gardener, Paul Underwood and, later, the garden designers Julian and Isobel Bannerman.  All three are to be congratulated.  The new gardens are superb; the vast space of the kitchen garden has been divided up into a number of interconnected formal gardens - some practical, some purely for pleasure.  It was a delight to wander about and really are worth a visit in their own right.  The herbaceous borders were amazing even tough we were there past peak season.  I particularly loved the combinations of hot pinks, reds and oranges with blues.  There is a greenhouse too and a fantastical tempietto that references the 'primitive hut' as described by the French Neo-classical architectural theorist the Abbe Laugier. Delightful.
The stables, constructed of brick and the local carstone, are perhaps one of the orangiest building I've seen. They are the work of William Kent, and with all Kent's buildings the Baroque, in the form of Sir John Vanbrugh, is never far away.  They are also very monumental, and form the beginning of the route that visitors, paying, take to enter the house.  It is possible to omit the stables from the route by walking around them but I'd advise against it. The route is so carefully contrived and baroque you have to do it all. Go through the archway nearest the walled garden and the car park, cross the courtyard (or get way laid in the cafe and shop) and through the arch opposite.  On the otherside is a bosquet of densely planted lime trees - take the path.  At the centre a tall sundial, ahead a flight of stone stairs
At the top of the steps you find yourself on the edge of a plateau, a vast Baroque garden that is part original (though most of the original planting was swept away in the 1770s to save money), part Picturesque remodelling and part subsequent restoration of the original plan.  The Baroque predominates. Walk on through the loose planting of trees and then all of sudden this amazing space opens up on either side of you.  Breathtaking.  A real coup du theatre. The scale is colossal, and beyond my limited talents with a camera.
 Essentially an immense rectangle in plan this deeply formal and austere garden (there are no flowers) is bounded on one side (E - to your right) with the house and its flanking pavillions, and on the other three sides by ha-has and terraces.  A great lawn - bloody enormous, actually - runs from the house along the great E-W axis. (To your left) It is lined with double rows of pleached lime trees, echoing  in their bare trunks the columns of the arcades that link the house to its pavillions. The lawn appears to have no end - the ha-ha dissolving the boundary at that point between garden and park.  The avenue of trees shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' has been removed at some point but the Baroque concept of 'infinite extension' assiduously maintained by the subsequent informal planting.  Behind the lines of pleached trees on either side of the lawn are blocks of bosquets sliced through by radiating avenues and bounded by hedges of either beech or hornbeam.  I wasn't sure which.  Four of the bosquets north of the lawn are hollowed out to form 'cabinets du verdure', in reference to those illustrated in the 'Vitruvius Britannicus', and where Modern sculpture and installations have been sited.  Rachel Whiteread had made a cast of the interior of a garden shed - 'Bit of a one trick pony' said the bf.  It was hard to disagree.  It was pretty underwhelming, as were the rest with the exception of 'Skyspace', 2000, by James Turrell.  (Apologies for ending this post on such a mildly negative note.  Everything else at Houghton though is marvelous!)

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