Dream Vacation for Garden Geeks – in Carolina.

This weekend I am reading up on the gardens I will soon be visiting in England. The adventure starts with a week in Sissinghurst, staying at the Priest’s House on the grounds. We can actually wake up in the morning, pad over to the window, and look out onto the famous White Garden. This stay includes access to Sissinghust grounds before and after hours. From there we will take day trips to nearby historic gardens and charming villages.

But you can have a similar experience by only crossing one state line, not a whole ocean. In March 2011 I attended a retreat at the Inn at Middleton Place. This inn is LEED certified, with each room offering a view of the river. Stroll down a path through the trees and enjoy a delicious breakfast outdoors or in a dining room with a woodland view. Middleton Place is one of the most famous gardens in the world, featured in landscape history courses and advertised as ‘America’s oldest landscaped gardens.’ It has been under the same family stewardship for over 300 years. One resident was President of the First Continental Congress, another a signer of the Declaration of Independence, The live oaks and camellias are ancient by our standards and the gardens and statuary are wonderful. It is where the first Camellia japonicas were probably introduced by André Michaux in 1786 and probably one of the places John and William Bartram visited (when they weren’t back in Philly chatting with Ben Franklin.) Middleton Place is also stunningly beautiful and peaceful.

Back to my visit. On Sunday morning I jumped out of bed, grabbed a camera, jacket and notebook and wandered the gardens at Middleton Place for a few hours, having the entire garden to myself. The birds were waking up. It was an incredibly peaceful, inspiring morning. Many of these photos are from that early March morning. I would think it would be as memorable an experience to visit the garden at twilight in summer, or during an early summer morning. Oh, and visiting other historic gardens and charming villages? The Inn at Middleton Place is about 15 miles from Charleston and just down the road from Magnolia Plantation and Drayton Hall, both well worth visiting.

Marie Antoinette’s Garden at Versailles

This week I revised a PowerPoint on the History of Landscape Design from 2006 to speak to a crowd of retired UGA faculty. I love combining history and anything – makes it much more interesting when you put something in context with everything else that was going on at the time and previous influences. During my re-reseach I reviewed a column I wrote for the Athens (GA) Banner-Herald right after the movie Marie Antoinette was released in 2006. This was a fun column to reseach and the movie had amazing details about Versailles.

Landscape history can be seen on the big screen
Friday, November 17, 2006
more Cottingham columns

My husband and I went to see “Marie Antoinette” last weekend. The movie had exquisite costumes and an engaging story but also was rich in period landscapes – or at least one landscape: Versailles.

I have not been to Versailles, but I have read some of the many books focused on the gardens of Versailles. I thought I’d share some of the trivia that makes watching this movie (and these beautiful gardens) more interesting.

In 1661, France’s financial secretary held a lavish celebration at his chateau and gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Among the guests enjoying feasts, a play, fireworks and music was 23-year-old King Louis XIV.

At this time, gardens were seen as pleasure grounds and places to entertain guests. One garden historian also said this was when “garden design in France discovered a style of its own.” This formal French garden design consisted of strong geometry, elaborate parterres of pruned hedges, broad walkways, statues, elaborate fountains and woodlands.

The story goes that Louis was furious that an ostentatious finance minister upstaged him with a chateau and gardens better than anything he had. Records state that the minister was arrested within three weeks and stayed imprisoned for the rest of his life.

The king then had the designer of the gardens, Andre LeNotre, start work on transforming the grounds of his modest hunting lodge at Versailles into the elaborate gardens shown in “Marie Antoinette.” This project took six years to design and the remaining five decades of LeNotre’s life to fine-tune.

One of LeNotre’s interests was hydraulics. It may seem the fountains are just turned on in the morning, but remember the electric pump had not been invented. First, waterwheels and pumps brought water uphill from the River Seine to aqueducts, then into tanks and reservoirs miles away. Water was released, run through pipes by gravity, then constricted into smaller pipes to create pressure. The shape of the spout determined the direction and effects of water displays. Thirty-two of Versailles’ pools include hydraulic effects. When the King was coming down the road, fountain guards would whistle so servants could release the water and get the fountains running.

The French, who lived in relatively flat terrain, had to work hard to create great fountains. Nobody could have them run all day, every day. So the fountains also were designed as great sculptural elements that looked good even when the water wasn’t running.

When the fountains did run, Louis XIV wanted drama. The Neptune fountain has 58 spouts. Much of the water ended up in a cross-shaped canal, one mile long and two-thirds of a mile wide. To the visitor it appeared endless, a symbol of the immense power of Louis XIV.
Louis XIV was so involved in the gardens that he wrote a guidebook on how they should be viewed. And viewed they were: From 3,000 to 10,000 people may have been in Versailles on any day. Although photos of Versailles usually show one huge chateau behind dramatic gardens, it actually was a city in itself, with quarters for guests, staff and horses, plus areas to raise food to feed everyone. Hunts would take place in the surrounding woods of the 15,000-acre estate.

After Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are crowned in the film (after 59 years of Louis XV’s reign), they walk outside, where wooden ships fire cannons in a mock battle. No, the French Royal Navy has not sailed in to help celebrate; these ships are in the canal for the sole purpose of creating amusing mock battles. A 1710 illustration in one of my books shows four sailing ships. Talk about a pricey water feature.

Another scene shows Louis XVI with an elephant. The Menagerie was started in one of the earliest stages of Versailles’ redevelopment, perhaps as early as 1662. It was a working farm that provided butter and more, designed to also serve as a place to view country life and animals. At first it contained mainly farm animals, with some fish and exotic birds. A central plaza was lined with gates into several animal enclosures. When the Grand Canal was created a few years later, boat rides to the Menagerie became popular with guests. Exotic animals, such as an elephant and rhinoceros, were added in the early 18th century.

In the 1780s Louis XVI did build a “little” getaway for Marie Antoinette, a bucolic lakeside village in a Normandy style that previewed a future landscape style mimicking romantic country scenes.

It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of these gardens and life under the reign of people who ruled nations in their early 20s. Yet we have a better supply of food, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, lots more books and much more comfortable clothing. I think I’d rather stay in this century.