The Significance of Gardens

Although gardening has perhaps fallen from fashion amongst the younger generations, the population of green-fingered enthusiasts falling as heavily as this winter’s snow, the gardening industry has exploded into a multi-million pound colossus. Dating from the days of Lancelot “Capability” Brown to Alan Titchmarch’s popular TV shows, the gardening fetish has taken the world by storm. Nonetheless, the more unorthodox reasons to explore the subject are not so widely celebrated.

The Ugly Truth 

Far from the idyllic notion of tranquillity and peace, the darker truths of mystery, horror and conspiracy which surround the gardening scene have until recently been concealed from the public eye. Whether it is the hardship of Grey’s Gardens or the sordid truth behind the palace of Versailles, there are acres of untold stories that would shock historians, gardeners and landscape-lovers alike.

In Britain, the National Trust is hailed for bringing the joys of historical sites to the masses, and this includes the British countryside. A wealth of private estates have flung open their doors and welcomed visitors so that they might admire the pristine aesthetics of antique garden landscapes and stately homes. Blissfully unaware of the truth, the British public has wandered amicably through many an abandoned manor, soaking up the sunshine and contemplating the splendour of days gone past. However, sipping tea on the terrace and writing letters by the lake were past-times enjoyed by a very small minority of Estate owners: for those employed to maintain these ‘charming’ gardens, life was not so sickly-sweet…

Whilst the National Trust may have gone to great lengths to celebrate our complex history, and the glory days of chivalry and etiquette, the trust has been equally successful in obscuring the more unpleasant truths about the garden estates of Britain. Prior to the 1500’s, a large proportion of Britain’s charming countryside was public space; citizens were free to gather berries, hunt for food and generally enjoy the area. However, following the land redistribution that took place during the 16th century, public land was given to private land owners, meaning that working-class citizens were no longer permitted to source food or ‘trespass’ upon that land. Unable to access this private land labourers were left with two possibilities: break the law or starve to death. Labourers soon found themselves forced into criminal activity as a means to provide food for their families.

Estates belonging to men such as Viscount Cobham, constable of Windsor Castle, were policed vigorously, and trespassers were treated with zero-tolerance. In 1723, at the discretion of Viscount Cobham, the Black Act was passed, ruling that deer poaching, trespassing or hunting on private land were crimes punishable by death. This legislation demonstrated the harsh conflict of opinion between private landowners and landless labourers- a large majority of the working class believed that wild animals were free from possession and therefore anyone was entitled to hunt them. As it was, the government ruled that this was not the case and morbid tales of hangings and murders continued to plague the British countryside in places that we now hail as the most tranquil garden settings. The act was passed as a direct response to the criminal activity of the Waltham Blacks- men who instilled terror throughout the countryside, committing murder and theft wherever they went. Nonetheless, whilst their crimes cannot be condoned, they do rather prompt the question: if the land hadn’t been taken away in the first place, denying the public of their food supply and leaving common labourers in a dire state of poverty, would bandits such as the Wokingham Blacks ever have existed?

These few men were eventually arrested, and hung for their crimes. However, they represent a very large number of men executed for what was effectively no more than garden trespassing. Another poignant tale following land legislation, documented in E P Thomson’s book Whigs and Hunters illustrates the level that cold-hearted landowners such as Viscount Cobham were prepared to go to. The story tells how in 1748, two men sickened by the sight of their starving families took a courageous risk by breaking into Cobham’s estate and hunting deer. Caught in the act, the two men were held at the Estate in captivity until their wives came begging for their release. Being a merciful man, Cobham promised the return of the two men by the end of the month. True to his word, the constable had the two men delivered home to their wives- in body bags.

Events such as this were a common occurrence throughout the country, and continued right up until the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, following the unpleasant repercussions of the Enclosures Acts, and the disgruntled public attitude towards privately owned Estates, land was slowly released back to the public and in recent years the National Trust was formed with the intention of reopening these estates and making them available once more. Undeniably, the intentions of the trust are honourable- even if it does rather obscures the more sinister events of the British landscape.

