Wanderings At Windsor
Martha Prince, Locust Valley, N.Y.
On an abrupt escarpment above the River Thames, only twenty-odd miles from London, crouches a truly formidable lion of a castle. William the Conqueror chose the site for one in his chain of fortifications, - to hold his new Norman kingdom from his somewhat rebellious Saxon subjects. Only earthen mounds remain from his day, but, ever since, king after king after king has added to the fortifications. Windsor Castle soon also became a royal residence. It is now the largest occupied castle in the world, and the circumference measures one whole mile! Actually the hill is not very high, and it flattens out into Windsor Home Park on the south. This is a stately lawned area of radiating drives lined with trees. The castle seems almost menacingly bulky - with looming towers and turrets of heavy grey stone - only from the river side. The village of Windsor hugs the narrow strip of land between the fortifications and the placid Thames.
We were visiting England for its gardens, of course, (rhododendron, especially), but like all good tourists we wanted to explore quaint villages and historic castles, too. Before going to Windsor, for the noted Savill and Valley Gardens in the Great Park, we bought a lovely book of color photographs of the castle itself. Gold filigree covered ceilings from which hung glittering crystal chandeliers, paintings by the great masters lined the paneled corridors, a splendid banquet, on an endless table, was set for the annual feast in commemoration of Waterloo. There was a suit of armor I greatly wanted to see - the one belonging to Henry VIII! I would have supposed the gusty monarch would outgrow at least one metallic suit a year. At any rate, I checked and rechecked as to when the State Apartments (as these great rooms are known) would be open to the public, - "at all times when the Queen is not in residence." The British Tourist Office assured me she would not be there on the three days I had allotted to Windsor. When the Queen is at home tourists may visit only the courtyards, and watch the Changing of the Guard, (much like the more famous ceremony at Buckingham Palace. There are scarlet tunics, gold buttons and huge black bearskins - busbies - aplenty for all childhood friends and fans of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh.) The signal for "Queen in Residence" is a flag flying atop a huge round tower. We arrived to see the flag waving on its tall mast, and our hearts sank.
Our stay was at a small inn, remodeled from the great architect Sir Christopher Wren's own home on the river. The foyer and sitting rooms were intact and lovely, and a tasteful dining room had been added, facing a terrace through a glass wall. The terrace itself was a flag-stoned tea-or-aperitif spot directly above the water. Just outside the front door was a pedestrian bridge crossing the Thames to the famous old school-town of Eton. We enjoyed all this (did you know all the swans on the Thames belong to the Queen?), but the inn's hallways and stairs were a rabbit-warren of unattractive, narrow twists and turns. Our room did have a redeeming view of the upper castle, across red-tiled village roofs. At night, between two houses, we could glimpse the Queen's mounted Life Guards (with white plumes on shining helmets). We were attracted out of bed and to the window by the clippity-clop of hoofs on flagstones. We settled for this bit of pageantry, a walk to Eton, good food, and a trek up the hill to the castle gate. Then, - off to the rhododendrons.
The Castle sits on an outcropping of chalk (it has a few small pieces of garden; the only large one is a severely formal bit of dull geometry, along the east side). Windsor Home Park is very large and green, with one of the avenues being three miles long! The underlying soil here is yellow London clay. Next comes Windsor Great Park, where rhododendrons can live happily. Here are deep woods (with the resulting leaf mold) over an acid sand. Windsor Great Park is an enormous place, with more than forty-five hundred acres. Somewhat in its vastness is a Royal Lodge, which fact I only discovered in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The tourist books mention not a word; perhaps they fear tourists stalking through the trees searching for the Queen, out riding.
Savill Garden is the older and smaller of the two gardens within the Park. It was begun in 1932, and first named the "Bog Garden". This was soon changed, on order of George VI, to honor Sir Eric Savill, the Park's Deputy Ranger and the principal garden designer. Inevitably World War II caused a hiatus in the work, but Savill Garden was essentially complete in 1950. The Garden occupies only thirty-five acres of Windsor Great Park's enormity, but it is a very beautiful, very well-manicured, intensively gardened place. There is a pleasant cafeteria (open view down a lawn) a book-and-plant shop, - and people, people, people. Tour buses come up from London. The azaleas and rhododendrons are, indeed, marvelous, but I had the feeling of being in a crowded city park. Also, I couldn't really do any photography. Savill was the only English garden we visited which forbade camera tripods. I can see why, but the rule against them thwarted one of the special reasons I was there! I could have wept when the gate keeper first turned us away.
