Hidcote – a Garden of Rooms

Hidcote is generally considered to be the apogee of the English Arts and Crafts garden, though it was made by a wealthy American, Lawrence Johnston. It is very much a garden of rooms, and in that way very typical of Arts and Crafts gardens of the period. I visited in May as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s spring tour of English gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. The very next day, we visited Rousham. What a contrast! I found this tour so well designed to elicit meaning and understanding, I mention two other tours Carolyn will be taking to Europe this summer, Contemporary English Gardens in Summer in August and Piet Oudolf & the Dutch Wave Gardens in September.

Spring woodland garden-2

Hidcote and Rousham seem to exist at two extremes of garden making, and they reveal something about each other.

Spring woodland garden-7

Hidcote is an intensely inward looking garden, very different from Rousham, which opens generously to the surrounding landscape. On my first visit to Hidcote, I felt the excitement of seeing one of the great English gardens. The garden is a complex composition of garden rooms and spaces with many kinds of creative linking passages and vistas. It’s stunning in its complexity and ingenious design.

Spring woodland garden-11

Nevertheless, recalling that visit, I felt something else too, a quality not entirely satisfying, a feeling of congestion, complexity, at first even confusion, until I gave in to the experience and just walked, making discoveries and connections. 

Spring woodland garden-9



I’d like to compare the experiences of Rousham and Hidcote, but I read something this morning that makes me pause:

“The contemplative, non-dualistic mind withholds from labeling things or categorizing them too quickly (i.e., judging), so it can come to see them in themselves, apart from the words or concepts that become their substitutes. Humans tend to think that because they agree or disagree with the idea of a thing, they have realistically encountered the thing itself. Not at all true, says the contemplative. It is necessary to encounter the thing in itself. “Presence” is my word for this encounter, a different way of knowing and touching the moment. It is a much more vulnerable position, and leaves us without a full sense of control, which is why many will not go there.” – Richard Rohr


This concept of just holding “presence” seems to be another way of speaking of what Keats called “negative capability.” (See my recent related post on Rousham.)

Spring woodland garden-14

So I’ll exercise the discipline of holding the experience of presence, and show a few images of my visit to Hidcote without attempting to evaluate or judge.

Spring woodland garden-12

The general theme is how gardens use openness and closure to express meaning, and how concepts of “nature” are revealed through this.

Gateway into the Stilt Garden.


From the opposite viewpoint, the red borders, the two gazebos, and the Stilt Garden beyond, ending in the gateway.


The Stilt Garden, through attentive use of space and forced perspective, plays with the concepts of openness and closure in a satisfying way.










Spring woodland garden-17


Spring woodland garden-20
The gazebo gives entry to the Long Walk.


Spring woodland garden-19
The Long Walk, one of two prominent open spaces at Hidcote, though even here the hedges confine the space and direct attention to either end.


Spring woodland garden-18
Approaching the far end, the visitor encounters a sudden release on going through the columned gateway we see here …


Spring woodland garden-23
… suddenly coming upon this  wide expanse of Cotswold fields. But this view is carefully hidden as long as possible. This transition from closed to open evokes powerful feelings.


The Pillar Garden again creates a tightly enclosed effect …


… until you change position and find this opening cut through the hedge.

I’m returning to England in July and August and intend to visit both Hidcote and Rousham again. Will the experience be different? I’m sure it will.

My hope is to be mindful and present to Presence.





Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

39 thoughts on “Hidcote – a Garden of Rooms

  1. Is it presence or judgement or the time out of mind it takes to analyze and process? Being in the moment without the ability or idea to formulate an opinion whether judgmental or not seems fraudulent to me. Our eyes, hearts and minds (not to mention intellect) bring perspective to our experiences. It’s what makes our individual points of view valuable. Blind judgment or taking sides without consideration is another thing all together.

    1. I don’t think we disagree. My first impulse was to write about what I found disturbing at Hidcote, but then I thought better, and decided to sit with it a while, to hold my conflicting impulses and feelings without making quick judgments, as you say, the better to get to the point where I could “analyze and process.” I’m not sure I’m there yet. I don’t think “being in the moment” and “formulating an opinion” are mutually exclusive, and I don’t think you are saying they are, but each has its time and place. I might also add that what I’m writing about has more to do with space and flow than with horticulture.

      1. Why do space and flow and horticulture have to be so separate? Equal players and partners in the whole of an experience. At least that’s how I view them.

