Sissinghurst in the City?
Sissinghurst Castle is famous for the garden created by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson in the 1930s. Now owned by the National Trust, Sissinghurst is a pilgrimage site for gardeners and fans of the Bloomsbury Group whose antics were so wickedly sent up by the BBC R4 series ‘Gloomsbury’. While Sissinghurst is temporarily out of bounds, there is a garden well within walking distance of Fitzrovia that is becoming everyone’s secret garden.
As the discreet wall plaque at the entrance to the garden on the Inner Circle of The Regent’s Park explains, the garden was created by Scottish architect Robert Weir Schultz for the 3rd Marquess of Bute. (See if you can spot the spelling error on the plaque).
A devout Roman Catholic, the third Marquess wanted a garden ‘fit for meditation.’ Today, the garden still has an air of calm that is valued by both new and regular visitors, whether they have just stumbled upon it, or whether they think of it (as many people do) as ‘their’ secret garden.
What is the secret of the St John’s Lodge Garden?
The St John’s Lodge garden is small and perfectly formed. It has the sense of privacy that the owners of Sissinghurst achieved by dividing up their garden into separate enclosures surrounded by high, architectural hedges. As gardening writer Anne Scott-James observed of Sissinghurst, ‘each enclosure is formal in shape, planted with romantic freedom.’ The St John’s Lodge garden predates Sissinghurst by some 40 years, and each area is planted differently. You’ll find luxurious Victorian style bedding surrounding a giant urn, a woodland garden with winter aconites, and everything in between. The designer of the St John’s Lodge garden was influenced by the arts and crafts movement. With its arbour walk leading to a series of formal rooms with statues, its sunken lawn book-ended by curved steps, not to the mention the ‘exedra’ (a recess) in the yew hedges, the St John’s Lodge Garden has to be one of the most important surviving arts and crafts gardens in central London.
In 1994, landscape architects Colvin & Moggeridge gave the St John’s Lodge garden a thorough makeover. It must be said, they did an admirable job of honouring Schultz’s 1892 design. It’s remarkable how many curves and circles there are in the garden, from the wisteria covered gondolas, to the clipped box balls. Colvin & Moggridge even had installed a metal archway to replace the stone portico that once divided the central rose garden from what may have been a tennis court. The tennis court is now a (mainly) white garden (another reminder of Sissinghurst) surrounded by a tall hornbeam hedge. At the farthest point west there is a small ‘keyhole’ garden with an imposing covered bench that is possibly the seating area that regulars most covet. From here you can see the statue of Hylas recoiling beyond the arch, and behind Hylas the lion decorated frontage of the St John’s Lodge itself. As the third Marquess of Bute wrote to his wife on 14 February 1893, ‘the new broad walk is really rather fine’.
When is the best time to visit the garden?
The St John’s Lodge garden is never at its best in the winter, even though there are winter aconites in the woodland border, snowdrops and hellebores. Unfortunately, the garden is often closed in January and February because of waterlogged lawns. Come April and May, the garden goes through a kind of resurrection. Lookout for the flowering magnolia trees, the drumstick primula, the pulmonaria, the scented white wisteria, and the clematis crawling through the old roses (another Vita Sackville-West trick). When the roses stop flowering, the clematis keep the show on the road.
The St John’s Lodge garden is nothing if not theatrical. There is only one way to enter the garden. A rose and wisteria covered arbour walk leads the unsuspecting visitor to a stone urn backed by a yew hedge. After a left and then a right turn, the circular garden with Hylas at its centre is revealed. This clever dogleg design means that first time visitors don’t know where they are going or what they will see. Most people probably aren’t expecting to see a naked man about to be dragged under the water by a nymph.
The St John’s Lodge garden was originally much larger. It extended all the way to Chester Road (where the Royal Parks offices are now), and it included the sloping lawn to the north of the current garden. In the summer, if you follow the path round the back of the St John’s Lodge you can trace the curve of the former boundary wall in the grass.
For more information about the history of the garden, the London Parks and Gardens Trust entry for the St John’s Lodge and its garden is very thorough. If you are interested in finding out more about Robert Weir Schultz, Gavin Stamp’s 1981 essay, ‘Robert Weir Schultz, Architect, and his work for the Marquesses of Bute’ tells the story of how Schultz collaborated with the 3rd Marquess on several other houses and gardens, including Dumfries House in Ayrshire. Dumfries house was saved after a fundraising campaign led by HRH The Prince of Wales, and now offers a wide range of education and training programmes. Both the house and the gardens are open to the public.