Perhaps I should explain a little about the camera set-up I work with. People often ask. We don't own any of the newer Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras, but instead make-do with two second-hand pre-War Leica camera bodies (two so there can be one loaded with fast film and one with slow). Leica makes a first-rate ground-glass view finder, named Visoflex, which is inserted between the camera and the lens. The photographer can look down, comfortably, and carefully compose the picture precisely as it will appear. For my use, as flower close-ups are so important, we have an extension bellows on a protruding track. The 135 mm lens I usually use is screwed on at the end of this bellows. Unextended, distant views and such are perfectly simple, yet with the bellows in use I can snoop into the very center of a blossom. All this means a tripod is a must. One would need four hands to use any bellows camera without support! Also, there are two, not one, cable releases to be pressed. To enter Savill, we first had to return to the car, disassemble everything, and put a lens directly onto one of the camera bodies. I'm no good at holding a picture steady at less than 1/25 second, - and this means fickle English weather is a problem, anyway! Our usual camera set-up may be cumbersome, or "funny-looking", but it works. Savill's ban on tripods essentially meant, "No Photos," for me. I was quite disappointed, as you can guess.
|Upper Pond at Savill Garden
photo by Martha Prince
Upper Pond, to the right of the entrance, is inhabited by a pair of Australian black swans, with red beaks. I hadn't known black swans existed, except as one wicked ballerina (in the Black Swan pas de deux from the ballet "Swan Lake"). I wanted a photograph of them out on the water, which is beautifully rimmed with yellow R. luteum and what I supposed to be R. japonicum. No luck. One was interested only in pecking at the grass, and the other wanted to know what mysteries were hidden in our leather camera case.
photo by Martha Prince
Two ponds, two rather small but cheerily green lawns, and "Alpine Meadow" are the only open spaces. The meadow is really a daffodil lawn, filled with the native Narcissus pseudonarcissus and its miniature relatives. Yes, - daffodils are still in bloom with the rhododendrons. How I wish we had England's long spring in America!
English gardeners seem to appreciate America wildflowers more than do American gardeners. Huge masses of both Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum canaliculatum) and False Solomon's Seal (Smilacina racemosa) were planted more thickly than I have ever seen them before. Also, there was good use of our wonderful white Trillium grandiflorum (including the rare double form). A graceful Silverbell tree (Halesia carolina) was hung with its delicate rows of chiming bells, - another treasure we can never find in bloom at rhododendron time over here.
To the west of Upper Pond are large groupings of Ghent and Mollis azalea hybrids. A deliciously fragrant yellow Ghent was the double-flowered 'Bartholo Lazzari'. A bit of orange shading completed its beauty. I would love to own a plant; the only double yellow Ghent I generally see is charming ‘Narcissiflora’. The Mollis hybrid, 'Shakespeare' (single-flowered, a deep yellow approximately matching RHS 21 C in color) attracted attention. Next to stop us was 'Graciosa', an Occidentale hybrid of carmine-tinged yellow. Occidentale hybrids are Mollis hybrids crossed with our western American species, R. occidentale. Not being able to grow that species with any success, I am unfamiliar with this late nineteenth century hybrid group. Whether or not they are suitable for Long Island I cannot even guess. I am still trying to grow some of the intraspecific hybrids from Frank Mossman's seed (There are busy two-year-olds in our greenhouse; I hesitate to send them out to the death which met all previous plants). Knap Hill azaleas in this deciduous area included a lovely pink with a deeper color in the bud, 'Mary Waterer'. It carried a yellow blotch.
