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Rhododendrons and Azaleas at Isobella Plantation in Richmond Park

In late spring one corner of the huge Richmond Park harbours an oasis of exotic blooms, which is the Isobella Plantation.

Isobella Plantation, Richmond Park
Isobella Plantation, Richmond Park

This woodland park was created in the 1830s, when former Prime Minister Lord Sidmouth, then the Deputy Ranger of Richmond Park, wooded off a boggy corner of the park to keep the deer out, and a some native trees and later some rhododendrons  were planted.

Isobella Plantation, Richmond Park

Serious rhododendron planting started after World War II, and now the gardens house the National Collection of Wilson 50 Kurume Azaleas, which were brought from Japan in 1920s by the plant collector Ernest Wilson, as well as rhododendrons, camellias, heathers and all sorts of other trees and flowers. It was opened to the public in 1953.

Azaleas
Azaleas

The grounds are managed organically, without the use of pesticides, offering ideal habitat for birds and animals. Beautiful lakes complete the idyllic beauty of this woodland oasis.

So, we have azaleas and rhododendrons – what’s the difference? All azaleas are rhododendrons, but not all rhododendrons are azaleas.

The name Rhododendron comes from Ancient Greek, meaning ‘rose tree’. It is the generic name for over 1,000 types of plants which regard Asia as their home, but are found nowadays all around the world. Characteristically, they grow into big trees with large leaves. Azalea is a type of rhododendron, but it is a small bush with little leaves covered in a dense mass of little flowers.

The flowers are also different, in size as well as type – rhododendrons have 10 stamens, and azaleas have 5. Many azaleas are deciduous, while most rhododendrons are evergreen.

What all of them love is a shady boggy ground with ericaceous (acidic) soil, so if your soil is alkaline, forget about growing them, and come to enjoy the Isobella plantation instead!

But beware – these beauties are highly toxic, it contains something nasty called andromedotoxins in its leaves and even nectar, to the extent that if bees have too much of it, their honey would have hallucinogenic (as well as laxative) properties….

In the Victorian era of flower symbolism, rhododendrons meant ‘beware of danger’, and a bouquet of them in a black vase was a death threat…

As we have very few bees here anyway, and as long as we do not go munching on leaves and flowers, Isobella plantation is a fabulous day out in late May – even if it is extra popular and crowded on a lovely day in late spring.

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Knebworth House and Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Knebworth is known far and wide for huge open air concerts of the rock starts we all know and love. Since 1974 the grounds hosted Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, the Beach Boys, Deep Purple, Eric Clapton, Elton John, to name but a few.

Knebworth House
Knebworth House

The history of the house, however, harbours some hidden jams and revelations.

Knebworth House came to be in end of the 15th century, when the Lytton family owned a Late Gothic mansion of red brick. During Victorian times it was first reduced to one wing, and then re-built in a Gothic Revival style in middle of the 19th century, during the time of the most famous member of the Lytton family –  writer, dramatist and politician Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803 –1873).

Henry William Pickersgill - National Portrait Gallery
Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Remembered now only by the most avid of Victorian historians, Bulwer Lytton was one of the most famous writers of this time.

He was born and grew up in London.  His father, Mr. Bulwer, was a Norfolk squire, –  it was his mother Elizabeth Barbara Lytton who came from the famous Knebworth family. A delicate and intelligent boy, Edward started reading early, and by the age of 10 was writing poetry. His literary career took off during his years at the Cambridge University, making him the most successful and widely read author in the 19th century.

Bulwer-Lytton’s novels cover historical fiction, mystery, romance, the occult, with a hint of science fiction. His plays enjoyed popularity in England and America, some being a basis of a couple of operas.

Among his friends were leading writers and politicians of the day, such as Dickens and Disraeli. 

Lytton’s legacy includes over 20 best-selling novels (including The Last Days of Pompeii), 9 plays, 15 volumes of poetry, translations of Horace and Schiller and several volumes of essays.

Vril
Bulwer Lytton’s mystic occult novel Vril, the Power of the Coming Race was the inspiration behind Bovril, the name for a meaty spread. In the novel, Vril is the mysterious energy, powering a superior race of people. Originally a beef extract (bos meaning ‘ox’ in Latin), current manufacturers Unilever have now made it vegetarian…

We may not remember Edward Bulwer-Lytton now, but every English speaking person knows at least a few of his quotations –

“The pen is mighter than the sword” comes from Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Richeliue; Or the Conspiracy (1839);

“The great unwashed” – from his 1830 novel Paul Clifford;

“Pursuit of the almighty dollar” from his novel The Coming Race;.

And the best known one – the opening of his novel Paul Clifford – “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Why have we forgotten Bulwer-Lytton’s literary legacy? The clue may lie in the over-embellished way of writing, which the Victorians loved, but we find difficult to get our brain around it, like in the paragraph that follows the famous catch phrase, which became a synonym for old-fashioned melodramatic writing –

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

I personally think that sentenced is rather beautiful, and it is not fair that Bulwer-Lytton’s name was given to a contest set up in 1982 by an American University, which gives the ‘best prize’ for the ‘worst writing’….

Edward Bulwer Lytton by George_Frederic_Watts
Edward Bulwer Lytton by George_Frederic_Watts

As well as being a very successful and prolific writer, Bulwer-Lytton was a member of Parliament – first as a Whig, and then, ten years later, as a Conservative – and he was not the last person to do so…

Edward married witty and beautiful Irish girl Rosina Doyle Wheeler. After a few happy years (and a couple of children) the marriage broke down. Rosina felt neglected due to Edward’s work load as a writer and politician. Edward got custody of the children. Rosina did not go quietly, – becoming a writer herself, she attacked Edward in books and in person, at his plays and at elections. Her memoir was entitled A Blighted Life, – Edward and the family were not pleased and even tried to commit her to a lunatic asylum. It was only in 1970s when her great-great-grandson hung her portrait at Knebworth House that the visitors can see today.

Rosina

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was buried in St.Edmund’s chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Church of St Mary and St Thomas
Church of St Mary and St Thomas near Knebworth House, a few Lyttons are buried in there

His son Robert Bulwer Lytton (1831-1891) wanted to become a writer too, but his father insisted that he becomes a diplomat. Robert had to do his writing on the side, while becoming a Viceroy of India and British Ambassador to France.

Robert Bulwer-Lytton

Knebworth House features a separate exhibition of Robert’s time in India. It was during his diplomatic watch there that Disraeli presented Queen Victoria with the grand title of Empress of India.

The wing housing the India exhibition
The wing housing the India exhibition

Robert’s son Victor married Pamela Plowden, a beautiful former love interest of Winston Churchill’s. Robert’s daughter Emily married architect Edwin Lutyens (who designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and British government buildings in New Delhi in India, as well as numerous country houses in England). He advised his brother-in-law on on extensive alterations to the house to reflect the new Edwardian era in the beginning of 20th century.

Knebworth House
Knebworth House

Lutyens’ associate, Arts and Crafts garden designer Gertrude Jekyll contributed a herb garden design in the shape of an interlaced quincunx – a pattern of five items, four of those arranged in a square and a fifth one in the middle, like in dice or playing cards. The current garden was planted in 1982.

 

The herb garden at Knebworth
The herb garden

 

A visit to Knebworth House is an enjoyable experience any time of the year, but particularly great when combined with a special event, like Jousting.