As I write this the final days of my employment for Compton Verney are diminishing, and anyone who knows me will understand how difficult it will be to walk away. Nevertheless, I know that time has come for change, and to move on, literally, to pastures new.
A lengthy notice period has meant that I’ve found myself stuck in limbo, which has given much time, possibly too much time, for contemplation. My head’s been full of thoughts and concerns, partly about challenges that are ahead in my new role, but also about the place I will leave behind, a place that has literally been my baby for nearly ten years now. Mentally, it’s a very weird place to be…
You see, I have spent recent years managing, tending, developing and nurturing the historic landscape garden that is Compton Verney, on behalf of a charitable trust. The area I’ve looked out for is a garden that rests in the subtlest of valleys, with a meandering pool system threaded and widened at its very heart. If you ever sensed a place with spirit, then you’ll know what I mean; Compton Verney is not left wanting when it comes to spirit of place.
Some landscape views thoughtfully created in the eighteenth century have survived the test of time. Those views, especially from the central mansion or bridge capture slices of farmland and look, to all intents and purposes perfectly natural. However, every hollow and mound, all the woodland groups and all the key views have been designed and manipulated by people. From the most recent light-touch planting and habitat creation projects, right back through the classical Georgian era, and still farther back through the Medieval period; the ground has been worked and worked again. Compton Verney simply exudes history and character, even the mansion stonework displays fossilised remains!
There’s an enchanting woodland garden with a handful of sheltered and calm spaces, that play host to a mixed age collection of native and exotic trees – some over 400 years old, and each having their own hidden history. Layered around are shrubberies, flowing lawns and established large-scale wild flower meadows, with close-mown paths weaving within and beyond. As if this were not enough, the whole venue has also become a local wildlife site of significance.
It is, as you may have deduced, one heck of an area to look out for. Oh, did I mention Compton Verney’s present landscape is the handiwork of one Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown? I might have spoken about him once or twice over the years…
When I describe my present place I always see it from high above, whilst looking down across its key character areas. Down on the ground however, I have come to know the site so intimately, and there aren’t many square metres where I haven’t trod, studied, considered, fixed up, planted, photographed or, on occasion, had strong words with. One area even hides my wedding ring that was lost during a restoration project – a discovery for future archaeologists I think!
If you haven’t collected the thread by now, it is that Compton Verney, an incredibly atmospheric and beautiful place has gripped me, and I wanted to register this fact for posterity. I would say that I’m very aware it is not a Waddesdon, Kew Gardens, Chatsworth or otherwise, and it doesn’t pretend to be Wisley or Hampton Court; it is Compton Verney, a place that is individual, singular and uniquely brilliant.
I’m endeavouring, I guess, to record the Compton Verney that I know and respect. Regardless of whatever job title I’ve had pinned to my shirt, I’ve fundamentally acted as a custodian, an overseer or curator, and as anyone who cares for an historic venue is likely to tell you – it is this that matters most, and can sometimes weigh the heaviest. For me, it has always been about protecting and caring for the fabric of the landscape, and about pulling it back to something of its former splendour.
From the very first moment I stepped foot onto Compton Verney ground, I knew I could make a positive horticultural difference. What I didn’t bargain for was the journey it would take me on, the challenges or pain it would throw my way, or to what degree the place would embrace and hold my imagination. Like many historic landscape gardens, whilst its original design has suffered the inevitable passage of time, its atmosphere and presence remains ever-present, and has continued to grow and improve with every year of input.
Remembering that passage of time, and the changing use of the place itself, it may be interesting to note that even with the present trust ownership model; the ‘fabric’ of the landscape that I have looked out for has remained much the same as it has for centuries. In this context, and with full respect for the role I’ve been employed to carry out for almost a decade; you can hopefully see why, as one of a very long line of gardeners, I have always felt a strong commitment to do what felt right for the landscape itself.
During my contribution there have been many misty morning starts, with intimate views across that we’ll known mirror-pool lake view. There have also been dead of night walks beneath star speckled skies, whilst discovering bats and ‘butterflies of the night’. Countless projects have brought me to my knees on parched or damp earth, with many a planting pocket forced into the ground with an iron bar and back aching digging session. Other, rarer projects have given opportunities like walking beside the historic roof tiles of Brown’s chapel, to look down, bird-like over that flowing, beautiful, naturalistic landscape.
Some days have filled me with anger at the loss of a branch off a special tree, and some have set my mind wandering about the futures each freshly planted tree would witness. Frozen fingers have been warmed by the exhaust pipe of the ever suffering tractor, after hours of snow clearing yet conversely, gushing cold water has often flowed from hosepipes to cool a sun-baked head. I could fondly continue…
Naturally I can always re-visit, and I will, but before long all I shall have are images and memories to remind me of my seemingly long but all-too-short time at Compton Verney. Though I write of my personal experiences, I must importantly take time to thank a wonderful team, some of whom journeyed beside me and contributed to those landscape triumphs over the last few years.
Through our combined efforts, newly established wild flowers have fed, & will continue to nourish bees and butterflies. Beetles and rare fungi have flourished on the tons of dead wood we’ve hidden away and the stump-wood we have retained. Bats have continued to thrive in tree hollows we’ve ‘not’ pruned away, and new trees will cast valuable shade for decades, even centuries to come.
Revitalised open spaces will capture and restore peoples’ senses, a variety of planting will blossom to lift spirits, and new eye-catchers will challenge ideas of art and landscape. To all of you; you did a great job, and I couldn’t have done it without you.
I may not have been the best organiser or record-keeper, I never did promise to keep a tidy desk, and that dreaded flu might have taken me down a few times, but I feel that I’ve done my bit for the landscape and I’m proud of how it looks and of how we’ve executed our tasks along the way with humour.
So here we are, nearly at the end. ‘My baby’, as I mentioned at the top of this article will soon be my baby no longer. I’m happy though to see that it has grown some and will continue to mature. I look forward to seeing its progress in years to come, and to supporting if I can, and I will rest assured that whilst soon I will not be there in person every day, I’ll be there in spirit. My inputs were thoughtful, considered, and at all times with the best of intention.
Compton Verney historic landscape and garden: Veni, vidi, vici…
(Or more appropriately: I came, I saw, I gardened!)
Gary Webb. Oct 2019.