Where's the romance in gardening? You'll know it when you see it

Romance in gardens isn’t necessarily about traditional beauty. It’s about imagination and effort

Hanham Court Gardens, Bristol. Early summer garden with parterre and white roses
Hanham Court, Bristol, in early summer with rose 'Felicite Perpetue' Credit: GAP Photos

I get asked about the romance of gardens. I get asked to make gardens that are “romantic”. Our garden at Hanham Court was described by a friend as “a place I would like to be proposed to in” – which I suppose is an affirmation of romantic-ness. The “r” word gets loosely sloshed about, describing movements in music, poetry, painting, even landscape design. But what might it mean in a garden?

The gardens and plots that I have loved upon the instant do perhaps have a common thread. They awaken an imaginative intensity, stir emotion, suggest mystery while being somehow familiar and having heart. History is maybe an element; although I think the word is “story”, it need not be an old story. It might be the man growing artichokes under the Roman bridge at Ronda in Andalusia, or the va-va-voom of tuberoses and orange blossom in a tiny courtyard in Seville.

I find when making a garden I need to begin with a story. If I wanted to take my love to a story garden on a February Friday, I might be tempted to lead them through a gate and into a sleepwalking garden, moody with yew monoliths, brooding in the rain. Together we would feel like child and trespasser. Stories swim out from places and plantings; from back gardens seen sliding sideways from trains, with their intimations of other lives, of Eleanor Rigby, brave and careful.

Studley Royal water garden, Yorkshire Credit: Jeremy Horner

The most romantic gardens are born of endeavour. Take the pared-down beauty of Derek Jarman’s Dungeness garden; it is about something “elsewhere”, timeless, to do with effort. It might be a solitary place, on the edges of wild abandonment, Llanthony Priory perhaps under Hay Bluff. Or have great refinement, water, leading the mind to drift like a leaf, as at Studley Royal.

Whether open acres or the intensity of an artist’s garden, the private delights and obsessions are what captivate one, the irises of Monet, the glaucous leaves chosen by Yves St Laurent or the agoraphobic energy of Ian Hamilton Finlay; all work on many unseen levels.

Once Painshill Park near Cobham was romantically choked with brambles and I was a teenager, crawling through a forbidden fence on a ring road. So too Bomarzo in Italy, a “Sacro Bosco” created in the 16th century by a grieving widower, the Count Orsini, to honour his dead wife Giulia. It was almost unknown in 1970 when my husband Julian Bannerman climbed in through the thickets and it unfolded its story before him.

The great medieval romances, such as the 13th century “Romance of the Rose”, were stories told in the romance languages of Europe, not in Latin, about chivalric love, much taking place in the enclosed paradise garden surrounded by wilderness. The romance of walled gardens plucks the heart strings of most of us. Tim Smit’s genius when caught up in just such a love affair with Heligan, was to call it “Lost”. Rescue is part of any romance, human and gardening.

I don’t think a romantic garden can be “designed”. What makes you breathless or blood-rushed in a garden, or a cathedral, is the humanity that went into it; the passion; the tender care; the reason and the unhinged quality – that belief that it could work. The postman Ferdinand Cheval building his own private Sagrada Familia-like structure in his garden at Hauterives, France, for more than 40 years. Beauty must be there and, to my mind, husbandry. Tenderness and care are what is touching.

Have you seen those small, productive, high-hedged-against-the-sea gardens on Iona, lavished with seaweed? Real and romantic gardens are not an act of conspicuous consumption, they are about triumph in the face of adversity, about wit and love. Romantic love is about wanting to make a patch with someone, the desire to look after each other and nurture flowers and fruit, and maybe babies, together and generously.

So too, the best gardens are about giving and loving.

  • Isabel Bannerman is a writer (Scent Magic, Pimpernel Press) and garden designer (bannermandesign.com).
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