In late spring one corner of the huge Richmond Park harbours an oasis of exotic blooms, which is the Isobella Plantation.
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.
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.
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.
Going round stately homes on a fine holiday weekend you can come across Jousting – re-enactment of knights in colourful armour tackling each other on horseback. This has been a popular summer theatrical entertainment from 1970s.
During Middle Ages jousting had a practical purpose – preparing knights (and their horses) for warfare. This was also the opportunity for the noblemen to demonstrate their skills and courage.
The term comes from Old French joster, which in turn has a Latin origin iuxtare meaning ‘to approach or to meet’. Two knights gallop towards each other, aiming to strike the opponent’s shield with a long blunt lance, knocking their weapons off or unsettling them from a horse. The English nobility spoke Old French since William the Conqueror, but by the time of Henry VIII we have an English word for it – tilt, which originally meant a barrier to separate the knights charging towards each other, and the tilt-yard is where this competition took place.
The knights wore heraldic signs over their armour, and so did the horses, on capes called caparisons.
As the sport developed, in later Middle Ages, it became more chivalric, and more regulated. There was a series of competitions, some of them involving agility and horsemanship skills, like charging towards a quintain – a wooden figure with two ‘arms’, one to be hit with a lance, and the other one holding a spiky club, which, as the quintain swings round, would hit the knight on the back if he was not quick enough to avoid it.
Another skill was to pick up rings with the lance, and to pin an object from the floor.
It was a popular sport with English nobility right up until 17th century, gaining more the status of a pageant, rather than training for battle.
And this is what we have today – a staged show, with knights in bright regalia, covering armour and horses, performing equestrian tricks and engaging in mock battles. The Knebworth House event had four knights from two opposing camps battling each other for the ‘Excalibur’ – pulled from a stone, obviously, by a little boy from the audience.
We were sitting by the side of the Black Knight – the ‘baddie’ of the show.
Lilia was very taken with him, and so was I, for his superb control of his horse, effortlessly doing sideways walks, prancing and charging from the spot, without obvious effort from the rider.
He lost, however, being the ‘bad guy’… Lilia insisted on watching the second show of the day, hoping for a different outcome, – no such luck, the second performance was exactly the same as the first one.
The entertainment was excellent – watch out for jousting events throughout the country in summer. Lilia certainly wants to see it again (hoping for the Black Knight to win….)
March is the month of Camellias. I have three blooming in my garden.
Chiswick House has 32 in the conservatory alone – home to the oldest collection of camellias under cover in England.
Camellias come from Eastern and Southern Asia. Botanist Karl Linnaeus, who classified all our plants, named it after the missionary and botanist Georg Joseph Kamel, who worked in the Philippines and described a species of this flowering bush. There are 100-300 species of camellias, and around 3,000 hybrids, two thirds of those being Camellia Japonica, the most wide spread type grown in the UK. Abundant in gardens in Japan and China for centuries, camellia arrived in this country in the 18th century, with the efforts of plant hunters and the East India Company, – the latter provided transport and wealthy patrons, who could afford to pay for rare plants from exotic countries. A keen gardener Robert James, Lord Petrie, had camellias in his garden at Thornton Hall in Essex in 1739 – the first mention of the plant growing in this country.
Just under 100 years later, the camellia collection was established in the Chiswick House Conservatory. In 1828 the Duke of Devonshire replaced the fruit in his conservatory with the latest fashionable import – camellias from China.
The rarest plant in the Chiswick collection is Middlemist’s Red. It was brought from China by Londoner John Middlemist, who had a nursery in Shepherd’s Bush and supplied plants to Kew Gardens. This tree is one of the two currently known in the world – the other one being in Waitangi in New Zealand.
The most curious one is Pompone – On one tree flowers can be red, white, or variegated (more than one colour). This variety was brought from China to Kew in c.1810, and went by the name of Kew Bush.
Outside the conservatory bushes grow bigger, with masses of flowers – however, the get ‘bitten’ by cold air and wind at night, and go brown at the edges… this affliction affects my camellias every year….
Camellias come in a variety of flower forms – single, semi-double, double (paeony, anemone or rose form), – and colours – white, red, pink or variegated.
There’s another type of camellia that we all love – and consume – every day of the year. Camellia sinensis gives us leaves for our tea. For years I’ve been trying to grow this one, – despite being hardy enough to be grown commercially in the UK, I found it not as hardy as your big flowering bushes, but this one is not looking too bad at the moment – in my conservatory.
