The great in Great Dixter
The great was added by the Lloyds when they bought the house and land to distinguish it from Little Dixter down the road, but it was Christopher Lloyd, who in my mind, made Dixter a great garden.
Admittedly he had a great backbone, a literal structure to work from and to be inspired by. He also had great teachers in his parents, particularly his mother Daisy. But it was he I think who changed it, made it into the garden it is today.
Great Dixter was bought by the Lloyds in 1910, the house originally built in the 15th and 16th Centuries (a farmhouse-esate- manor) was extensively renovated and remodelled along with the gardens by Edwin Luytens. They worked and created the gardens, turned old cow sheds and yards into formal gardens, created meadows, planted orchards, and built the sunken garden. But it was Christopher Lloyd ,who was born in the house, on his return from college and national service who created what we know as Dixter.
Christopher Lloyd is a highly influential gardener of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, he died in 2006. He was a writer – a garden writer, a prolific one at that but also a great writer; for magazines like Country Life and with regular gardening columns in the newspapers and numerous books (his first published in 1957, and during his lifetime a total of 25). Using Great Dixter as his base, his inspiration he brought his innovative style to countless gardeners.
His seminal book is said to be the The Well-Tempered Garden, but for me it is the book of letters, a copy of the correspondence between him and Beth Chatto – Dear Gardener and Friend that stands out. Letters over a period of time detailing their gardens, swapping notes and gossip, enquiries of health, new finds and new trials, successes and failures between these two distinctive but passionate gardening greats that has me captivated. The attention to detail and their love of plants, gardening and life holds me.
Dixter is a garden founded on wealth, not something I’m normally attracted to. You probably know what I’m referring to – the great estates, the piles where rich landowners retire to and develop their passion, maybe they employ a famous architect or landscape artist to create a garden for them, in formal settings, the emphasis on structures and views and vistas, maybe some exotics. Gardens of a former time – of armies of gardeners and workers on an estate, of fortunes spent and lost in creating a paradise, of collections, of statements. I understand their appeal, I appreciate them but I don’t feel them. I see the clever landscaping, the use of views, of paths to lead you and yet they remain sterile to me. Somehow they are ghostly, reminders of a different time and life.
These great houses and estates are to me piece of history, part of a tapestry of English history that charts the development from the rural to the industrial to today. They are historic both in their design and influence. A part of history showcasing the development of ideas and methods. I consign them to the history books – rightly or wrongly, I acknowledge their influence but there is nothing living there, nothing for me to take away, apart from a sense of grandness and history. Dixter, is the opposite of this, it is very much alive living in the now. Maybe because it is a garden I have grown to know, a garden that has developed, in part, in my own lifetime, that makes it more accessible to me, which means , at least on some levels, I can associate with it.
Dixter was as I’ve said founded on wealth, and no doubt it takes a huge sum to maintain it to this day, but unlike other “great” gardens, there is something so very different. There is no stifling of planting here. No prissy planting. No formulaic planting, Dixter is a garden of superlatives. Great planting. Planting on a great and large scale. Planting that challenges – in terms of colour combinations, types, mixing of classics with the new. A garden that is bold in design yet subtle in detail. A garden that plays on the senses. Planting and care that is thorough and thought through. But not prissy or primped. Very much alive and kicking in the 21st century.
Christopher Lloyd was an innovator, a challenger to standard perceptions and perceived ideas about gardening – the do’s and the don’ts. He had his passions, such as Clematis and his views, often humorous but always informed, linger with you. The gardens are proponents of intensive gardening, a classic rich man’s dream but he gave and he shared. He created the nursery, to stock the gardens and to sell to the public, opened the gardens to visitors, he wanted to stimulate the mind and the senses, not afraid to shock or challenge. Think of the Rose Garden laid out by Edwin Luytens that he ripped out and replaced with the Exotic Garden, considering “roses to be miserable and unsatisfactory shrubs” and you may begin to understand why this garden is what it is, a great garden by a great gardener who has left a great legacy.
I’ve included a slideshow of snaps from the gardens, I have edited down the photos, but will take you around the gardens properly next time.