I look at this tea towel and it does everything a tea towel should for me. It is pure linen and is absorbant, making a very functional tea towel. It tells a story about Biddulph Grange – the layout of the original gardens and therefore brings back memories of my on-going love affair with Biddulph Grange. For those with a discerning eye, you can see a slight pink tinge to the background. This is because many years ago I washed it with a maroon sweat shirt by mistake and the colour ran. I remember the sweat shirt being from Martha’s Vineyard; it had an unfortunate history because I also mistakenly put it in the tumble drier and it shrank beyond recognition. It found its way to a charity shop. The pink tinge does not detract from my love of this tea towel.
In 2006, the Independent on Sunday wrote “Behind a gloomy Victorian shrubbery there’s a gloomy Victorian mansion but behind that lurks one of the most extraordinary gardens in Britain….it contains whole continents, including China and Ancient Egypt – not to mention Italian Terraces and a Scottish Glen”. My relationship with Biddulph Grange is complicated and the line between myth and reality is somewhat blurred. Biddulph Grange came into the ownership of the National Trust in 1988, for its gardens not the house, and was in a very delapidated condition. I remember, as a member of the National Trust, when the Trust were trying to raise money to restore the gardens; it was about the same time as they were trying to raise money for Calke Abbey restoration. When I learnt about the original Biddulph Grange Gardens they reminded me of the Butchart Gardens in Vancouver Island, small sculpted gardens representing different countries, different continents, different historical icons. The sort of gardens that you wander through and come across a new, and surprising vista, around every corner. I love gardens that tell a story, that reflect history and culture, that introduce you to a new perspective on gardening, that you know you can never reproduce but that you can take a little learning from. Look at the tea towel and see how many different walks there are leading to formal gardens, wooded areas, borders, grassed lawns, garden ornaments and that sense of greenery (excusing the pink tinge): compartmentalised and themed. You can travel the world through gardens – Pyramids of Egypt, the Italianate Gardens, the Victorian vision of China based on a Willow Pattern design, the re-creation of a Himalayan Glen……….
In 1840, James Bateman and his wife moved to Biddulph Grange with its 15 acre gardens. He spent the next 30 years indulging his passion for plants and creating the most fabulous and surprising gardens. He didn’t travel to all the countries himself to acquire the plants – he employed plant hunters to do some of that work. After 30 years he had used all his inherited wealth, sold the house and gardens and moved to London. It is quite difficult to understand how you could leave all that work behind but perhaps you need to be realistic – this is what downsizing is all about. The gardens were unique but it was the house that was bought for different uses and the gardens were not a priority. It was a farm and then a hospital; in fact, it was the first hospital ‘for the crippled’ in Staffordshire, eventually becoming both a childen’s hospital and an orthopaedic hospital. As a hospital then money to be spent on the gardens was not a priority and at one point the dug-out area near the Dahlia Walk was filled in so that patients could access the outdoors more easily.
John and I visited as soon as Biddulph Grange Gardens were open to the public. I was especially keen to see the Chinese Garden since we had not long returned from a fantastic holiday in China, which was so clearly imprinted in my memory. It was the scene of the red bridge in the Chinese Garden which always attracted my attention and reminded me of the bridges and walkways in the Forbidden City. In all my visits to Biddulph Grange that has always been my favourite part of the gardens; it is sort of iconic, gripping the imagination. When I first visited Biddulph Grange in 1991 it was nothing like it is now because the process of restoration has taken a long time, especially as the detail of the original plans emerge over time. But when I was there that first time I could see the potential and wanted to go back as the work progressed. I have been back several times but not since 2011 when a major piece of work was completed associated with the Chinese Garden.
Biddulph Grange Gradens are a garden-lover’s dream: rhododendrons, summer bedding plant displays, a Dahlia Walk and the oldest surviving Golden Larch brought back from China in 1850. More recently, I had forgotten some of the parts I had seen at Biddulph Grange but then I saw this tea towel and it all came flooding back. Reading the article in the Independent on Sunday made me realise I probably wouldn’t recognise today’s Biddulph Grange from the one I saw in 1991 and therefore I really must go back. A fantastic garden (or rather gardens) that this tea towel reminds me of. This year is the 25th Anniversary of the garden being opened to the public. To celebrate there is a competition to name a Monkey Puzzle tree, since this is the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese calender, worth entering?
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