In the beginning of 17th century the aristocratic Boyle family bought an estate in Chiswick with a large Jacobean house, as a summer retreat. It caught fire in 1725, and the head of the family, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, decided to build a new ‘villa’ in the grounds.
As the name suggests, it was not to be an ordinary English house. It was to be a Roman Villa – a masterpiece of classical architecture, coming to England all the way from Italy’s lost Roman buildings.
Richard inherited his title and riches at the age of 10, and, like many of his contemporaries, devoted himself to arts, going on Grand Tour of Europe in 1714 – 1719, and another one later on. The new villa was to house his collection of paintings and furniture, which he brought back from his travels. Lord Burlington regarded himself as an architect, and designed the house himself, based on his experiences in Italy and a substantial collection of books and drawings acquired there. Also in Italy he met his sidekick, a person who was to change the English garden design forever – William Kent.
Kent studied in Rome in the beginning of the 18th century. Having met Lord Burlington on his travels there, he secured a commission to work on the design of the house and gardens at his estate in Chiswick.
Chiswick House is a fine example of the Palladian Style – Lord Burlington was inspired by the recently published English translation of The Four Books of Architecture by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. In contrast to typical English Gothic style, this was all about classically proportioned geometric shapes and clear lines. The Dome, crowning Chiswick House, is a rare feature of domestic architecture, normally reserved for temples. The house is faced with Portland Stone, glowing brilliantly white in the sun.
The house was built between 1726 and 1729. Innovative and beautiful as it was, it was the gardens that made history.
The formal Jacobean gardens of the Chiswick estate were replaced by the new ‘landscape’ style, as designed by William Kent. Being a painter and theatre set designer, Kent’s vision for the garden was derived from landscape paintings of the French artists Nicole Poussin and Claude Lorraine. It was all about the garden looking naturally beautiful, but every feature – either growing or man-made – carefully planned and in the right place, to achieve the most pleasing effect. The gardens included alleys shaded by trees, Ancient Greek statues, a lake and a cascade, as well as an obelisk and garden buildings, to evoke the appearance of Ancient Rome, combined with Lord Burlington’s Whig ideals.
The Ionic Temple survives from Lord Burlington’s times. It takes inspiration from either Pantheon in Rome, or the Temple of Romulus.
Both Lord Burlington and William Kent were keen on theatre, and theatrical design is reflected in a semi-circular hedge, known as the Exedra. The actors are the Roman statues. Kent’s originals were ‘identified’ by the writer Daniel Defoe as Ceasar (the one who invaded Britain), Pompey (responsible for the decline of the Roman Republic) and the philosopher Cicero. The Exedra also featured poets Horace, Homer and Virgil, and the philosopher Socrates. The current ones are reproductions – the originals are inside the house.
The lake was created in 1727 by widening an existing brook.
Kent’s Cascade – the two level waterfall – graces the end of it which is closest to the garden. The hill was made by piling the soil from the lake, and this created an elevated walkway above the cascade, affording views of the estate and the nearby River Thames. We climbed it, but could not see anything due to trees and hedges…..
Lord Burlington died in 1753, the estate passed to his daughter Charlotte, who had married William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire. It was their son William, the 5th Duke, who make the next major mark on the estate. His claim to fame is his famous wife Georgiana,
She loved Chiswick House and referred to it as her ‘earthly paradise’. The house was extended to provide accommodation for prominent members of the Whig party, aristocrats, writers and artists partying in the house and gardens. Georgiana commissioned architect James Wyatt to design the Classical Bridge in 1774. The family added new wings, so that they could entertain a multitude of important guests, who, over the subsequent years, included a couple of Russian Tsars, Queen Victoria and Print Albert, the musician Handel, the politician Charles James Fox.
Georgiana’s son, the Bachelor Duke (he never married, despite being one of the richest and most eligible men in England at the time), bought an adjourning estate, and in 1813 a conservatory went up, with a walled garden at the back and an Italian garden in the front.
His menagerie included an elephant, elks, emus, kangaroos and an Indian bull.
The conservatory housed England’s earliest collection of camellias.
After his death the family rented the estate to a number of tenants, who included the Prince of Wales in 1870s. Between 1892 and 1928 it became the Chiswick Asylum for wealthy patients. In 1929 Chiswick House was sold to Middlesex County Council, who raised funds by public subscription – among the subscribers was King George V. It became a view station during World War II and suffered bomb damage, resulting with a couple of wings having to be removed in the 1950s.
It is now managed by the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, formed in 2005 by Hounslow Council and English Heritage, and is an excellent day out experience for the whole family.