        1. That’s a good question, and I don’t think they are separate (should I add that I’m not a landscape architect!?), but I’m not ready to take on horticulture at Hidcote just yet. I’m a plant lover and I respond to plants as sensuous and beautiful objects, and to them in mass as something more akin to waves of feeling; that’s one aspect of horticulture. Then there is the question of how plants are used to create or shape or influence space. Or how plants are used for practical reasons, as weed suppressing groundcovers, for example. We also can also talk about specific species and cultivars; Lawrence Johnston went to great lengths to get rare plants for his collection. How color is used, as in the red borders. Use of topiary in Hidcote might take a book in itself. It seems to be a subject far beyond the scope of a blog post. I’m setting limitations for practical reasons, and for lack of enough knowledge, in many cases, to carry such a discussion forward.

    2. I have visited Hidcote gardens so many times but never felt enclosed. It is a peace that fills me with delight each room discovered and re discovered with time. It took me 30 years to design my own but in it all I began to know the man who designed Hidcote so very well. We who build and create English arts and crafts gardens live for nothing else. Shy and rather stiff lipped with people seem to see heaven on earth rather more in the rooms and vistas of a real garden. I must admit it is not in England that I made this 12 acre gardens but in Europe as land was cheaper and rules of today less obvious or felt. England of the days of Hidcote being built most different than England is today. Pockets of old Edwardian England exist in places like Hidcote and hopefully in mine to. I have it that heaven is on earth working in my themed expanse no one bothers me. I did pinch one part of Hidcote and that the read border in total down to the potting sheds each side. I made mine just larger for seeds more glass in the walls to but same red brick and leaded apex roof on each. I planted up more as I wanted. though. High hedges took years to grow and only now a pensioner can i see the place as I dreamed of in each step I take. It is a place of calm of solitude and of peace to pray in fields of scent and borders of chosen colour that compliment each other and so please the eye. I use statues on plinths as focal points against the dark green of holly hedge down to the lake were my Chinese ducks swim in the cool shallow and oaks don golden gowns even if today the October sunshine is in the 80 F range winter is not far away. The Swans will be back before I build the promised bridge over to the island to prepare Rhodi collection for winter. Had it made like the Monet bridge in the painters gardens. now need a crane to drag it in place. Silly boy I was not seeing this on design board. A sixty foot metal foot bridge needs to cover 50 foot water in the deeper part of edging. Now waiting for action and hoping for mercy with weather. Lawrence Johnston may have had problems but a team of gardeners helped. i did all this on my own. Thank God at 68 today it is just a number as I am fitter than Jagger who can still play a test match all through but I shift stone my own weight and build a temple of more use in a thing called a garden folly. Still cant manage that bridge though alone. Hidcote started it all off for me aged 5

    3. I am English residing in Europe EU .My years in England took me deeply into arts and craft gardens each summer. Hidcote I remember was different than now with stone statues from Italy adorning places needed. The so called red border was blue and white as the French born national adopted builder Major Lawrence Johnston managed to create. Over time of visits some six hundred over 30 years I decided it was not enough to love it but to buy land and build my own gardens. I was 63 before this happened by moving all to Europe land half price of UK and lower living costs built house and set off turning cow pasture into English art and craft wall gardens. I am in wait from hedgings to reach desired privacy height but all rooms are set to my plan. Only thing I took from Johnny Johnston was the red border and one folly summerhouse but my planting is far from that seen in photo. My Medici garden fish pond half Johnny JS pool size but works so well into my plan. It was Hidcote that inspired me and what my gardens became is on similar plan . God knows how hard a job alone this was but having turned the last corner this week I hope only for hedges to grow before statues go in.

  2. I miss some borrowed scenery, some space to breath. Thinking of the gardeners grooming those long LONG hedges!
    But the middleish picture, with the gnarled branches arching over the path and the tapestry of foliage – that appeals.

    1. I’m trying not to admit I miss the openness (yet). I don’t think Lawrence Johnston designed the garden with a public audience in mind, so I’m trying to entertain different perspectives. I’m used to open gardens, they’re part of my tradition, as I imagine they are yours in South Africa, where there is so much to be seen outside the garden.

