A look at gardens with a special atmosphere
In his latest book, Tim Richardson revisits the intriguing topic of ghosts in gardens Do people who pass through gardens leave behind invisible impressions?
Gardens can be such atmospheric, mysterious places that it seems surprising that the very first book on the subject of ghosts in gardens should have appeared, or manifested itself, only relatively recently. Peter Underwood, author of Haunted Gardens, was a serial ghost author, compiler of a gazetteer to Britain’s spooks and president of the Ghost Club Society.
The 30 or so case studies in the book, covering gardens such as Chenies Manor and Jenkyn Place, are filled with all the usual nonsense about grey ladies and headless courtiers, presumably designed to provoke a pleasurable frisson in the credulous, the gullible, the suggestible and the susceptible. We are told, for example, that the lakeside at Charlecote Park is haunted by the figure of a “mysterious” girl in white, who is believed to have drowned herself there.
Then it is dropped in that Shakespeare is said to have written Ophelia’s death scene at the house. Coincidence? Maybe…
Wait a minute. If one stops to think about it, the haunting is obviously a total fabrication, the ghost story simply extrapolated from an unlikely, though appealing, family Shakespeare legend.
Perhaps I am being a little overharsh because I am in fact drawn to this subject. Not because I “believe” in ghosts and apparitions of the type evoked in ghost stories, but because there is an affinity, which may only be metaphorical, between the idea of ghosts in gardens and the classical notion of spirit of place – the genius loci, as Alexander Pope famously dubbed it.
Sometimes the atmosphere in a garden can be so strong that it is tempting to follow classical precedent and think of them as independent entities of some kind.
One can certainly get a sense of this looking at old photographs of gardens – the Edwardian images in Country Life’s archive are perhaps the best example.
Looming yew hedges, crumbling staircases, still pools and even the occasional figure dressed all in white drifting by – images such as this conspire to create a strong sense of atmosphere which can seem not a little ghostly. But of course these photographs, like so many good ghost stories, are carefully constructed fabrications.
A few years ago I found myself formulating a theory of sense of place called “psychotopia”, which posits the existence of a kind of mind or “psyche” (if only a set of memories) belonging to a “topos” or place. It proved relatively uncontroversial: professional garden designers and landscape architects were happy to acknowledge that identifying and then manipulating an existing genius loci is their bread and butter, just as it was for Pope. But of course, instinctive belief in such a process is not “rational” in the empirical, scientific sense.
The key to this is the conviction that the people who own, visit or simply pass through gardens and landscapes become co-creators of the sense of place, leaving behind invisible yet tangible impressions of their interactions with it.
These psychic alterations may be so small as to be imperceptible (someone visiting a garden for a single afternoon, perhaps) or they may be decisive (a keen gardener in their own garden – and who would argue that their character will not somehow be bound up in the place?)
Following up on this, I was keen to find out whether the Lost Gardens of Heligan featured in Haunted Gardens.
That is the one garden where I have personally encountered ex-gardeners who say they have felt uneasy if not downright terrified at certain times and in certain areas of the garden.
The rockery and fruit store are usually singled out as hot spots: people prefer to work in pairs in these areas.
One of the gardeners I spoke to told me he simply refused to lock up the garden at night on his own.
Interviewing Tim Smit at Heligan some 15 years ago, I remember asking him about the garden’s ghosts in a light way. I was surprised at how serious he became, confirming several stories I had heard and adding some of his own, and then asking me not to print any reference to what he had said. Several years later, in his own memoir of the garden, Tim finally revealed just how difficult matters had become from a managerial point of view at that time, with members of staff deeply disturbed and apparently beset by an enveloping black mood. Exorcisms had ensued. It seems to me that in some cases “hauntings” are the result of some form of mass, or perhaps more precisely communal, hysteria.
That may be what happened at Heligan among a close-knit garden team, often working alone, surrounded by stories of the garden’s past.
On the other hand, there is no denying that Heligan is an extremely atmospheric place. It may be that the existing “space-flavour” of the garden was enhanced or unearthed by the sudden presence of an army of restorers. Perhaps the garden’s “ghosts”, or more accurately its innate characteristics, were revealed again just as the tree ferns in the combe also began to see the light of day after a century and more in obscurity.
Mysterious: many Heligan gardeners (right) were lost in WWI; certain areas are said to be haunted (left); the gardens today, below