Beth Chatto Gardens
- Heritage Category:
- Park and Garden
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Statutory Address:
- Clacton Road, Elmstead, Colchester, CO7 7DB
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- Statutory Address:
- Clacton Road, Elmstead, Colchester, CO7 7DB
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Tendring (District Authority)
- National Grid Reference:
A series of informal gardens of 7 acres (2.83ha), developed from 1960 onwards, with additions and alterations in the late-C20 and early-C21, all by Beth Chatto OBE VMH.
Reasons for Designation
The Beth Chatto Gardens, a series of informal gardens of 7 acres (2.83ha), developed from 1960 onwards, with additions and alterations in the late-C20 and early-C21, all by Beth Chatto, are registered at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* as a structured series of linked gardens which, developed on contrasting dry and water-logged soils, with terraces and water features, successfully combines asymmetry with the ikebana principles of harmony of shape, form, outline and texture; * its pioneering design based around plant communities has now become the bedrock of many successful garden designs and has been absorbed into the gardening lexicon.
* the structural framework of the garden including the footpaths, ponds, canalised drainage ditch and terraces all survive virtually intact, providing the context for the bold and deliberate planting, which still remains true to the 'right plant, right place' philosophy.
* as a particularly important and early example of an environmentally sustainable garden design, using plants adapted to, and in harmony with, local conditions; * as the home of Beth Chatto OBE VMH (1923-2018), the leading plantswoman of her age. The gardens are an example of a new post-war garden type in their marriage of a domestic landscape and nursery business.
The distinguished plantswoman Beth Chatto OBE VMH (nee Betty Diana Little, 1923-2018), one of the most influential horticulturists of the post-war era, was born in the village of Good Easter, Essex, and educated at Colchester County High School. Her parents were keen gardeners and her love of gardening came from them, though she never studied at horticultural college. Instead, from 1940 to 1943, she trained as a teacher at Hockerill Teacher Training College, Bishop’s Stortford, exercising her gardening skills by growing vegetables for the school in its grounds.
In 1943 Beth married Andrew Chatto (1909-99), the grandson of the founder of the publishers Chatto and Windus, with whom she had become acquainted when making an ecological survey of local salt marshes. It was Andrew's abiding interest in plant ecology that ultimately set Beth on course for her own successful career, with her planting philosophy being very much a joint effort. Andrew’s curiosity in plant associations began as a child when, for his American mother's health, his family went to live in California. Observing ‘Eschscholzia’ (Californian Poppy), ‘Ceanothus’ (Californian lilac) and lupins growing wild, which he recognised from his parent’s garden in Radlett, Hertfordshire, Andrew wondered how they had got there from England. On being told that they were native to California as brambles and elderflowers were to England, he subsequently developed a lifelong interest in the origins and natural associations of garden plants, discovering with which species they grow and the conditions to which they were adapted. Garden reference books, at the time, said very little about where plants came from, or their habitat, so Andrew combed through journals and scholarly works to garner this information. He read scientific literature in German and French and, in order to be able to read the extensive material on the plant life of the Soviet Union, he learned Russian. After deciding upon a career in farming, Andrew studied agriculture at Wye College, Kent, before taking over a 100 acre (40.5ha) fruit farm his parents had bought for him at Elmstead Market, Essex.
In the early years of their marriage, with the couple living at Andrew's family home in Braiswick, Colchester, Beth devoted herself to bringing up their two daughters and helping her husband on the farm. In her spare time she tended the garden inherited from her mother-in-law and read profusely about gardening, particularly the writings of Vita Sackville-West and Margery Fish. In the early 1950s, a close neighbour, Mrs Pamela Underwood, who also ran a nursery, encouraged Beth to become involved in flower arranging, where she discovered that it was possible to create attractive designs with foliage as well as flowers. The two women subsequently founded the Colchester Flower Club, only the second such club to be established in Britain. At around the same time the Chattos became friends with the artist and master plantsman Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982), who had developed a garden of rare plants at his home and art school in Benton End, Suffolk. He introduced Beth and Andrew to many plants they were both interested in, such as bergenias and pulmonarias among others, marking the beginnings of an interest in the more unusual, and often neglected, perennials suitable for both dry and damp situations. Sir Cedric subsequently became a second generous mentor to Beth, supplying her with drought-tolerant plants, of which many were found in the wild as he travelled and painted in the Mediterranean away from the cold East Anglian winters. Beth also taught herself to propagate from the seeds, berries and cuttings that Sir Cedric gave her, as well as from his generous bundles of roots, tubers and bulbs.