You have, by now, no doubt read of (or seen) the "new" Windsor Hybrids. This group originated with a large gift of plants from Lionel de Rothschild to King George VI. Sir Eric did some hybridizing with the plants, but, so far as I know, was not planning to introduce them. James Wells got permission to bring a selected group of cuttings to America; he now sells them through the Wayside Gardens catalogue. The similarity to the un-named ball-truss Solent group from Exbury is striking! At Savill, the complete collection is planted on both sides of Lower Pond. They are lovely plants, indeed. Most are still at Savill, but the "overflow" azaleas are also in Valley Garden.
|Windsor Hybrid azalea (un-named)
photo by Martha Prince
When confronted with so much that is beautiful at Savill, it seems trivial to criticize small things. Savill is proud, and rightly so, of its many plants of the blue Poppy of Tibet (Meconopsis betonicifolia) and the even richer blue M. grande 'Branklyn'. However, the specimens we found in bloom were randomly scattered among the primulas. Three-foot, bare-looking spikes, bearing the sky-blue blossoms at the tip, poked up incongruously from the beds of yellow, purple, pink, orange, cerise, white! I have learned to enjoy the English use of random color in primula beds, - an almost naive, or is it very sophisticated, gaiety (children's art, - or Matisse?). But these tall blue poppies, handsome conversation-pieces as they are, were blaringly out of place. I just plain didn't like the effect. Perhaps it was the otherwise pervasive sense of absolute "perfection" at Savill which made me react so strongly.
Another English garden "habit" that I found unattractive, and which we first saw at Savill, is raised "peat beds". Solid peat is cut into rectangular blocks, about the size of concrete blocks, and used as the retaining walls for low raised beds, even for series of terraced beds. The ugliest use of this system at Savill was a three-tier planting of deciduous azaleas. All very square and angular, this seemed inappropriate among the swerves and curves of all the other plantings. The least they could have done was camouflage the dilapidated brown "bricks" with ground cover! (The English have a treasure in lots of Vinca major, a starry giant next to the usual Vinca minor). Luckily, we will not find this planting habit crossing the Atlantic; I have never found peat for sale in anything but nice big bags.
We moved on from beautiful but crowded Savill to beautiful and empty Valley Garden. To Savill's thirty-five acres. Valley boasts three hundred. There is a walking path from one garden to the other - about half a mile long - but recently a "car park" was added at Valley. It costs only a few pence, and there is no admission charge to the Garden, as there is at Savill. Best of all, tripods for cameras are allowed, thank goodness. With no people, we felt the Garden was ours alone, and we were now far, far from "civilization".
Valley Garden is a relaxed and informal place. Undulating hills and valleys dip toward a man-made lake, Virginia Water. This sizeable lake was designed and dammed by the Duke of Cumberland, during the reign of George II. George III used some of the land for farming, but I got the impression that all of Windsor Great Park was principally used as a royal hunting preserve. It was 1947 before Valley Garden was begun. I can't find out when R. ponticum and R. luteum were first planted in the area, but it had to have been a very long time ago. R. ponticum was introduced into England during the mid-1700's, and is completely naturalized. In some parts of southern England one can drive on a paved, numbered "highway" between solid, clipped twenty or thirty foot walls of R. ponticum. When one side is ponticum and one is Ilex aquifolium, similarly clipped, the dark green, roofless tunnel is breathtaking. The sunny yellow R. luteum, though not as large, is just as "wild". Harold Epstein told me that he was in Valley in 1949 when the rhododendron and azalea thickets were still being hacked and chopped to clear room for lawns and plantings.
|Azalea Path, Valley Garden
photo by Martha Prince
Our day at Valley was alternately stormy and sunny. One moment "cats and dogs" poured down on us, and the next a smiling sun emerged. The essential folding umbrellas were snapped open every ten minutes or so; our camera wears a large plastic bag as a rain hat. The Garden, large as it is, has but one small open-sided shelter (complete with a plaque commemorating the dedication by the Queen). Whenever we sought refuge there, we had a pretty view all the way down to Virginia Water, glinting in placid silver at the foot of the long hill.
