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Medieval to 16th century | 17th - 19th century | Garden Restoration | The Nonsuch Restoration Project

~ Informative articles on the history of gardening and garden restoration ~

Researching Your Garden's History


We've already covered part of this in the first article on Visionary Reflections, and we are assuming that you are not among the fortunate few to have the original Victorian plans squirreled away in your attic, nor have a few score boxes of head gardener's notes tied precariously to the rafters in the stable block, either of which would give you some idea, at least, of what once was.

You probably have what most of us start with - an old house with a nightmarish jungle attached, and a vision of somehow restoring the gardens to something approaching what once they were.

And not too much else.

There are things you can do.

Already mentioned is a trip to your local council or archive. They are very likely to have photographs and documentation, and they may even have original drawings and plans of the house. They are always worth a visit. While at the local council offices, check regarding any planning permissions you may need, as also whether or not any plants, or perhaps even the entire garden, is heritage listed. (We once had a tree heritage listed on a former Victorian garden we restored and which caused endless problems with the council - the tree was not just dangerous, it was deadly, but, oh!, the paperwork involved in being able to remove it!)

Talk to your neighbours. The local community, the people about you, can give you valuable input. Gossip, rumor, innuendo all helps. They can remember trees and who lived in the house, and perhaps even what the name of the local gardener was. They may also like to get involved, and that's a good thing, too. Your house and garden, particularly if they are very old, belong to the community as much as toyou. Perhaps not in a legal sense, but very definitely in the emotional sense.

Chase down everyone still alive who has ever lived in the house. Pester them for memories, photos, whatever they can give you (but pester nicely, of course ... a good devonshire tea with champagne on the side always works well!) We were remarkably fortunate - one day someone knocked at the back door in the first few months we were at Nonsuch and it was a woman who had been born in the house fifty years earlier. From her we meet her older siblings, saw photos, revelled in memories - not only of the garden as it was when they'd known it, but of what had been here when they'd arrived during World War II.

Meeting with past occupants will also change what you decide to do with the garden. There was a swing in Nonsuch's garden we thought would be sure to go, but now, knowing the memories attached to that swing, it will be staying. Ditto the sad gooseberry bush in one corner. Originally destined for the compost heap, it will now be saved and replanted elsewhere. You'll be getting far more than 'what the garden once looked like' from past occupants of the house. You'll be getting treasured memories as well, and they are priceless in the process of rebuilding the garden. Don't trash the memories. Reincorporate them into the garden.

Visit the local art gallery, particularly if it stocks period paintings of your area. We were (very pleasantly) shocked to be strolling through a Tasmanian art gallery one day to find a mid-Victorian oil painting of a vast Tasmanian landscape ... and Nonsuch House sitting pretty and newly built in one corner of it! We subsequently found five or six old oil paintings with Nonsuch somewhere in them. It didn't give us much of an idea, but it gave us some. Books on the history of our area also included old photographs of the house.

For documentary evidence you don't need original house plans or the letters and journals of head gardeners. If you think laterally you can often come upon useful information in the most unlikely of places.

If your house dates from at least the nineteenth century, then ordnance surveys of the later nineteenth century can have an absolute wealth of information about your garden on them. Often drawn on a sale of twenty-five inches to the mile, they showed just about everything, and if your garden was larger than a pocket handkerchief, and it was included on an ordnance survey, then the garden is very likely have been surveyed itself. The UK has an Ordnance Survey office, or you can contact Alan Godfrey maps, or an archive, or even ebay, and find a map of your area. Most other western countries also have similar maps available - do some research and you'll be amazed what you can find.

For older houses yet there are detailed maps about. Cartography took enormous leaps forward in the eighteenth century and, again using the UK as an example, many major urban areas have incredibly detailed maps available - gardens are often shown. For London you can check out Richard Horwood's Plan of 1792 - 1799.

Read those wonderful ancient antiquarian books - books typically written by the local vicar about their parish. Hundreds and hundreds of them appeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their antiquarian authors were meticulous in including descriptions of houses and often gardens as well. If your house was ever noteworthy, chances are it is included in one of the antiquarian volumes of history on your area.

If your eyes can stand it, research through back copies of the social pages of a local newspaper (usually these are on microfilm, thus the reference to your poor eyes). Garden parties or social events may have been held in your house and subsequently reported on - you just don't know your luck. For a former house we found an obituary of the orginal owner, and found within a brief description of the house's garden!

If you know the architect or builder of your house and/or garden, then there may have been other houses or gardens they designed in your area. Although it is very unlikely any of these gardens resemble anything approaching the original state, a visit to them might bring up common features (particularly regarding hard landscaping).

Read garden manuals and design books of the period when your house was built. They may not describe your garden, but they will give you a very good idea of what was in fashion at the time your garden was first laid out. These books can date back into the sixteenth century (we have seen designs for knot gardens dating back to the late 1500s) so there's likely to be something out there for your period. By the eighteenth century, of course, these books were commonplace.

And, as also mentioned in the previous article, digging helps. You never know what you might unearth. This might be entirely impractical until you start the heavy shifting of soil, but what you find during this process can radically change your ideas about how you wish to restore the garden.

Digging can also confirm your plans. For instance, at Nonsuch, our landscape architect planned a bog garden into the bottom northern section of the garden as it was the lowest point of the garden and a natural spot for a bit of wetland. During the digging out of the garden we discovered that the down pipes from the guttering of the house led, not into the storm water drains (which appear to be sadly lacking at Nonsuch!) but into ancient clay conduits ... which led down to the northern bottom section of the garden, which had obviously always been a wetland area.

However, we'd like to state again that no matter how much research you put into it, you will never discover precisely what your garden once looked like. Don't obsess about it. Do the best you can and enjoy your garden.


Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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