Back to the future
Kenilworth Castle has played host to King Edward 1, King Henry V, Queen Elizabeth 1 and Queen Victoria – and today there is renewed interest in the 12th century site as the reconstruction is completed of its Elizabethan Garden. Siobhan Harper travelled back in time by visiting Warwickshire
Kenilworth’s original garden dates to 1563 when Elizabeth I granted the castle to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The Queen made a series of visits to the castle and suitor Dudley did all he could to impress her - including the creation of a temporary Elizabethan Garden in 1575.
The original privy garden had strong French and Italian Renaissance influences with its four quarters or ‘knots’ divided by walkways and planted with herbs, flowers and fruit. Although there is little reference to the type of plants used, the scents described have helped English Heritage determine that perfumed perennials like carnations, pinks, stocks and wallflowers would have been chosen.
Over 400 years since it was lost to the world, English Heritage has reconstructed the garden by working from a 16th-century description, painstaking archaeological investigation and historical research backed by a team of experts. The project has been a world first and a triumph for British craftsmanship, involving stone masons, master sculptors and the same specialist carpenters who worked on the reconstruction of London’s Globe Theatre.
The garden is maintained solely by Head Gardener Fiona Sanders, who explains her role in the reconstruction process. “First, I took the English Heritage plans and started planting with the help of a student who worked here for three months, and English Heritage would come over regularly. We now have about 30,000 plants including hedges and fruit trees which will mature to make it look and feel more like the privy garden it originally was. They’ll be even more colour when the summer annuals go in.”
With a background of general horticulture, prior to joining Kenilworth Fiona spent seven years at the Eden Project “After having been at Eden during its early days, I’m not phased by building sites! I was based outside and did a lot of planting. Originally I completed a course in countryside management, but it’s hard to find work as a countryside manager so I ‘drifted’ into horticulture and worked my way up. I have gained my horticultural knowledge very much ‘on the job’.”
The Kenilworth garden is planted to be at its peak in July (the month of Elizabeth’s visit in 1575), as Fiona explains: “The summer planting was deemed to be exotic in its time – pot, African and French marigolds. Also, stocks will go in, and carnations and the roses will bloom, so it will be a mix of pinks, oranges and yellows. This may sound strange and be something we would not necessarily put together today, but the Elizabethans loved anything with colour and if it had scent, all the better.
“The scent comes mainly from the carnations which have since been bred out, but we have tried to get old-fashioned varieties. They smell so heavily of cinnamon and cloves - heady scents that attracted the Elizabethans, which is exactly what we have tried to re-create.”
Coming into peak season, Fiona’s main tasks are maintaining, deadheading, weeding and tidying. Some plants are spot planted, with an area of bare soil around them – the Elizabethans would have done this to highlight each plant. The summer season will go on until September when the plants will be replaced with double daisies and wallflowers.
The garden is now permanent and only slight diversions will be allowed, due to the strict governance of what the Elizabethans would have done. “The pallet is limited and while I may use plants in different ways in terms of spacing and quantities, the garden will essentially be similar every year. I am looking forward to seeing the permanent plants mature, particularly the hedging between the lattices of the perimeter fencing.”
The topiary, which are bays and hollies, will also come into its own within a couple of seasons and these have all been trimmed to give them the tight bush they need to become the wedding cakes, pyramids and lollipops of Elizabethan times.
Feedback from the public and critics has so far been very positive and the garden is being billed as the best example of a re-created Elizabethan garden in the world, despite the lack of original drawings.
Fiona is also responsible for the bejewelled aviary (a work of art in itself) and its birds - domesticated versions of the breeds kept at the time. These lay regularly and the eggs from the ground birds (pheasants and guinea fowl) are incubated. Also housed are canaries, which are nesting.
Two carved arbors, reconstructed from a drawing by French architect and designer Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau, enclose the terrace and provide a frame for the surrounding landscape. They will be covered with roses, vines and honeysuckle.
Four 17 feet high obelisks, an ancient symbol of rulership, are situated at the centre of each knot and were initially described as Egyptian granite, or ‘pophiary’, but English Heritage surmised this would have been too expensive at the time and suggested they were wood painted with a granite effect for theatrical purposes. Today’s versions are of green oak and have a shiny, granite effect paint finish.
The centrepiece, a marble fountain, is made of white Carrara marble from Tuscany. Standing 18 feet high the panels around its basin have been carved with eight scenes from the witty narrative poem, the Metamorphoses, by Ovid - a racy account of the history of the universe from its creation and including two figures, ‘Athlants’, supporting a sphere from which jets create a curtain of water.
As with the garden, Fiona doesn’t see her position as temporary. Despite limited scope for change, she looks forward to seeing the garden mature: “It will take three or four years; the orchard and fruit trees will add a new element – there are pears, apples and cherries – and it will be a real challenge to add further extra elements once everything starts establishing. Other plants could go in – plants that would have been around at the time - but it’s a question of sourcing them, for example, primulas and the single peonies. I really enjoy researching the species and tracking them down from around the world.”
Costing £2.1 million and taking four years to complete, the reconstruction involved stripping the 1970s garden back to it sub-base, which was then dug through to find clues about its original form. Archaeological excavations between 2004 and 2006 uncovered the foundation and white marble fragments of the original fountain, allowing the garden’s layout to be accurately mapped.
The beds and lattices were constructed by hand using green oak and sweet chestnut, a traditional form of construction that will require little upkeep. The terrace was also built from scratch and it affords the best views of the gardens and landscape beyond.