Somewhere north of Moreton, on the back roads, you always started to suspect you had passed the point of no return

ELMCOTE WAS NOW AT THE HEIGHT of its powers; and this, a sultry evening in late June, was when it cast its strongest spell. Towards sundown in high summer, in the heart of England, the deepest, darkest heart of England, Elmcote begins drawing the day around itself – manor house, garden, hamlet and tree-lined lane, tight in the fields and the woodlands beyond.

It begins to seem like the very last place on earth, the end of the road; and yet, at the same time, an omphalos, the world’s very centre, its font et origo. Classen had not been prepared for this. And yet, thinking back, he’d surely had an inkling as he’d neared his destination, pointing his Riley ever more hesitantly along narrower and narrower sunken lanes: lanes already aspiring to twilight, lanes threaded through tree-tunnels, squeezed between lush verges and tall hedgerows.

Somewhere north of Moreton, on the back roads, you always started to suspect you had passed the point of no return. At crossroads, the signposts (or, more accurately, the fingerposts) were inevitably overgrown; and the hedgerows, dense inter-weavings of elder and hawthorn and hazel, sycamore and buckthorn and woodbine, were cut increasingly rarely by the sorts of gaps in which you might hope to uncover a stile.

Yes, Classen had been aware of all of that.

Now, though, as he penetrated ever deeper into the garden… as he, as it were, entered the very heart of the matter, its powers almost overwhelmed him.

And, yes, it’s true: a lot of nonsense was written about Elmcote in the late 1920s and early 1930s, not least in the pages of Country Life. Writers tended to stretch not for metaphor but for analogy: the pleasure gardens of Kubla Khan, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and of course, that most archetypal of all gardens, the Garden of Eden. All were cited in their turn. One contributor to an American journal rather ambitiously compared the gardens at Elmcote to the grounds of William Randolph Hearst’s retreat at San Simeon. Foolish talk – but almost excusably foolish.

Because how do you convey what cannot adequately be conveyed, explain the inexplicable? These writers were surely attempting to make manifest a feeling that here was a garden so unique that it was, in effect, all gardens.

Yet in some senses, Elmcote’s situation was not entirely promising, located as it was on the northernmost edge of the Cotswold uplands as they fell away toward the Vale of Evesham. In other words, Elmcote’s existence, clinging to the very edge of a plateau of high ground, had always been slightly precarious. Due west of the manor house, where much of the garden lay, the land sloped gently; but north-west, if you walked in a dead straight line, you’d find the land dropping away by almost four hundred feet within a mile and a half. Hardly precipitous – but hardly insignificant either.

Not that you were ever really aware, except in the vaguest of senses, a falling off here, a climb there, of naked topography. If this had been a treeless terrain, the manor house might have seemed a latter-day analogue of a hill fort or a commanding imperial villa, haughty on its ridge, dominating the valley below. But this was no treeless terrain. This was a richly wooded corner of England. To the south, vast areas of the Cotswolds had been cleared, down the millennia, for sheep pasture. But Elmcote lay in marginal land, atavistic woodland; and, as if to emphasise this point, facing it across the Vale of Evesham were the last vestiges of the southernmost edge of the ancient Forest of Arden.

It was hardly the largest garden in England. In acreage terms it was a mere bagatelle compared to the vast parklands of the more celebrated Great Houses of England. Chatsworth, say, or Stowe. But even the most ambitious of the vast estates featured much parkland and very little garden – garden, that is, in the vernacular English sense.

Elmcote was, in comparison with the dreary essays of a Capability Brown, a work of art. Or, rather, a series of works of art. It was an art gallery in which the rooms themselves were the exhibits. Nothing in England rivalled it for its level of its ambition, the dense richness of its design or its intensity. And indeed there were those who believed they could detect something metaphysical or transcendental within its innermost being.

The garden’s central axis began under an ancient cedar of Lebanon, a tree whose lower branches shaded the house’s the dining room windows; and this axis ran for half a mile or more to the north west. It featured room after glorious garden room, each enclosed in walls of high yew hedging – and the narrow doors in these hedges were aligned down the whole axis, forming the equivalent of the enfilade of a Renaissance palace. This enfilade terminated, beyond steps taking you up to a raised palisade a l’italienne of pleached hornbeams, in an impressive wrought iron structure called Heaven’s Gate.


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