The Arts & Crafts Splendour of Rodmarton Manor

In 1906 Claud, the youngest son of politician Sir Michael Biddulph, commissioned a house to be built on land gifted by his father.  The commission was given to Ernest Barnsley who specialised in design and building in the Arts & Crafts style.   In the spirit of the movement, all materials had to be sourced locally and hand-crafted with no machinery used.  Claud stated that the house should have the feel of “a cottage in the country”, somewhat of an understatement by the time the building was completed in 1929.

Rodmarton Manor seen from one of the ‘garden rooms’

The house, which has a total of seventy-four rooms, was built as three angled sections with a sweeping driveway and circular lawn to the front courtyard.  The family lived in one wing, servants in another (now converted into flats) and the central section was to be used as a community space where local villagers could meet and learn skills and craftsmanship.  In this way, the Biddulphs were instrumental in maintaining age-old traditions that were in danger of dying out. 

Rodmarton Manor

The mansion, still family owned and open to the public, retains much of its original furniture and furnishings.  Listed as a Grade 1 building by Historic England it has been described as “the single best example of the Arts & Crafts movement”.  On the day of my visit the house was closed but I was able to explore the gardens which are also listed and have been created in the same style.

Old stone urns and troughs frame the entrance

Close to the house, the gardens consist of a series of room-like areas enclosed by stone walls and hedges.  Lichen encrusted pots, urns and troughs, along with precisely clipped topiary give a timeless feel to the garden and also ensures that there is plenty of interest during the winter months. The aptly named Long Garden comes as a surprise after visiting other areas, for although very much of the style, it is relatively narrow in width.  A flagstone path emphasises its 75-metre length and leads to a delightful pavilion, a small pool and a seating area.  Divided by clipped yew hedges and bordered by densely planted herbaceous borders it was, for me, the highlight of the garden. 

The Long Garden at Rodmarton Manor in June
The Pavilion at the far end of the Long Garden

It was disappointing not being able to see the craftsmanship of the interior of the house.  However, the exterior of the building revealed many surprises.  What I liked most of all was the exquisite detail of the rainwater downpipes proving once and for all that even when something is utilitarian it can still also be beautiful.

Even the practical is made to look beautiful exquisite detail of the rainwater downpipes
Every downpipe detail differs

Rodmarton Hall is situated midway between the Cotswold towns of Cirencester and Tetbury and is open to the public throughout the summer months on selected days.  There are additional garden open days in February to view the snowdrops of which there are over 150 varieties.  To find out more click on the link here

The Fortune in Your Garden

The garden in winter; not the place where many of us loiter.  Instead we race back to the house for a nice, warming cup of tea.  On the way, we catch the scent from the Mahonia bush that thrives year after year on neglect.  Hinting of lily-of-the-valley, it’s fragrant, primrose yellow sprays of flowers will continue to give pleasure until the spring, as will the white, winter-flowering honeysuckle.  We stop just long enough to pick a few sprigs of jasmine, also pale yellow, to put in a vase.  The list of so many of our favourite plants could go on and on.

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Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum

What do all these plants have in common apart from being easy to grow?  They were all collected by a dour Scotsman in the mid-nineteenth century, Robert Fortune.  Despite being garden favourites and he being heralded as one of the heroes of the Victorians his name today is all but forgotten.  Even more remarkable, his discoveries changed society’s values, values that we now take for granted.  And the cup of tea?   Before Robert Fortune’s expedition to China, tea was an expensive commodity drunk only by the privileged few; soon it was to become the everyday drink of the masses.

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Tea plantation

In 1843, having shown great ability as a plantsman, first in Edinburgh and then at Chiswick, Fortune was sent to China with the instruction to learn about the practice of using bonemeal and to collect “tea of differing qualities.”  Commissioned for twelve months with a salary of £100 plus expenses, he proved so successful that he travelled for almost twenty years.  Upon his arrival, he disliked both China and the Chinese intensely; their dislike of him (and foreigners, in general) was even greater.  They refused to tell him where to find plants.

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Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, another Fortune introduction

Fortune, although rude and unsmiling, was also brave and on numerous occasions had to fend off thieves and pirates.  Confined to his cabin, ill with a fever, his boat was abandoned and he was left to face his forty attackers singlehandedly.  Firing into their midst he survived both the attack and the fever and continued to Shanghai.  There he discovered the ‘Japanese’ Anemone, Anemone japonica, growing in great profusion on disturbed graves.  Now popular in the autumn border, anyone who has tried to eradicate it knows that the brittle root breaks to regrow in even larger numbers.  The graveyard story gave us ample warning of this.

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Japanese Anemone

It is for tea that Robert Fortune really deserves greater recognition.  The gardens of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, were closely guarded by the Chinese.  On a further expedition to China and disguised as a peasant, complete with shaved head and pigtail, he succeeded in sending over 100,000 seeds and seedlings to the East India Company.  It was the foundation of an industry that would create great wealth for both individuals and Britain and reinforced the British belief in Empire.

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Apart from the ‘tea’ camellia, Robert Fortune also introduced a number of ornamental varieties

The winter-flowering Mahonia was also collected at this time.  Believed to have magical properties it was almost unobtainable; in consequence, the entire stock of Mahonia in Europe and the USA descend from just three small plants.  During Fortune’s fourth and final visit to China, Japan in 1859 opened its borders for the first time.  One of the first Europeans to enter the country he collected large numbers of plants then unknown to Europe, including many types of chrysanthemum.

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The purple berries of Mahonia appear after flowering

Robert Fortune’s legacy didn’t stop with the plants he introduced.  The wonder his plants created when exhibited in London established the international reputation of the Horticultural Society as the centre of excellence.  As the plants began to be distributed amongst the big, country estates the gentry started to take an interest in the growing of the plants themselves, something hitherto unknown.  Soon they began to assist and then direct their garden staff, culminating in the revolutionary style of Gertrude Jekyll.  Her approach is still a major influence on garden style and practice today.  This, in turn, led to even greater demand for plants.  To meet these needs, the horticultural industry worldwide is now a multi-billion pound industry.  Amongst the thousands of plant types propagated for sale each year, Robert Fortune’s introductions are amongst the most popular and enduring.

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Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ whose flowers start with a deep pink bud before slowly fading to apricot

recommended reading:

A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, Robert Fortune, 1852

Life in the English Country House, M Girouard, 1979

The Plant Hunters, T Whittle, 1970

The Plant Hunters, C Lyte, 1983

and, of course, Wikipedia