Reading the Landscape

Although a long time follower of ‘Capability’ Brown, I moved my focus recently to the first ‘official’ landscape gardener Humphry Repton. This may be a temporary flight of fancy, who knows, it has certainly opened my eyes though to some new ways of talking about and experiencing designed landscape. Here’s what happened…

Cloudscape across the designed landscape at Warley Woods Park.
Cloudscape across the designed landscape at Warley Woods Park.

My shift of focus was to contribute to a Gardens Trust project titled ‘Sharing Repton’. As with Repton’s approach, the Garden Trust’s ambition for this project is no less striking or far reaching, and won substantial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund earlier this year.

Firstly and for the uninitiated, Humphry Repton was a popular figure in the world of landscape gardening towards the end of the 18th century and early 19th, who became particularly known for his leather bound red books in which he illustrated the potential improvements to any given landscape. Secondly, the Gardens Trust is a national charity that campaigns for research and conservation of historic gardens and landscapes.

The present Sharing Repton project is a national initiative, and a great example of the Trust’s present efforts to reach out and engage new audiences in historic landscapes and gardens. One element of the project is focused on Warley Woods in Birmingham, a landscape for which Repton supplied designs c1795.

David Whitehead talks Humphry Repton
David Whitehead exploring Repton’s Red Book images.

For the Warley Woods ‘Big Red Book’ project, I was glad to help on one particular day with ‘reading the landscape’ sessions, where it was hoped that my experience in managing historic landscapes and gardens would prove useful. To this end, I’ve been grateful for my employers at Compton Verney who have supported my involvement.

I was also joined by Hereford based garden history expert David Whitehead, who set the benchmark very high with his knowledge of Repton and the developments at Warley Park. Between us, and others, we spent a morning engaging local folk in a hopefully deeper and meaningful way. It is hoped that the adult group will build on our introduction with a supported journey of research and discovery, and in due course be given opportunity to present their findings.

Remains of the stream bed at Warley Woods
Part of a stream bed running through the park.

The Big Red Book Project had an interesting twist however, in as much that a part of the inspirational day spent at Warley was also used to engage no less than ninety children from a nearby school. Their learning included trees and their value in the designed landscape, Repton and the plans he prepared for Warley, and architecture within the landscape. They were also encouraged to design new architectural features for Warley which might be attractive to their age group – they will ultimately contribute artistically towards a large scale up-to-date ‘Red Book’.

It could be said that the day certainly wasn’t lacking ambition!

Beech tree canopy at Warley Woods
One of many beech planted to continue the hill top shelter belt style.

If you’ll allow me, I’m going to slip into Warley Woods promotion mode for a brief moment, as it really did take me by surprise. Like all Repton landscapes it has changed and moved on over time, although the location, whilst ‘public park’ at initial glance is somewhat different when explored; it’s a real sanctuary within the city.

The park has passed through private ownership to a council park, to a community managed park, and one of Green Flag quality no less. Personally, after wandering through the shelter belts of trees, I think most important for me is the central parkland layout; it is wide open and encourages the eyes and mind to run free – a perfect place to charge your batteries and nourish your very self.

Sessile oaks at Warley Woods
Historic Oaks in the parkland at Warley

The reshaped vistas are a real credit to the care and love the landscape has received over recent years by Warley Woods Community Trust. Whilst the full extent of Repton’s work is challenging to piece together today, what remains and continues to grow is a park with considerable presence: a fascinating tree collection, a range of features relevant to today’s community, and a great venue for garden history detectives.

During our activity day we walked along long arching driveways, across expansive close mown lawns and through largely replanted beech plantations that gave teasing hints towards its garden heritage – remnant shrubs here, path surfaces there, worked ground elsewhere – were all very intriguing!

Warley Woods guide books and video
Guides available from the Warley gift shop… (Every penny counts!)

Though my part in the Big Red Book Project is relatively small, it has thus far turned out to be quite an experience and learning journey. Knowledge gaining of Repton and his work, engaging children in the magic of trees, and equipping adults with some knowledge and awareness of the history hidden within maps and landscapes; for me this was an absorbing and motivating experience.

A historic footpath showing through?
Part of an early path network, or not…?

The Warley based project will continue, as will the other activities around the country through 2019, and there’s much evaluation and feedback yet to process. From my perspective however, I could see that children and adults alike were engaged, lots of questions were asked, many discussions were enjoyed, and all of us relished the sunshine and fresh air in a beautiful historic landscape setting.

I therefore personally regard the above day as an early goal for the project, and a successful contribution towards the longer running #SharingRepton #SharingLandscapes journey!

Regards, Gary

Additional Information:

Gardens Trust ‘Sharing Repton: Historic Landscapes for All’.

Warley Woods ‘Big Red Book Project’

(Promo alert! – If you value historic gardens, do check out membership of the Gardens Trust – it’s a sound investment).

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