  3. James, you sell yourself short by saying you don’t have the knowledge to carry a discussion forward. Asking open-ended questions is a great way to do that, and your analytical lack of analysis approach made me consider anew my own responses to Hidcote. I find it very difficult to separate what I’ve read about these influential gardens from the initial experience of seeing them. So many incidentals affect how we experience gardens — our own moods, the time of day, weather, what have you. I have visited Hidcote only once, and on a very bright day when everything seemed too much. Your photos, taken on what looks like an overcast day, are wonderfully moody. They help me to remember what I liked about the garden. Open and closed areas are a huge element at Hidcote — and there are a few too many closed ones for my liking. The Long Walk is an essential element, as is the other open area (can’t remember how it is named). Your photo of that space makes it look many times better than when I saw it 3 or 4 years ago. I look forward to reading your responses on a second visit.

    1. Pat, I like that “analytical lack of analysis approach.” Yes, that’s what it is. Hidcote has been so highly valued by so many for so long, I pause to criticise it. That’s not my intent. The more I recall the experience of the garden, the more I appreciate it. The other great open space is the Theatre Garden, I believe, but it wasn’t nearly as powerful visually, nor as well maintained, as the Long Walk. Ultimately, personal preference may govern, but I look forward to seeing it again, in the fullness of summer, and whatever weather is granted. I’m tempted to read Lawrence Johnston’s personal history in this garden, risky as that is–the fact he didn’t have close friends, was perhaps gay at a time when that was completely unacceptable both to him and to the public. He certainly was a very private man and he dominated his landscape.

      1. LJ’s own story of the garden would let us see from the inside, not out.
        Sissinghurst is in the throes of moving from a manicured horticultural space, to something more like the way Vita Sackville-West had it. An interesting process to follow.

        1. I’ve read that construction will be underway soon at Sissinghurst, but I’m not familiar with the work being done. Thanks for the warning, so I can learn about this.

      2. Johnny Johston was a soldier and a mans man. He was his own happy soul on his own .Like me never felt lonely ever. I can see in his face who he is. A proud man who wanted more than anything privacy. Your correct.He never wanted a garden other than for himself. It was in fact his own word. With few friends and Laura Lindsay he partied softly cooking in the left hand follie summerhouse as one drifts down to them. Drinks sausages on sticks and happy days in English summers they lived it out. The servants had rights at times arranged to bathe in the pond. When he wanted to hand his world over to Lindsay she suddenly died. I think her child was Johnstons daughter even though he said not. To defend a ladies honour he was that sort of man. To know him is so hard but having met him in France as a child of 8 he was not as many see him. He spoke easily and was on about titles not gardens. He so much wanted to be knighted as we were in my aunts home just a step from his gardens .I never saw him again he was ill they told my father.

  4. James, of all the blogs I read yours is my favourite and wish you’d be able to make a book out of it.
    It’s not very often you find writing of that quality, that thoughtful and with that much insight.
    What you describe as ‘presence’ I believe is what Goethe (and later Rudolf Steiner) called ‘to let the thing reveal itself’, meaning just what you meant (if I understood correctly). It’s also a method of meditation in Anthroposophy. A lot of the feelings we have when we encounter things or people are more about ourself (fears very often, things we surpress) and if we form judgement instantly we are able to put these feelings away quickly, but if we aknowledge them without letting them form our opinion we create a space where ‘the thing itself can reveal itself’.
    Excuse my english and my non ability to express myself better.
    All the best from germany.

    1. Thank you, Rainer. I think we are on to the same idea. I know little of Anthroposophy, but I do agree that initial judgements often come from within ourselves, and making a judgement enables us to project our fears and other suppressed thoughts onto the other, and free ourselves of that energy without owning it. Better to suspend judgement and simply be present and experience what is. Easier said than done, but I think it becomes easier with practice. I agree with your expression “create a space where ‘the thing itself can reveal itself’.”

      1. I’ve continued to think about my initial response Hidcote and the comments made so far. I know little about Johnson and resist imposing my notions about his personality onto the garden itself. (Yet I find myself doing it nonetheless.) He seems to have been a very private man and it is likely that he was gay at a time when that presented enormous problems. So the idea of a garden that is enclosed, where different types of plants or arrangements of space or aspects of his psyche are separated by walls of one sort or another, seems to fit. It also appears that he wanted to express horticulturally many different ideas, and since he had the money to do so, he didn’t need to stop.

        1. I have the same temptation to interpret the garden through his history and personality, Pat, though I know that can be risky. On a very practical level, he had a very domineering mother, and making the garden gave his a way to create his own space, both psychologically and physically, and create a life independent of her. She never approved of the garden or his life choices, and when she died, she did not leave the family money to him. She set up something like a trust that provided him ample income, but he couldn’t have control of most of the wealth he should have inherited. There’s a wonderful video on Johnston and Hidcote with Chris Beardshaw, Sir Roy Strong and others, readily available on the Internet.

