West Green House Gardens is a relatively unusual property in that, although it is owned by the National Trust and is free to members, it is privately run by the house’s lessee Marylyn Abbott, an Australian garden designer. The circumstances in which this situation emerged are fairly dramatic. The 1720s manor house was left to the National Trust in 1957 and came fully under its control in 1971 on the death of the sitting tenant. It was then tenanted by Lord McAlpine, the businessman and Conservative Party treasurer and fundraiser who was a close adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and this was a double-edged sword as far as the house was concerned. On the one hand, the grounds flourished as Lord McAlpine employed the architect Quinlan Terry to design various follies, ornaments, bird cages and garden buildings, many of which can still be seen today. On the other hand, however, this was a troubled period in British politics and McAlpine found himself a target of the IRA, which detonated a bomb in the forecourt of the house in 1990, ironically a few weeks after McAlpine’s tenancy had ended and he had left West Green.
The house was so badly damaged that the Trust considered demolition but it did finally decide to repair the fabric of the building and to sell the property on a 99-year lease to someone who would continue the restoration and bring the 18th century walled garden back to life. This was Marylyn Abbott, an Australian who had already created Australia’s most visited garden at Kennerton Green in New South Wales, and who worked to turn West Green House gardens into a mix of neoclassical and contemporary design.
Looking at the map of the gardens that we bought on arrival (for 50p), it certainly looked as though the gardens had a lot to offer, but I have to admit that I was disappointed. This is due in part to the time at which we visited, which was the day before the annual opera and music week began. As a result, there were tents and marquees all over the lawns alongside the lakes and the orangery was hidden behind the glass-sided auditorium set up on the Theatre Lawn. However, it was the lights that were most off-putting. Almost every few steps, you came across a large spotlight nestling in the flower beds, while there were unsightly cables everywhere. I am sure everyone likes a gently lit garden at night, but I would think from the quantity of lighting and cabling at West Green that this light show would be more garish than gentle. I was also annoyed that the Paradise Garden, which promised so much with its pools and fountains, was simply a mass of spotlights and wires with no fountains functioning at all.
West Green House Gardens clearly has to make money as it cannot rely on National Trust input as many other properties can, so it is understandable that it has turned to an alternative source of revenue and I am sure its music week is often well attended and a big success with its paying customers. However, the National Trust runs open air theatre and other events at many of its properties and, while these can sometimes detract a little from the experience of the everyday visitor, I have yet to come across anywhere that is quite so universally affected by the upcoming shows.
Trying to ignore the intrusive electricals, I was prepared to give the gardens a glowing report for its planting and colourful displays but I am afraid that even here I was a little underwhelmed. When I visit gardens, I always wander around with my camera, looking for a ‘wow’ shot that I can use as my header picture on the blog, but there were very few really colourful shows or unusual vistas that made a big impression. I ended up using a picture of the ‘well’ in the centre of the walled garden, with its interesting iron and chrome centrepiece (although this bed alongside the greenhouses was a close second choice).
Another thing I found a little annoying about the gardens was the lack of attention to the produce growing at the north end of the Walled Garden. There were lettuces literally rotting in the beds, while the tearoom was serving shop-bought leaves and tomatoes. That would never happen at a Trust-run property. There wasn’t a great deal of choice in the tearooms either, just four meal options, all with salad, and no sandwiches or jacket potatoes at all. The cake selection was excellent, though.
I know this report has been more than a little negative so I will try to finish on a high, with one thing that I really liked about West Green House Gardens. It may not seem like much but this was the chicken pavilion, perhaps the most ornate and extravagant chicken run I’ve ever seen. The chickens themselves were also quite notable as there were a number of rare breeds scratching and pecking around the pavilion. I didn’t hear a squeak, squawk or burble from any of them, though, so I couldn’t discover if they’d picked up any tips from their regular exposure to opera!
Highlights: The chicken ‘pavilion’
Refreshments: West Green Ploughmans lunch and sparkling elderflower drink; tea and a slice of tea bread
Purchase(s): Map of the gardens