A number of years ago we visited the romantic gardens of Hatfield House, Hertfordshire and I retain an impression of wonderful Elizabethan glories from that trip.
So a couple of weeks ago when we were lucky enough to be able to revisit the House I was very excited, but strangely, it felt like a completely different place.
I still loved it, it just felt more restrained. I think it is down to a combination of things: Firstly, they have developed the site quite a lot in recent years to deal with tourism and to celebrate (400 year) anniversaries. So the content and immediate context is indeed changed from that first trip. Secondly, this visit must have been a couple of months later in the season and I am sure that we missed the glorious contained colour and lush plantings that a May/June visit would have revealed. Next, the intervening years have made quite a difference to the maturity of the gardens. That sounds silly compared with the ages of the Tudor Great Hall and the Jacobean House, but in fact some of the formal gardens aren’t that old. For instance, the Old Palace Knot Gardens were created in 1984 in place of an old rosary. The box hedges grew tall and have recently been halved in height according to the gardener I spoke to. Finally, they are coming to terms with some maintenance issues, for example the yew hedge surrounding the West Parterre is overgrown and is being heavily reduced, one side at a time. Also, tragically their box has blight.
Here then is Hatfield House and gardens in late summer:
This summer a kinetic water sculpture, designed by British sculptor Angela Conner, has been revealed in front of the north face of the House. It is stunning!
As you go through into the West Gardens the first thing you encounter is a series of enclosures containing beautiful medlars and statues.
The path leads you down to the Knot Garden, which can be viewed from above on three sides. The fourth side is enclosed by the Old Palace. (This is my favourite part of the gardens. It positively radiates history.)
This beautiful red brick building is part of the original Royal Palace of Hatfield, built in 1497 by John Morton, Bishop of Ely. It was confiscated by Henry VIII after the dissolution of the monasteries. It was built with four wings surrounding a central courtyard (the site of the current Knot Garden I believe). Henry used the place as a home for his children, Edward, Elizabeth and Mary. It was in 1558, while she was living in the Old Palace, that Elizabeth learned of her accession to the throne.
Elizabeth’s successor, King James I, did not like the palace much and gave it to his chief minister Robert Cecil, in exchange for the Cecils’ family home, Theobalds. Robert Cecil proceeded to tear down three wings of the palace and used the bricks to build the present Hatfield House. Only the Great Hall remained and for centuries it was used a stable. The beautiful roof timbers apparently bear gunshot marks from that period. Eventually, it was restored and today is used for Elizabethan banquets, weddings etc.
The Gardens, covering 18ha (~45 acres), date from the early 17th century and were laid out by John Tradescant the elder. Tradescant visited Europe and brought back trees and plants that had not previously been grown in England.
The West Parterre is surrounded by a pleached Lime Walk which links the different areas of garden together. Its western side runs along the length of the newly laid out Sundial garden, commissioned to mark Hatfield House’s 400th anniversary. You can step into the Sundial area via this wonderful entrance:
The planting scheme in this garden is largely blue and white flowers (here billowing agapanthus and cleome, but in early summer delphinums and iris dominate). Happily there are some lovely mature quince adding an establish feel to borders.
As a final view, it was delightful to step into the Sundial garden at the northern end to find a glowing oasis of sunshine bright orange, yellow and silver flowers (cosmos, phlox, eryngium, nicotiana, coreopsis).
I realise that I’ve not explained about the horseshoe elephants of the title. The reason for that is that they are in the East gardens and you can only see them on a Wednesday (not the day we visited). Apparently the horseshoes have been welded together into elephant-shaped topiary frames and are currently filling up with ivy. So we didn’t actually get to see them and I am going to have to visit again! Hurray.