Britain isn’t the only country to have buried tyrannical secrets in its picture perfect landscape. A very similar situation occurred in France around the time of the French Revolution. Whilst the causes and triggers of the revolution are extremely complex, a significant factor contributing towards the revolt was the appropriation of land. A number of laws were passed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which eventually led to previously acclaimed public lands becoming privately owned domains a large number of which was later transferred into vineyards. As well as this, a great conflict between the bourgeoisie and the nobility of France lead to the competitive acquisition of land.

The fight for territory was fuelled by the fact that the ownership of land was accompanied by status- and status was not without wealth. Indeed the nobility owned almost 30% of France’s land; they were one of the most influential and wealthy classes. As a result, the bourgeoisie attempted to achieve the same standard- and the battle for land ownership was initiated. However, the attribution of wealth with land was something that peasant land-owners were excluded from. Peasants in general would rent their land to grow vegetables from ‘wealthier’ peasants- leading to peasant land ownership growing to 40%. Despite owning a large majority of French land, peasants found their assets much less profitable, leaving the working classes extremely disgruntled. This feeling of inequality was without doubt an important factor which contributed to the rise of the French Revolution- a time drenched in the blood and corruption of the French aristocracy.

Digging for Victory. 

Although gardening, and vegetable patches have long been a popular past time, it wasn’t until the hardship of the Second World War that the utility of gardening was fully recognised. During the War Britain imported almost 55 million tonnes of food- a necessity that was both time consuming and costly. Furthermore, the most effective method of trade was by sea which meant that naval ships were accosted with strategic attacks from the German forces, resulting in devastating consequences. Before long it came to the attention of the government that if the country was going to survive the war Britain couldn’t rely on imports: food would have to be home-grown. Following this realisation, the government launched the Dig for Victory campaign- which encouraged the public to plant vegetable patches. Towns and villages were inundated with posters and flyers urging homeowners to convert their gardens into farming land and take part in what was a much needed mass-production of food. As well as vegetable growth, the public was urged to breed chickens, pigs and rabbits for themselves as opposed to relying on rations. The campaign was wholly embraced in both America and Britain, resulting in the increased production of home-grown food and leaving both countries almost entirely self-sufficient.

The Victory Garden campaign was only a small representation of the enormous effort the general public of Britain, particularly the women, demonstrated during the war. The WLA (Women’s Land Army) was initially founded during the First World War and was re-instituted during the second. This army was established so that whilst the men were fighting and therefore unable to continue farming, the women would take over the agricultural demands of the country. Women more than rose to the challenge, astonishing a large number of sceptical on-lookers, and took on the harrowing life of farm work. The formation of the WLA was a poignant illustration of just how vital gardening can be- should Britain have failed to maintain agricultural businesses, the outcome of the war could have been dramatically different.

Garden in Fashion 

Today we enjoy some of the most impressive and dynamic gardens designs of history and landscape architecture is now a thriving industry. However, even today landscape designers would struggle to better the designs of the iconic Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown- the man responsible for the gardens at Blenheim Palace, Cardiff Castle and Hampton court, as well as hundreds of other prestigious English sites.

Lancelot Brown introduced the concept of fashion into gardening- his elaborate designs and grand themes led the British public into the world of aesthetics and showered them in water features, flower beds and outdoor statues. Gardens were no longer a food source but a work of art.  Brown’s style generally involved a grand architectural structure, as well as an elaborate lawn or maze area. Some of the most iconic gardens in Britain were planted under the supervision of this man.

Since Brown’s death gardeners continued to conjure more elaborate designs, leading to today where gardening has become a popular past time. The gardening world has given rise to numerous celebrities, fashions and crazes; from Alan Titchmarch to Tommy Walsh, there have been numerous popular figureheads for the industry. Indeed, nowadays you are as likely to find the ‘must have’ garden plant as the ‘must have’ hand bag. House pride has now infiltrated outdoors to the gardens, and the very idea of an empty hanging basket fills many a garden-owner with dread.

The radical way in which the significance of gardens has changed is truly astonishing. Over the years we have died for them, we have lived because of them and we have lovingly nurtured them. Gardens have influenced wars, created a multi million pound industries, caused riots and saved lives- there is simply not a scale large enough with which to measure the significance of the great outdoors.

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