In 2011, thanks to a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, we were able to employ historic landscape consultancy Debois to survey Little Sparta and prepare a Conservation & Management Plan. It was important to capture information from people who helped create the garden, and significant input came from Sue Swan (formerly Sue Finlay) and Graeme Moore, who was the Finlay’s friend, neighbour and first gardener.
It is fascinating to look back at the notes from discussions during the writing of the Plan. Thanks to kind permission from Sue and John Phibbs of Debois we can share the following extract of Sue’s responses to questions posed during the survey and to the first draft of the ‘Con Mag Plan’.
Extracts from Sue Swan’s responses to the draft Con Mag Plan
There are different kinds of garden and different kinds of gardening. There is gardening as in “going round the garden” and as you go you work at whatever comes to hand; there is a pensive care that accompanies you. There is jobbing gardening as in mowing, sweeping, scrubbing, getting through the day. There is the overview which involves thinking about past, present, meaning, design, planning for the future (growth etc). This involves a great deal of simply looking.
The creation of a landscape/picture/environment/haven and that old-fashioned feeling of a working environment where you can also relax involves all of these, I think.
Boats find harbours. People make arbours.
Graeme [Moore] is correct in his citing of Plants for Ground Cover as being one of the most helpful gardening books ever written; in addition to this I also used Foliage Plants and The Well Tempered Garden both by Christopher Lloyd and I was given by Ian’s mother a signed copy of William Robinson’s The English Flower Garden. There were others of course but these were my own personal chief influences.
It is interesting to realise that there were far fewer gardening books available back then. We had a tiny paperback on garden planning that was very influential for Ian – I can’t remember the author. We also had The English Garden by Edward Hyams and later The English Cottage Garden by – I think – the same author. These were much used as reference points – remember Ian couldn’t travel at all. At one time we also had a subscription to Country Life.
A little history
First, a little history that may help explain something of how the garden came about. When we arrived at Stonypath we knew little or nothing about gardening (Gledfield and Coaltown were very short experiences), especially not in so exposed a site. The gales, snow and frost were intense. Shelter was needed. We planted the pines at the bottom of the garden and they were blown horizontal – they had to be tethered to the fence with ropes for some years. We tried growing Holly – it died in the frost. We bought other trees – many died. My father offered us a bundle of small Spruce – we accepted and we also bought a cheap batch of Lawson cypress. Both of these were seen as temporary measures to create shelter. They are not my favourite trees.
Ian had a heart attack in 1967, a year after we moved to Stonypath. He had had agoraphobia from before the time that I met him. He began to make model fishing boats in the shed as recovery therapy from the heart attack. As he got more confident he began to work in the garden in the afternoons and he wrote and worked on poems in the evenings. We turned the old dairy into a tiny and primitive gallery to show the works in stone and neon he was beginning to have made. Eck was a toddler and Ailie a baby. We had enough to live on but not enough to have many works made in stone, glass or neon. Ian’s idea was to create a showroom and invite architects to see the work with a view to getting commissions.
I began to turn over the borders at the top of the front garden – full of couch grass. Ian dug the back door pond (primarily for sailing his model fishing boats on) and then a tiny vegetable plot in the midst of the couch grass in the front garden. We hadn’t a clue, basically. (It took us a while to realise we needed a mower.) But we learnt quite fast because it became clear to Ian that we could display works in a garden setting in addition to those in the little gallery.
I won’t give a full history of those early days – I just want to give a taste of what to me is the best of Stonypath. Digging new areas with the children playing at stalking me among the bushes, sailing Ian’s model boats on the back door pond, and when the lochan was made, getting a dinghy (two, in fact, a “Jiffy” and a “Bobbin”) and sailing madly up and down with the centreboard pulled half way up as the lochan was too shallow. The children swimming in the lochan, Ian fishing (perhaps not at the same time) trout for tea.
The possibility of lightness was there – even if not always – and I think the Little Sparta garden could still evoke the Stonypath of those days and not the sad and difficult days of Ian’s retirement, illness and old age.
All through the 70s things grew, including the shelter belts, and we planted more in their lee and more works were installed, and ponds dug – visitors came in those days by appointment. All summer long.
During that decade I learnt by trial and error how to garden. Much of the area around the house was cultivated at this time.
In 1980 I got M.E. This seriously affected me. I couldn’t walk across a room unaided and for much of the first two years I was in bed, I couldn’t stir the soup far less wield a spade. Therefore all the ideas in my head for the garden and how it was to be continued came to a terrible halt. When I regained some capability (I still have the illness) it was felt that it was more important that I travel for Ian (since he was grounded by agoraphobia) to put up the exhibitions and installations that he was now being invited to in Europe and America as well as Britain. Throughout the 80s there was this opportunity to show his work and earn some money. This was what the garden had been made for – to demonstrate his work. And this is what I did.
So, the garden’s real development was at least partially interrupted. Works continued to be made and when I could I continued to plant, weed and prune. Eck and Ailie were gallant helpers. Ground cover became very important. Meantime the trees and shelter belts grew and some became far too big and dense.
Sometimes it is difficult to see what is happening in front of your eyes, especially when it happens slowly. Ian was always looking towards the next project, the next show, the next installation. What I am saying is that there now needs to be some drastic culling and pruning. All gardens need this every decade and Stonypath has largely missed out on a few decades in this respect.
