The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Kirby Hall Gardens

Kirby Hall was an Elizabethan show house, designed with the aim of attracting the attention of the monarch. Sadly, the Virgin Queen never visited, in spite of the efforts of two consecutive owners Sir Humphrey Stafford and Sir Christopher Hatton. The Hall passed through the hands of various members of the Hatton family and it is believed that Sir Christopher I's cousin (Sir Christopher II) laid out the original great garden alongside the house. However, it is his grandson (Sir Christopher IV) who indulged his interest in plants and developed the grounds into what became known as ‘the finest garden in England’.

That garden has been recreated by English Heritage, the current custodians of the property, but between the time of Sir Chris IV (1685 and beyond) and the 1930s, when the site was taken into state guardianship, it fell into disrepair, and eventually disappeared.
The view from the state rooms

But in the 1980s English Heritage began an archaeological investigation under the leadership of garden historian Brian Dix. The team gathered as many clues as possible to the garden's original layout, for example considering the colours and texture of soil across the site. During the excavations a spread of bent nails was found, indicating the positions of boards used to create the geometric patterns of the lawns and paths. Coupled with written texts, the evidence allowed developers to recreate the Great Garden as closely as possible to how it would have been in the 1690s.
Statue of Neptune

The garden is a fine example of 'cutwork', which consists of carefully manicured lawns separated by coloured gravel walkways. It is divided into four quarters or parterres. (From the French 'on the ground'.) The symmetrically-laid patterns of curves and straight lines reflect the symmetry of the house.  In contrast to the pattern on the floor there are carefully positioned statues, urns, seating, topiary and other features to give height to the composition.

The mount
The overall pattern was designed to be viewed from above and to the South end there is a grassy mount, where visitors could walk to the summit and look down on the garden. To the North is a red brick wall where a floral border incorporates flowers and plants typical of the era, including fruit trees trained along the brickwork to maximise the light they receive.

The view from the mount
Originally, beyond the mount was an area called the Wilderness. It was a heavily-planted area with trees and many, intersecting paths where visitors could stroll. It's not a wilderness in the current sense, rather a place to wander and to be offered many choices of direction, from the old English verb 'to wilder', which is also the stem of the word 'bewilder'.

In the late 17th century a garden was a definite status symbol and only a chosen few would have been invited to see it; but the design and planting were aimed at impressing them. Tantalising glimpses could be seen from the state rooms, so even those who were not escorted around the garden and shown the latest new species to be planted there would be well aware of its owner's importance.


  1. I think a return visit is in order whilst we are still members of English Heritage. We visited in the 1980s when we lived a little closer than now and I don't remember a garden, it looks fascinating:)

  2. Like the house the gardens are very impressive but again it's more the medieval style gardens that I prefer. I'm a bit of a spoilsport really! :)

  3. Must be a beautiful place to visit !

  4. Wonderful that this estate has been recovered and preserved! The gardens are simple, yet elegant. Interesting about the word, 'bewilder'. I like the statue of Neptune.


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