  5. Great thought proving read. Very pleased to have found your site. We live in Gloucestershire and are frequent Hidcote vistors, we’ve never seen it so devoid of visitors ! It is an intriguing garden not least because of the enigmatic relationship between the garden and Johnson. We would be fascinated to see his Riviera garden ‘ Jardin Serre de la Madone’, interesting website:

  6. Hitesh, Thank you for the link. There were quite a few visitors the day we visited, but the garden certainly was not crowded. It was cloudy and rained a bit, though.

  7. Another fascinating and thought provoking post with atmospheric photos, I enjoyed reading all the comments too. When you come to France you might like to visit La Serre de la Madone, Lawrence Johnston’s garden in Menton on the Cote d’Azur. I’m currently reading a book about the garden and Johnston certainly seemed to be quite an eccentric character, living alone after his mother’s death in a house full of servants. The garden has a sub-tropical micro-climate which allowed him to indulge his passion for rare and exotic species, some collected on his plant-hunting trips. It is not nearly as well maintained as Hidcote, as it was only recently rescued from developers, then restored and is now run by the local council, but the bones of the garden are there as are some wonderful exotic trees, now over 100 years old. However they are bigger and cast a lot more shade than in his day. In all the gardens I visit whose owners have since passed away, it always seems a fine juggling act between keeping the ‘spirit’ of their garden and the original plantings as the gardens continue to mature and change. The subject for another post perhaps!? Thanks James!

    1. Sorry for the delay, Lynda, I was getting ready to come to England, where I am now, near Hay on Wye. I had hoped to go to Hidcote this week, but the drive from here is so long, and my confidence driving in the UK so tentative, I’ll wait until next week when we’ll be staying nearer. There’s a good video on the Internet about Hidcote and Lawrence Johnston that includes an interview with the woman who cared for him for many years and through his death. I’ll certainly want to get there when I’m in France, possibly next summer.

  8. Probably because it followed some monochromatic hedgy photos (almost thedefault garden version of black and white) and all that they imply, the photo of the red garden gave me an impressive jolt. More than the actual color content of the reds would normally without the context. I wonder if they had that much power in person.

    1. Yes, they did. I was surprised that the Red Borders were effective so early. I distinctly remember saying to myself, “It’s effective even out of season.” I imagine that, when I get there next week, I’ll find much more red.

  9. Hi James
    Thanks again for your lovely post and stunning photos.

    I must tell you my opinion, allthough you hesitate telling your own.

    Most of the Arts & Craft-gardens in Britain is parafrazes and imitations of the italian rennaicance-gardens, from the 14-1600. Many of the the makers of these gardens, traveled and had their holydays in Percia, Turkey, Spain and Italy and visited the iconic gardens there from the Islamic to the European(catholic) round 1900.
    – I think we can, visiting the English garden with lots of rooms, (- sometimes like small apartments-) be inspired, how to translate or create a formal garden. But we´ll have to thank Italy if we will learn how one can understand the backbones of a genuine formal garden, based on straight lines, space, masses, symetry surfaces, ornament… etc. made by humans, avoiding to imitate the nature.

    Have a nice trip
    Kind regards


    1. Hi, Kjeld – I’m back in England and will visit Hidcote next week. I hope I didn’t imply that I didn’t like the garden; I certainly did. The garden history you refer to is covered very effectively in one of Penelope Hobhouse’s books–In Search of Paradise: Great Gardens Around the World–and I’m sure in many others. My experience is limited, but my feeling was that the way Johnston implemented the garden room concept at Hidcote is different from some other Arts & Crafts gardens I’ve seen, different from Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, for example. I think it’s more complex even than Sissinghurst, which is quite rigidly made on that concept, but is simpler and more open in feeling, at least to me. But again, I’ll hesitate in expressing opinions that are based on too little time with the gardens.

  10. auch!!
    James, – that hurts! 🙂
    Is it a little hint to my straight-forward way of commenting your post!?
    – I´ll try to express me a little more exact another time, and sure; I fully agree on Hidcote, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter. And I think I understand your point!

    Have a nice trip to Hidcote.