I am all in favour of coppicing (where practical, and where it wont cause a huge bush-like growth that is not an improvement) pollarding where appropriate, thumbing, snedding, raising the canopy, and the total removal of some trees and shrubs. There seem to be an awful lot of gooseberries, currants, elder, sycamore and wild roses. I suspect many of these are self-sown and should be removed, unless they are really “working”. I know that the redcurrant surrounding the marble sundial was actually self sown and as such it should be kept well in bounds and not touching the marble.
It was not always necessary (or possible) for poems to be separated or secluded from each other and visitors are not expected during the leafless times of year so any separations that are wanted can be achieved by a veil of deciduous plants, or tall perennials. There was never any hope of having a winter garden at Stonypath – just as well – that’s the time when the work gets done.
There should certainly NOT be a birch in the Bring Back the Birch grove. Nor would I favour sycamore. I am not in favour of planting sycamore anywhere – may have done so in desperation in the early days but would never do so now – great big dirty things! Still, John does sing the praises of a couple of them in the woodland and they may, in these cases, be tolerated – but surely not here where they will get far too large and contribute little. Geans, hazel or rowan would be better round the Bring Back the Birch stone – something fairly light and delicate.
I remember the Frog Pool being surrounded by rough stones (large sharp pebbles) and kept clear of plants, except one or two – are these geraniums self sown?
I wonder when the power washing of the paths was started? It may be harmless for some of the stone and hard-baked bricks but I’m sure it will, over time, erode the sandstone and the soft bricks as well as washing the planting back from the path. Sweeping with a broom in Spring and Autumn would maybe be preferable. Some areas might need a scrubbing brush sometimes but any policy of regular power washing sounds a bit destructive to me. The moss between the joints can always be weeded – it’s not so hard to do – pull the weeds and whatever moss comes that’s fine, it will always re-grow, and whatever stays that’s fine too. Moss can be hard brushed off the main parts of the bricks. A little dry mix can always be brushed into the joints.
The fish in the back door pond will have been taken by wild mink. These fish were Golden Orfe and they can survive pretty well in the pond with only occasional feeding – it is a very rich pond – being the old midden. (I cant imagine that they would have escaped to the burn, unless the pond drained away.) I would replace them – if necessary every summer at the beginning of the season, like bedding plants. Golden Orfe are the very best fish – quite cheap, completely hardy and very visible. They used to breed. I suppose the duck would eat them but they did enliven the pond wonderfully. And re-introducing the lovely fan-tailed doves (which would need to be fed) by making a pigeon loft on a gable wall would be entrancing for visitors.
I’m not at all sure that the Achtung! Minen was sited over any cable – could be a Finlay myth.
The cypresses round the Roman Garden are a disaster as I remember. They were meant to be kept in scale. I agree with John’s [Phibbs] summary of this area and would suggest radical change with perhaps juniper and/or yew instead of the cypress, and those to be kept in scale by clipping and pruning. It is too depressing to have all this shadow, shade, and gloom, and I do think its possible that not so much shelter is needed now that the bulk of the planting has grown, but those on the spot would be the best judges. The wind only needs to be filtered. I imagine the snowberry should be being discouraged by now too, or at least kept in check.
It would be nice if/when major work like this is undertaken for there to be a notice – as there used to be – “work in progress” to indicate that what is before your eyes is just that. These were nicely painted wooden signs which could easily be replicated.
The garden as a whole needs (surely?) to be restored to its happy, welcoming times when the family were young and cheery and before Ian became old and retiring and wanting privacy above all. This should, in my view, apply to the yews in tubs in front of the back windows – surely not necessary now; to block out the light and the view from the house is criminal! Anyone living or working in the house can arrange their own privacy from inside. Please restore the green sward as it was. Pretty please.
There used to be apples in the area around the Appledore bench – the bark all got eaten by the rabbits when the snow filled the garden one winter and the trees were killed. Apples could be tried again. However crab apples might be more successful as Stonypath is really too high for apples or pears.
Plants for poems
I should say here that some compositions of poem/sculpture/plants depend very much on the exact plants being used. The Rowan is Learning to Write is an example – it needs a proper native rowan. Another is Bring Back the Birch (which should NOT be a birch.) In other cases the planting adds something to the meaning, for example the roses around the rose bench, the turf in the Dürer work. Then in some cases the planting is just fairly appropriate – adding say, light or shadow or colour or leaf shape that enhances the work, and yet again, some instances are just happy situations for certain works. So one is required to flit about in one’s mind and among one’s frames of reference, wondering perhaps about significance but not being too tied down to a particular pattern of thinking. This also applies to works being hidden from each other sometimes, possibly a good thing (the Roman Garden?) but quite unnecessary in most cases.
An “approximately rational route”
I agree that narrow paths should be retained so that people walk in single file (and don’t talk so much!) with a few areas (at junctions and viewing points) where the paths widen. [Graeme Moore has] also mentioned to me that people stray around the garden and don’t always follow the best route – would it be a good idea to have perhaps, discreet numbered arrows indicating this?
One other point I would like to make is that the way people walk around the garden is important. Ian used to guide them, because he felt that the element of successive surprises was crucial. The front garden came first and then around the house to the back door pond and the view of the Temple. Then through the woodland and thence to the top pond and finally the lochan. Now, of course, they will return by the English parkland.
Perhaps the “signpost” beside the front garden is taken by visitors as a signpost? It could be re-sited in a way that doesn’t interfere with the correct route. (If guiding arrows are not permitted!)