Stourhead with Alan Power
The head of autumn’s HQ walks and talks us through its arrival.
To build, to plant, whatever you intend, To rear the column, or the arch to bend, To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot; In all, let Nature never be forgot.
It’s a quotation from Alexander Pope’s Epistles, and it pretty much sums up everything that governed the creation of Stourhead and its garden. By all means plant things, shape the landscape, make it beautiful, Pope says – but don’t subjugate nature to the will of the garden. Make the garden revere nature.
So at Stourhead the aim is to call in the landscape that’s outside the garden. And from its first planting right up to today, we try not to let nature get forgot. Especially not in the autumn. Stourhead has always been magical in the autumn, but its profile has increased a little of late, because around this time of year I get a call from Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM programme, asking me to predict how good the autumn is going to be.
The funny thing – and I always say this to Eddie – is that you can’t really predict a good autumn. There are signs, of course: if we’ve had a wet spring and a hot-but-wet summer, the chances are better than average. But there are so many variables. It can all change with one sharp, cold snap. Autumn doesn’t start at 3.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon in October. It comes slowly in hints and hues, and you’ll only sense it if you’re outside every day. Otherwise it’ll just sneak up on you.
I see the autumn in our Japanese maple, which turns the most vivid, vibrant scarlet. I see it in the gold of honey fungus and the orange of a willowleaved oak. And most of all I see it on the island in the lake. It has the two best-partnered trees on the whole estate: the swamp cypress and the tulip tree. The sunlight penetrates right down through their canopies and makes it look like they are lit from within. The tulip tree turns a brilliant buttery yellow and it looks like a lighthouse ablaze. When that’s happening, I know we’ve hit full-on autumn.
But there are autumnal moments everywhere. You can walk for 18 miles through this estate without repeating your tracks once. We’ve actually had people ring us after getting lost in the woods. I love following two people as they walk into the gardens chattering away, and then hearing the
conversation stop abruptly. They’re too blown away to keep talking. That’s when I think, ‘yep – job done.’
There are 600 different tree and plant species within Stourhead but the ones that fascinate me the most are the bloody great oaks. If you’re an oak fan, Stourhead is some sort of nirvana.
We have the tallest English oak in the country; 41 metres tall. We have red oaks, willow-leaved oaks, Italian oaks. Oaks that stand up ramrodstraight bolting directly for the canopy, and oaks that lie down like wounded dinosaurs.
The popularity of the garden in autumn warms my heart but it also scares me a bit. If it’s damp, a lot of footfall can start to cause problems with the soil. But that’s just something we have to manage. I’m far gladder that people want to come and engage with the garden, to touch it and smell it, than I’m worried about the maintenance.
That was the point of Stourhead. You’re meant to feel welcome. Henry Hoare put a road through the middle to emphasise that this was a place to see and enjoy, not to be sealed away. You’re not visiting someone else’s garden, you’re walking through something you can connect with.
THE POINT OF STOURHEAD IS THAT YOU’RE MEANT TO FEEL WELCOME. THIS WAS A PLACE TO SEE AND ENJOY, NOT TO BE SEALED AWAY.
The past is hidden in the garden. Sometimes I come across old images of it, like an engraving from the 1770s, and I can see huge differences. When the Temple of Apollo was first built, it was in the open to catch the sun as it moved across the garden (Apollo being the god of the sun). Now it has trees around it, which changes the way it works.
And the garden can still surprise me. We often uncover lost projects that have disappeared into the landscaping. Last year we found a lost idesia tree in the undergrowth. We cleared it up and now it’s back on whatever course it was on before.
There’s therapy in an autumn garden, too. Not just for big things like bereavement, loneliness or anxiety, which of course can be helped by engaging with a beautiful landscape. But on the small scale too. Just being here can change your simplest thought processes and influence your decision-making for the next week. You see the best options, not the worst.
What I like most is questions. If we’re doing our job right, people should want to ask us questions, like ‘why was that tree planted there?’ or ‘how do you keep that thing alive?’ or ‘are rhododendrons evil?’ (The answer is no, not all of them – ponticum is a bastard so we eradicate it, but most can be left to do their own thing without getting out of control. In fact we plant rhododendron auriculatum in dead trees to help the process of breaking them down and rejuvenating the space). An admiration of beauty should trigger questions, and we’re more than happy to answer them.
I have three bits of advice for being here in autumn – or in fact enjoying autumn anywhere in Britain. One is to walk the same footpath every day for a week, because that’s how you will see day-today changes. That’s when you’ll see a tree actually changing colour, a fungus sprouting, leaf litter getting deeper by the day. Holes in the canopy which the sunlight couldn’t penetrate before.
The second is to stop dead and stay still, and close your eyes. Smell the autumn; hear it, touch it, use every sense apart from your sight.
And finally – share it with someone. If something makes your heart skip a beat, pass that moment on. Bring someone and show them. It’s too vital and too precious just to keep it to yourself.
And by passing it on, you’re ensuring that nature never be forgot. Old Alexander Pope would be very happy about that.
WALK THE SAME FOOTPATH FOR A WEEK. STOP DEAD AND CLOSE YOUR EYES. PASS THAT MOMENT ON
Alan Power has worked at Stourhead for over 20 years, 14 of them as head gardener. Originally from Cork, he studied in Essex and Surrey before landing his dream job. Follow him on Twitter @alanstourhead