Country battleship Posted on May 25, 2011

To Heveningham to enjoy the sight of a great showhouse of the 18th century being restored to its original purpose and on its original scale. If this vast austere house is not quite ducal in its pretensions, it still rides the green swell of Suffolk like a grey battleship of formidable proportions and power, its little flotilla of follies around it. It is the archetype of the sort of pile that was pulled down in hundreds in the last century, built for occasions that will never recur and dynasties that have died out.

Among gardeners the word has already got round that earth has been moved here. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the style of landscaping that used to involve hundreds of navvies and wheelbarrows has come back into fashion with the bulldozer and the JCB. Charles Jencks led the movement with his garden of Cosmic Speculation, awakening memories of the sublime geometrical folly of Studley Royal three centuries ago. Kim Wilkie has since mastered the art of digging,

sculpting and terracing on a scale scarcely seen since the British dug Maiden Castle. At Boughton House in Northants he had the audacity to sink a massive hole where you expect an avenue; at Heveningham he has carved out an amphitheatre to give the massive house a stage.

Houses at the bottom of steep slopes always find themselves in an awkward situation. Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire is another example that feels trapped under its hill. The Wilkie solution at Heveningham has been to remove all traces of the garden along the south front of the house and cut the slope back in dramatic arcs that splendidly complement the immense unadorned façade.

Moreover he has contrived the terracing so as to retain three veteran cedars on the bank, swerving his curves to avoid them and emphasis their status. It is masterly performance, calling out for an opera company on the largest scale.

There is work on hand all around. The orangery is still in a state of gracious déshabille (and all the better for it) but the walled gardens are coming back to life, orchestrated with characteristic firmness, good sense and sparkling taste by Arabella Lennox-Boyd. In the wider park, and for miles around, (the estate has grown to over 3000 acres) the owner’s love of trees is obvious – he, by the way, is John Wood of Foxton’s fame. Countless new plantations of native trees are not only protected by tall tree-guards but are actually pruned to make shapely specimens. That doesn’t happen in an ordinary forest.

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