    I wonder what common gardenpeople, in the future will think or say about to-days fashion of Naturalistic Planting we practice so much round the world? – Probably that the mainpart of us were amateurs!? And a shame that these gardens does not exixt anymore, apart from the beautiful pictures of perennials and grasses in old books and lovely sharp photos on the internet? The Naturalistic Planting is also one of my favorites, when it comes to gardens. But its disadvantage is that hay reach its klimax every autumn and die in the winter, and it has no potential to grow old an mature for the next generations to enjoy.
    We cannot accuse the Arts & Craft gardens of that! 🙂

    Kind regards

    1. Kjeld, I hope I didn’t say something to offend. I don’t understand what you mean by “that hurts.” Perhaps we’re having a language problem. Regarding the subject you raised, how gardens last and what will be left for future generations, I have mixed feelings. Today I visited a garden near the border of England and Wales, Hergest Croft, in Kington. The house was built in 1896, and the garden has lasted to the present day, through four generations of the Banks family. I hadn’t expected much, but visiting it was a thoughtful, moving experience–exactly because it was old, had an “undesigned” feeling, except for one glaringly out-of-place modernistic sculpture, and because it had the feeling of a very old, well-loved garden. It’s a little “worn around the edges” and all the better for that. After visiting, I read that High Johnson called it “one of the holy places of horticulture.” It has more “champion trees” than the National Arboretum at Westonbirt. So, like you, I do want there to be gardens that last through the centuries. But I see nothing wrong with gardens that are more ephemeral too. My garden exists on the edge of wildness and I have no expectation that it will last beyond my lifetime, if that long. I’ve even thought of perhaps letting wildness retake if in some way as I get older. But be assured that I, like you, see value in old gardens, and in Arts and Crafts gardens. I hope I haven’t entirely missed your point.

      Kind wishes,

      1. Hi James
        I hope you know, that I like your writings a lot! I think I do not always understand “your small hints”, and some of your sentences, but I think I can “sence your poetry in your writings”. You didn´t offend!
        Sometimes I´m too fast, judging gardens, when I write or speak. Giving them points from 1 to 10. Express what they do to me, instead of analyzing them before the conclusion. I think that might happen here. and maybe thats because of my profession as visual artist?

        I´m also aware of your garden-philosophy and appreciate your way to make it alive in your words and not at least in your beautiful photos.
        Maybe we´re having a language-problem!? – I know that it´s up to the reader how to understand the written words. And I might not express myself in English, to be `understandeble´!?
        I sometimes have the same problems here in Denmark, – in my own language! 🙂

        Have a nice trip.


        1. Kjeld,

          I think I probably take too long to get to “giving points, from one to ten.” At times, it’s instantaneous, at times I don’t want to say it because it might offend, at times, I need to wait and see again, and perhaps again. But I carry the experience.


  11. I was fortunate to have visited Hidcote about 15 years ago in a July rainstorm. We unsuccessfully tried to wait out the weather in the on-site restaurant. If I can’t be involved with gardening, eating is always a fallback option, and our meal was delicious. Rain be damned we ventured out after lunch, and our small group had the garden entirely to ourselves. Running from room to room and exploring each new each space called up childhood memories of opening all the doors in my great grandparent’s large old house. We were on a schedule and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. As to the mentioned enclosure, it did make me appreciate the few glimpses of the countryside beyond, especially as a rest from all the intense gardening that was happening at my back.

  12. Hi James. This is such a thought-provoking discussion that I may coming to this at an off side place, but it seems to me that there is something missing here about your perspective as the photographer. Susan kicked off by suggesting something fraudulent about the non-judgemental stance. I don’t think fraudulent is the right word, but from your visual “take” on the garden you have presented the garden in a very orderly way. The symmetry of most of your images is striking, for instance. Now I write as someone who loves symmetry and finds it deeply satisfying in a garden context to the extent that I find myself often choosing to place myself in a garden to even attempt to create symmetry where it may not be obvious. And I agree that this aspect of Hidcote is very striking, but your edit of images over-emphasizes this aspect of the garden. I also found claustrophobia and confusion on my recent visit. And it seems you may have done. To exclude these images is a judgement in itself, and forgive me, but by doing so you are in a way misleading the reader. The observer and the observed are not separable. The judgement is in your eyes as translated into your images.

    1. Charles,

      You raise, as you note, probing and provocative questions about the intent of the photographer and the tension between expressing, let’s agree to call it “symmetry,” as well as other perhaps less pleasing aspects of the garden experience that may be harder to express, at least for this personality. There’s much to think about here, but I need to take a bath now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *