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18/09/2021

100 Years of Hidcote Manor Gardens – Restoring the garden to its heyday

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After Lawrence Johnston’s death on 27 April 1958, the National Trust sought to let the manor house in order to raise some funds to help to maintain Hidcote Manor garden and had a freer hand to manage the garden. The furnishings in the house had already been sold at a sale at the property in late 1956 and then work was done to bring the house into a suitable state for letting.

Several prospective tenants were interviewed in September 1958 by the secretary of the National Trust. This resulted in a fourteen year tenancy at a rental of £250 a year being offered to Sir Gawain Bell who accepted it and undertook to furnish Hidcote as soon as possible. His intention was to make Hidcote his home when he retired from the Foreign Office in 1960.

It was evident in these early years that the National Trust had an annual deficit of some £1,000 to £2,000 each year in the running of Hidcote and this shortfall had to be found from the gardens fund. Consequently, when structures in the garden, such as the plant house by the lily pond, fell into disrepair consideration was given to whether to repair or demolish it. Although it was initially decided to repair it, the lack of funds led to a decision to demolish it. Sir Edward Salisbury, director of Kew, visited to identify which plants should be retained in a smaller plant shelter elsewhere in the garden. After a couple of years of debate, the local committee decided that it should be pulled down to the approximate height of eight feet only as they considered the building formed part of the plan with the lily pond as the centre. Miss Field, the gardens adviser, did not agree, nor did the secretary or the chief agent. The gardens committee considered the matter in November 1954 and decided on complete demolition. Lord Rosse visited Hidcote four days later and proposed that an extension of the yew hedge would solve the problem of retaining a boundary to that part of the garden. It was eventually decided to demolish the plant shelter but leave the back and ends until the hedge is up on the clear understanding that if it looked hideous the back and ends will be pulled down. This partial demolition was done early in 1955 and was later followed by complete demolition.

A year after Lawrence Johnston’s death. Lord who together with James Lees-Milne had visited Lawrence Johnston on 27th August 1948 to obtain his signature on the deed conveying Hidcote to the National Trust, visited Hidcote and wrote on 17th August 1959 the Secretary saying:

“… I think we ought in some way to commemorate his creation of this lovely garden. I would suggest, &, if you agree, put it on the agenda, that we should put up a vase, …, at the end of the long walk where people stand to look at the view of distant hills. Nearly all the visitors go there, & it is the natural place for it. The base should record Major Johnston’s name and the fact that he created the garden. I would like to contribute £10 to this idea, & perhaps others in the gardening world who knew him would contribute …” so as to enable us to “remember a creation which seemed to us, on one of the perfect evenings of this divine summer, a dream of beauty.”

This suggestion was considered by the gardens committee in October 1959 when they agreed to spend £150 from the gardens fund on an urn and invited the chairman, David Bowes-Lyon, to decide where it should be placed. However, deciding where to place a commemorative urn was not to be plain sailing. The gardens adviser, Graham Thomas wrote to James Lees-Milne on 30 March 1960 to say that he felt

… very strongly that anyone who is to design the urn should know where it is to go, & in my opinion there are not many places, unless it is placed centrally in a vista, which I should deplore as it would be contrary to the main idea of Hidcote. The only central spot that I can think of where a central feature was designed was in Mrs. Winthrop’s garden; this being named after L.J.’s mother doesn’t seem altogether appropriate. It might be suitable under the beeches at the house end of the great lawn, or at the east end of the maple garden instead of the seat. On the other hand, it might be worth asking the gardens committee if a plaque on the house might not be much better in all respects.

When the gardens committee met at Hidcote in May 1961 they proposed an alternative of replacement wooden gates. The chairman, David Bowes-Lyon, wrote to Lord Esher telling him “there arose a considerable feeling that an urn might not be the best memorial” and saying that the idea was to commemorate Lawrence Johnston’s gift by the gates to the entrance which “should be exact copies of the ones that Lawrence Johnston devised himself.” Lord Esher’s reactions were sought. He replied saying:

“I would not dream of placing my opposition against the opinion of the gardens committee. But I will just tell you what I think, as I would like you to know my reasons for favouring the stone urn. I thought it would look very nice, & attract the attention of the public at the end of the long grass walk, which rises to a sort of summit, & that Johnston’s name and gift could be recorded on the plinth. The creator of that lovely garden would thus not be forgotten. The trouble about gates in the modern world is that they are practically always open & thus fail to make their effect. They require a lodge & lodge-keeper, an old lady making a curtsey as she opens them for the gentry. I presume this will not be provided, & they will be always open. Then I consider an inscription that records Johnston is essential. Can it be placed on the stone pillars so that all who enter can read? I hope so. Such are my reasons, but it is not for an extinct volcano like me to stand up against such a weight of adverse opinion.”

The secretary subsequently wrote to David Bowes-Lyon saying that “As almost invariably happens I agree with everything he [Lord Esher] says.

Although I am sure they will be a utilitarian improvement I cannot really think that the gates will provide a very worthy memorial for Major Johnston.” There was then a delay of a year until October 1962 when the gardens committee invited Mrs. Alvilde Lees-Milne” to visit Hidcote to choose a possible site for an urn. However, in April 1963, she said that a site for a memorial urn could not be found until a suitable urn had been found. She was accordingly invited to choose the urn and a site for it at Hidcote. She made two suggestions – one in Mrs. Winthrop’s garden and the other up the steps at the end of the great lawn – to the gardens committee in November 1963. However, the committee then “(a) accepted Lord Aberconway’s proposal that, instead of an urn, a plaque should be placed in one of the gazebos, and (b) instructed the secretary to produce a text and designs for a plaque at the cost of not more than £120 for approval by the committee at their next meeting.” This decision reflected the death of Lord Esher at Chateauneuf in October 1963. Alvilde Lees-Milne had been unable to attend the meeting and she wrote subsequently to the secretary saying:

“I think it is very shocking of the gardens committee to chuck the idea of the urn at Hidcote in view of the fact that it was Oliver’s idea & that he constantly continued to press the matter & urge one to continue the search. His last words to me were “Now mind you find that urn for Hidcote.” Now that he is dead his wishes are apparently to die with him. …. Very feeble of you all I think.”

The secretary tried to keep the idea of an urn alive but the general purposes committee of the National Trust agreed unanimously the requirement was for a memorial to Major Lawrence Johnston and not to Lord Esher and hence the decision for a plaque should stand. The secretary subsequently wrote to ask James Lees-Milne for a suitable text. James Lees-Milne was clearly fed up with the whole proposal and replied on 17th December 1963 saying:

“I think it shabby, mean and cowardly of the Trust to reverse now a decision which they could have reversed during the last three or four years of Lord Esher’s life. I hope at least these words will be recorded. Now for the inscription:

THESE GARDENS
CREATED OUT OF A BARREN WASTE
BY THE GENIUS OF LAWRENCE JOHNSTON
were given by him to
THE NATIONAL TRUST
in 1948.

Oxidised tin is the cheapest material and lasts quite five years.”

His disgust was underlined in a later note about suggested alterations to the text when he said “Do what you like. I rolled it straight onto the typewriter with no forethought, boiling as I was with indignation over the Trust’s pusillanimity, meanness and beastliness to O.E.’s [Oliver Esher’s] strong wishes which no-one questioned while he was alive.” The secretary also invited James Lees-Milne to comment on the text to which he responded saying “… I think it is banal and the sort of wording you would expect from the joint endeavours of a parish council approved by a cautious vicar.” Further changes resulted in a final form of words:

THIS GARDEN
CREATED BY THE GENIUS OF
LAWRENCE JOHNSTON
GIVEN BY HIM TO
THE NATIONAL TRUST IN 1948

This plaque is on the wall of the south Gazebo at Hidcote.

The decades until the new century saw continued financial difficulties with Hidcote running with a deficit and having to, bid for scarce resources for repairs with many desirable schemes having to be deferred until and if resources became available.

Circumstances improved at the turn of the century when the numbers of annual visitors increased to over 100,000 enabling Hidcote to become a self-financing property at which all money spent by visitors remains at Hidcote and is used to meet expenses and repairs. An anonymous donor gave £250,000 in 2002 for a five year programme subject to matched funding being raised by the National Trust. This donation and the matched funding enabled a number of features in the garden to be reinstated:

a.

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