Chawton House Garden Tour – fascinating history and secret rooms!

Today, the visiting fellows were invited to come along to the garden tour given by the garden manager Andrew. Apart from the beautiful manor house and stables the estate includes acres of farmland, a walled garden, terraced areas and ‘the wilderness’, a feature that dates back to the 16th century when Henry III is known to have visited the original manor house and parklands.

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Not only was it a fascinating insight into the lands and property of Chawton House, but we had the opportunity to see rooms and features within rooms that are not normally open to the public. Inside the Well House, we had the opportunity to see the machinery that allowed water to be pumped up for use in the house. Andrew explained that the original 80-foot well was previously hand drawn via a pulley system, but in the 19th century, a local firm had installed an innovative machine that mechanically drew up the water. The most amazing part of this experience was, Andrew has managed to make this 150-year-old piece of machinery function. Unfortunately, with the break down of the original valves it doesn’t pump water, but Andrew hopes to take a closer look at it this summer and hopefully will restore the machinery to its former glory.

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Moving from these hidden rooms out into the garden, we stepped onto the Library Terrace, to which Andrew has created a white garden. The white garden has been inspired by Vita Sackville-West, whose mother was known to have had an affair with Edwin Lutyens. He designed the fireplace in the Oak Room at Chawton House, and may have been involved with the design of the Library Terrace, as he was a close friend of Montagu Knight who is known to have installed this feature. Although the library does not feature the work of Vita Sackville-West, she did write the biography of Aphra Behn one of the earliest women writers in the collection. Though the white garden is not yet in full bloom, it was wonderful to hear of Andrew’s inspiration and how it ties in with the history of the manor.

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And he takes much inspiration from the history of the house and the literature contained within the library. The Blackwell Herb Garden planted in the walled garden, which was built by Edward Knight (the brother of Jane Austen) is inspired by the illustrator Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758). Andrew told us the fascinating story of this woman who wrote and illustrated A curious herbal: containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick engraved on folio copper plates, after drawings taken from the life (1737) as a way of making money after her husband was thrown into debtors prison. The book was a remarkable achievement as Blackwell painstakingly hand-drew each plant, engraved the plates for printing, and then hand-coloured the printed images. It was published with the endorsement of a number of eminent apothecaries and physicians and was a huge financial success. This allowed Elizabeth to buy her husband out of prison but, just a few years later he came unfortunate end as he was later executed in Sweden for his part in a supposed political intrigue. Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist who devised the naming system we still use today, was aware of Elizabeth’s work and gave her the special title of ‘Botanica Blackwellia’.The herbs in the garden are all taken from her book and the four sections are associated with healing different areas of the body.

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Finally, we took a closer look at The Wilderness, which is one of the oldest parts of the garden. It is beautifully picturesque, attracting all sorts of wildlife into its heart but it was interesting to hear how it has been cultivated to make an aesthetically pleasing, and seemingly wild forest patch. Andrew even noted that typically families would lay out the grass paths of this style of garden to represent their Royal accord. For example, paths were frequently laid to  represent the St Andrews flag after the unification of the crown in 1707.

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This was a captivating tour that lasted about 90 minutes. Not only was the weather perfect for wandering around these extensive gardens, but I learned so much information about the history of garden landscaping as well as Chawton House Gardens. It was also a demonstration on how history and literature can inspire the landscape of this beautifully setting, which combines the research interests of the Library with its surrounding estate.

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