By the late 1950s, after pouring considerable effort into her Braiswick garden, battling with chalky boulder clay but still being far removed from the ideal that Beth admired at Benton End, Sir Cedric told her that she would never make a good garden there and would have to move. Although uprooting the family would be hard, Andrew and Beth recognised that Sir Cedric was right and decided that several acres of unproductive farmland on their fruit farm - comprising drought-stricken gravel leading down through dense, damp, silty soil into a spring-fed hollow in which lay a narrow ditch - would be the ideal place to create a garden informed by Andrew’s years of studying plant ecology.
In 1959 the Chattos commissioned a split-level bungalow, White House Barn, from their architect-friend Bryan Thomas, as their new family home. Once they had bulldozed away banks of blackthorn and bramble, leaving only a few mature oak trees as features, the couple found themselves with a site totally unsuitable for conventional gardening, asking for a series of designs using plants adapted by nature to different problem areas. As well as becoming a trial ground and showcase for Beth’s philosophy of using plants adapted to, and in harmony with, local conditions, or to put it more simply the right plant for the right place, Beth also took plant placement beyond the practical, using her florist's eye for contrasts in colour, form and texture. This was informed by her knowledge of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, where scalene (asymmetrical) triangles are used to create outlines with simple lines that are dynamic yet balanced and harmonious at the same time. Beth thus grouped her plants in a similar fashion, often with several interlocking triangles, with core plants forming a back bone, ensuring that there was height and shade even in winter, while vertical plants were used to create an apex. Bushier plants were used for the middle layer while spreading plants formed the base. Her overall emphasis was on texture and contrasting form, as well as variations in foliage colour. Beth also placed considerable importance on the use of trees to lead the eye upwards, which she called "painting the sky".
During the early 1960s the site began to take shape, with the first area of gravelly soil on which the couple set to work being the Mediterranean Garden, where several terraces and raised beds were created immediately to the south of the house. In the shallow depression between the house and the site's south-west boundary, the spring-fed ditch was widened to create a pond to form the basis of the Water Garden. It was dug in 1959-1960 with equipment borrowed from a neighbouring farmer who was excavating the first of a series of reservoirs on adjoining land. However, as little was done to improve the heavy clay soil, the planned planting scheme never materialised and the pond was remodelled in 1965 when a further two ponds were added. A fourth pond followed in 1973. To the south-west of the ponds, the existing boundary line of trees, mainly ancient oaks and holly bushes, was added to from 1967 with conifers and a mixture of evergreen and deciduous shrubs and then underplanted with a collection of shade tolerant plants to create the Long Shady Walk.
In the mid-1960s, with Andrew's health failing and the future of fruit farming looking uncertain, the couple sold off the farm, leaving them with the house and garden. To support the family, and also having gained sufficient confidence in her horticultural abilities, Beth opened her own nursery, called 'Unusual Plants', adjacent to the garden, in 1967. As a result of travelling around the country demonstrating flower arrangements using only flowers, foliage, seed heads and grasses from her garden, Beth found the audience that she needed to buy her plants and a successful business was born.
In January 1975 Beth’s first exhibit at a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Westminster Flower Show, displaying her ‘unusual plants’, resulted in the award of a Silver Medal. However, it as for her RHS Chelsea Flower Show displays in the 1970s and 1980s that she became well-known, winning 10 consecutive Gold Medals from 1977. Lecturing tours of Canada, the United States, Australia and Europe followed and her first book, ‘The Dry Garden’, was published in 1978, followed by ‘The Damp Garden’ in 1982 (revised in 1998). Her books disseminated her ideas to a wider market and she became widely acclaimed, attracting a huge following among aspiring gardeners at a time when only a few German and Dutch nurserymen and designers were beginning to preach a naturalism based on the sustainability of plant communities.
In 1976, when the adjoining farmer extended his reservoir (which had originally been created by the Chattos in 1953), the excavated clay that had been left at the bottom of the gravel slope was flattened and topped with newly excavated clay, which was subsequently mulched, to create the Reservoir Garden. It was originally designed as an area of wide grassy walks with three, large, informal island beds planted with low maintenance trees and shrubs, interspersed with a few herbaceous perennials and grasses. However, as the soil structure proved to be problematic, being wet and sticky all winter and dry and rock hard in summer, it was redesigned from 2014 as a single, large bed, being reopened by Beth on her 94th birthday in 2017.
Prior to a storm in 1987, Andrew and Beth has intended to leave a wooded area at the eastern end of their site, mostly oaks, alder and willows, as natural woodland, to allow it to develop into a home for native flora and fauna. However, after clearing up the storm damage, Andrew agreed that Beth should turn it into a new garden, the Woodland Garden. Covering about 1.5 acres, planting started in 1990, with an understorey of mixed deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs and a ground layer of shade-loving plants from temperate world countries.
In 1991, with the success of the garden and nursery resulting in the creation of a larger visitor car park, Beth converted the original car park into an arid gravel garden. Born out of the summer droughts of the mid-1970s, it was planted as an horticultural experiment, to see which plants could thrive in drought conditions without supplementary watering. Designed to evoke a dried-up river bed, planting here commenced in Spring 1992.
In 1999, in order to display smaller, low-growing Alpine plants that enjoy well-drained sunny areas, yet can be easily overgrown by larger plants as in the Gravel Garden, Beth developed the Scree Garden adjacent to the house, on part of the Mediterranean Garden.
Working with a team of gardeners, Beth continued to oversee the development of the site until her death on 13 May 2018. As one of the most well-known and respected post-war horticulturists, she was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour, its highest accolade, in 1988 and the Garden Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. In 2002 she was awarded an OBE for her services to horticulture, and in 2014 she won the John Brookes Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Garden Designers (SGD), an award granted to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the landscape and garden design profession. Further recognition from the SGD came in 2019 when they announced the introduction of the Beth Chatto Eco Award, which will be awarded on an annual basis to a project where the design focus is on the garden’s environmental impact through the creative and ecological use of materials and planting.
The Beth Chatto Gardens and her gardening ethos continues through the work of the Beth Chatto Education Trust, established in 2014 to carry forward her passion for plants and ecological approach to gardening.
A series of informal gardens of 7 acres (2.83ha), developed from 1960 onwards, with additions and alterations in the late-C20 and early-C21, all by Beth Chatto OBE VMH.
The nursery, stock beds and car park do not form part of the designed landscape and are excluded from the registration. LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM AND SETTING The Beth Chatto Gardens lie 0.5 miles to the east of Elmstead Market, five miles from Colchester, on the south side of the A133 Clacton Road. It comprises a series of informal gardens, roughly L-shaped on plan, covering an area of around 7 acres (2.83ha), with stock beds to the north-west and east respectively, and a large nursery at the centre of the site making, along with a visitor car park to the north, some 14 acres (5.67ha) in total. The garden is screened by conifer hedges, stock beds and nursery buildings from the car park, by conifer hedges set with trees to the east and by two farm reservoirs (in separate ownership) to the south. It lies on falling land to the south, with the house, nursery, gift shop and tea room occupying the highest part of the site, a glacial moraine of hard gravel, to the west of which lies a shallow depression formed by a small, spring-fed ditch which has been deepened over time to leave banks of clay and which runs into one of the farm reservoirs created in 1959. The depression is filled with black silt over clay, which continues up the slight north-east facing slope towards the western boundary. When a second reservoir was dug in 1976, the excavated clay was spread over the gravel on the north side of the two reservoirs.
ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES The garden, originally approached from White Barn House, is now a visitor attraction and is entered from the south side of the A133 Clacton Road by way of a 0.2 mile access lane which, aligned north-north-east to south-south-west, leads into a large car park created in 1991. On the south side of the car park an opening in a large conifer hedge leads directly into the Gravel Garden. A toilet block stands immediately to the east of the entrance with a gift shop to the south-east and a tea room to the south, beyond which is White Barn House. On the south-west side of the Gravel Garden a short flight of steps descends to a timber-framed entrance kiosk from where the main series of five, linked gardens are accessed.
PRINCIPAL BUILDING White Barn House, built in 1960 to a design by Bryan Thomas of Colchester, stands at the centre of the site, at the top of a sloping bank. Comprising a split-level bungalow with an L-shaped plan, it is constructed from white-painted brick with a mono-pitched tile roof. Its south-east façade has large windows overlooking garden terraces and the gardens beyond while the attic has a large dormer window lighting Andrew Chatto’s former study/library.
A timber-framed entrance kiosk built in 2007-08 stands on the south-west side of the Gravel Garden.
Willow House, an education centre constructed from timber, was added to the north-east side of the Water Garden in 2017
OTHER LAND The following areas lie outside the area of registration but are listed below to provide context.
A tea room, built in 2006 by PJB Architects of Colchester, stands immediately to the north-east of White Barn House, beyond which is a late-C20 gift shop. To the north of the gift shop is an early-C21 toilet block.
Standing immediately to the east and south-east of White Barn House is a series of nursery buildings and propagation beds along with a much altered timber-framed greenhouse built by Beth Chatto in 1967.
To the north-west of the Water Garden and to the north and north-east of the Woodland Garden are a series of stock beds totalling around 2 acres (0.8ha).
GARDENS The Beth Chatto Gardens were designed to be enjoyed as a series of contrasting informal gardens using plants adapted to, and in harmony with, local conditions. Beth’s interest focused strongly on the more unusual, and often neglected, perennials suitable for both dry and damp situations, rather than their placing as part of an overall masterplan, planting piecemeal as and when she decided. Her aim was to make the best of the plot she had, following a 'right plant, right place' philosophy, the gardens as they are seen today (2020) are a clear reflection of this ethos. A network of paths, including formal walks close to the house and informal grass walks deep in the garden, give access to the vast array of plants, shrubs and trees. The gardens, which lie to the north, north-east, west, south-west, south-east of White Barn House, are divided into a series of named gardens including: the Gravel Garden; the Water Garden; the Long Shady Walk; the Reservoir Garden Woodland Garden; and the Scree Garden. They all deal with challenging soils and aspects and are described as follows:
Gravel Garden The Gravel Garden, which covers an area of 0.75 acres (0.3 ha), consists of free-draining sand and gravel to a depth of 6m (20 feet). Developed from 1991 on the site of the former visitor car park, it is accessed from the replacement car park on its north-east side through a gap in a large conifer hedge which had been planted in the mid-1970s as both a wind break and a property boundary between the Chatto’s site and the neighbouring fruit farm. The planting in the garden, which follows meandering contours deliberately evoking a dried-up river bed, consists of species adapted to hot, dry conditions, including bulbs, self-seeding annuals, biennial grasses, low shrubby plants and many perennials. A backbone of trees and shrubby plants runs through the planting, providing both shelter and vertical definition. The use of gravel for both paths and mulching unifies the overall design.
