Stephen Anderton urges visitors to make an imaginative leap to enjoy the Baroque splendours of the Hampton Court Privy Garden
The most politically correct style of gardening today is undoubtedly the naturalistic and eco-friendly kind. How then do you justify to someone new to gardening the restoration of King William III's highly formal 1702 Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace? How do you explain it to a child? How do you make them see the need for it?
The most persuasive reason for restoring the garden in 1993 was that Britain then had nothing quite like it. All our grand Baroque gardens had been diluted by the passage of time and changing fashions, until they - like the Privy Garden - were barely recognisable. In Holland the garden at Het Loo had been carefully restored, and Britain, which always likes to think of itself as a world leader in gardening, had not a decent Baroque garden to its name.
The Privy Garden should have been delicate, crisp and precise, with rows of neatly clipped hollies and yews, low box hedges, and regimented rows of antique flowers. Instead it was obese. It sat like a dropsical fat lady with her legs up, the original yews and hollies old, diseased and massively out of proportion, its scars and cavities bandaged with modern flowering shrubs.
Yet people loved it that way. It was wild and apparently eco-friendly. It was full of private corners and an array of botanically interesting, perfumed shrubs. It made ordinary people feel at home, if not king-like.
But if ever there was such a garden worth restoring, this was it. So often a garden restoration is compromised or made pointless by the degradation of its surroundings, but not here. The King's Appartments which look on to the Privy Garden had just been reopened after the fire of 1986, so that the view inwards over the Privy Garden to the palace could reappear exactly as it was originally intended. Although the view east over the great Fountain Garden at Hampton Court today focuses on a collection of dreary high-rise flats, the view outwards over the Privy Garden and the Thames to its farther bank is still miraculously unspoiled.
Archaeology was able to tell the Historic Royal Palaces Agency, which runs Hampton Court, that enough evidence existed to re-instate the structure of the garden with astonishing accuracy. The work took three years and cost Pounds 1.2 million.
To visit the garden today is a great treat. But it is best seen when it is quiet and one can imagine it as a private garden, a grand luxurious space for king and closest company. But there are difficulties about the restored garden which need explaining to new gardeners and young people.
One is the regimented way in which the flowers are planted in the long, thin beds. They are all in ones, separate, planted as indiviuals, like butterflies pinned in a long glass case. In 1702 they were planted this way because they were so special. Today the style might seem naive or even boring, so sophisticated have we become in our attitudes to colour and plant association. It is not easy to accept that what we are seeing is reverence for these flowers, not disregard.
Another more intractable problem is that modern man is immune to many of the things which might have stimulated an early 18th-century audience. In 1702 the every-day world was not full of straight lines. The only straight lines were in the more important buildings, or indeed in gardens. But the natural environment was chaotic, haphazard and dangerous. Nature for most people spelt cold and wet, disease and child mortality. Nature was not something to feel sorry or ecologically responsible for, but something to be afraid of.
Today almost every road is precisely delineated by long running kerbs. Every garage forecourt puts as many straight lines on the surface of the earth as William's Privy Garden. So how are we to see this garden with 18th-century eyes? It may not be easy, but it is worth the effort. Imagine sailing up the Thames, on a river polluted with raw City sewage, between muddy irregular banks, to find yourself suddenly gazing through Tijou's golden gates into this extraordinary linear space. Only then does the garden begin to shock in the way that was intended.
Entry to the Privy Garden for education groups is included in admission tickets to the Palace, which are Pounds 5.50 each if booked in advance. Tickets: 0181 781 9542. Information: 0181 781 9500