Water Garden The Water Garden is accessed by way of a wooden entrance kiosk (2007/8) on the south-east side of the Gravel Garden. From the kiosk, which is flanked on its right-hand side by a mature oak tree, a path leads north-west to Willow House, an education centre (2017), while grassed walks descend to the south-east and south-west to where the planting is centred around four stepped ponds lying on a north-west to south-east alignment. As one of the first gardens the Chatto’s created at their new home, taking advantage of a spring-fed drainage ditch, the first pond was dug in around 1959-60 as a lily pond. As Beth deemed it not to be a success, it was remodelled in 1965-6 when two more ponds ('the house pools'), both edged with hollow concrete blocks, were created. In 1973 a fourth pond ('the silver birch pool'), also edged with hollow concrete blocks, was dug at the southern end of the alignment. Around the ponds, with the low-lying silty soil not being far above the water table, many moisture-loving plants have been established to create lush-looking bog gardens, with 'Taxodium distichum' (Swamp Cypress) and 'Metasequoia' (Dawn Redwood) forming vertical focal points above willow and bamboo. These are designed to remain as visible structures in winter, as most herbaceous plants suited to the waterside, all die down at that time of year. From the southernmost pond the drainage ditch, which has been canalised and edged with hollow concrete blocks, passes through the centre of the Canal Bed, a large, oval-shaped flower bed. It is partially shaded by two oak trees, a native oak (Quercus robur) which was present when the Chatto’s arrived, and a Pink Oak (Q. palustris), which the Chatto's planted, beneath which are mixed shrubs.
Long Shady Walk The site's south-west boundary, which lies on rising ground immediately to the south-west of the Water Garden, consist of a series of mature oak trees supplemented with conifers along with a mixture of evergreen and deciduous shrubs. Beneath the trees a collection of shade-tolerant plants, including ferns, hostas and hellebores, border a north-west to south-east meandering path known as the 'Long Shady Walk'. The path is formally separated from the Water Garden by three, large, oval-shaped island beds planted with shrubs, perennials and grasses. Planting in this area is believed to have commenced in the late 1960s.
Reservoir Garden The Reservoir Garden, which lies to the south-west of the Water Garden, was originally laid out in the mid-1970s as three island beds. It was redesigned between 2014 and 2016 as a large open area bisected by meandering paths and planted with herbaceous perennials and grasses.
Woodland Garden The Woodland Garden, measuring about 0.6ha (1.5 acres), comprises the extreme north-western end of a parcel of mixed oak, alder and willow that predominantly lies outside the garden boundary on an adjoining farm (in separate ownership). Originally planted in the mid-C20, it was replanted from 1990 following storm damage in 1987, with the mature tree canopy being supplemented by an understorey of mixed deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. The ground layer, which is bisected by a network of winding paths, consists of shade-tolerant plants from temperate world countries. In 2019 an area along the southern boundary of the Woodland Garden was developed as a Reflection Garden.
Scree Garden The Scree Garden, which is inspired by the Alpine landscape, lies immediately to the south-east of White Barn House, and was created in 2005 on part of the Mediterranean Garden. It consists of a series of raised scree beds, constructed from broken paving slabs in the form of dry stone walling, accommodating small, low-growing plants that enjoy hot, dry conditions. Vestiges of the Mediterranean Garden can still be seen in the borders on the sloping bank to the south-west of the Scree Garden, where shrubby plants such as lavenders and 'Bupleurum' have been retained.
Books and journals
Chatto, B, The Green Tapestry: Choosing and grouping the best perennial plants for your garden, (1989)
Chatto, B, The Dry Garden, (1978)
Chatto, B, The Damp Garden, (1982)
Chatto, B, Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden, (2000)
Horwood, C, Beth Chatto: A life with plants, (2019)
Clayton, P, 'The Evolving Garden: Where problems become inspired solutions' in The Garden, , Vol. 130, No 12, (December 2005), 874-81
Clayton, P, 'Great Garden Visits: Beth Chatto Gardens' in The Garden, (September 2015), 47-52
Chatto, B, 'Leafy Haven' in The Garden, (March 1999), 179-185
Garden Museum video of Beth Chatto , accessed 3 June 2020 from https://vimeo.com/113409764
Information on Beth Chatto from the Garden Museum's retrospeactive exhibition , accessed 3 June 2020 from https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/beth-chatto
Information on the Beth Chatto Gardens from the Beth Chatto Gardens website , accessed 03 February 2020 from https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/
This garden or other land is registered under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953 within the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by Historic England for its special historic interest.
End of official listing