The map in the booklet on Savill and Valley (which you must buy at Savill; there are no concessions at Valley) is hopeless. I would say it looked as though someone went dot-crazy to show a maze of paths, but forgot to show why to use the paths, or what was where. A few directional signs, and perhaps a large map in the shelter, would help. Anyone could easily miss one of the principal attractions of the Garden, the complete Tower Court collection of rhododendron species. These were collected by a Mr. Stevenson for his estate at Ascot (nearby). Windsor's Crown Commissioners spent four years moving the collection to Valley, after Mr. Stevenson died in 1951. The Garden has added to the collection as new species were identified, and now proudly considers that its species collection is the world's greatest. It is encyclopedic, to say the least! Anything you can name (other than the Vireyas, of course) is there. "A" is for arizelum, "B" is for brevistylum, "C" is for crinigerum, "D" is for delavayi, "E" is for eclecteum, "F" is for fictolacteum, "G" is for genestierianum, and right on through the list to "Z" is for zaleucum. You will need the Rhododendron Species in Cultivation (Royal Horticultural Society) in hand. However, Valley leaves the visitor strictly "on his own"; there should be a comprehensive map of the collection, adequate for those rhododendron people who really want to know what is there.
The pleasantest walk to take for a starter is the paved one more-or-less to the right and front of you as you enter (the species collection is off to the far right, and a wrong guess will land you in the hydrangea beds). A spacious lawn with trees lies to one side, and the far curve is banked with a thicket of hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous sunny yellow R. luteum. Continuing downward, the walk lies between banks of gay azaleas, both deciduous and evergreen. One Kaempferi hybrid I especially noted was 'John Cairns', which approximately matches RHS 47 C. My precious green box of RHS color fans doesn't belong out on such a showery day! Among the deciduous azaleas lining the path, the medium-pink Knap Hill 'Tyne' rated a photograph. Returning to the top of the hill (and the shelter) I found one of the Windsor Great Park rhododendron hybrids (these are marked WGP) I liked very much, 'Tilehurst'. This is a deep salmon cross of 'Dido' by 'Sarita Loder'. Not far away stood 'Flamingo’ ('Loder's White' x R. griersonianum), a very full plant dressed in rich pink blossoms. 'Flamingo’ is a Scottish production, by Sir James Horlick. I believe all of his hybrids are distributed only through the gardens of the National Trust for Scotland.
|Knap Hill 'Tyne'
photo by Martha Prince
photo by Martha Prince
My real love of the day was 'Vanessa Pastel'. I find that Leach has an H-4 by 'Vanessa’ (the grex and that clone), but nothing specifically on the hardiness of this absolute beauty. Our ARS members in the Northwest can grow it, I'm sure, but we cannot touch anything tenderer than H-3. The cross is R. griersonianum x R. 'Soulbut'. As 'Soulbut' is R. souliei x R. 'Sir Charles Butler' (a form of fortunei) I had hoped, in vain, that there would be more fortunei hardiness. The flowers, sprinkled with raindrops, were among those delicate things I think of in watercolor terms. I've wondered how I'd paint them. First, a clear "wash" of very dilute and pale Cadmium Yellow Light, just enough so there is a creamy base, not a white one. Then, I'd slowly add a pale brushing of Scarlet, possibly with just a bit of Cadmium Orange Light and Alizarin Crimson in the mixture. Slowly, gently (with the tiniest brush in existence, a red sable OOO) I'd build up the tone on the lower tube (to about RHS 43 D, in horticultural terms). The throat is deep, too, and there is a line up the outside of each petal. The inner blossom is a pale shell pink. So beautiful! 'Vanessa Pastel' is a Bodnant hybrid.
|R. 'Vanessa Pastel'
photo by Martha Prince
The only American hybrid I noticed was another for Northwesterners only. This was the very fine 'C.I.S.' ('Fabia' x 'Loder's White', Henny). The coloring isn't too unlike 'Vanessa Pastel', but it has the addition of a petaloid calyx, which gives a pretty extra outside "petticoat" to each blossom. And speaking of American hybrids, I found that the English just don't seem to grow them, if the gardens we visited are at all typical. They don't need our Dexters, et cetera; as the hardiness doesn't matter, and they can get all the colors they want on larger flowers, why should they use them? For lepidotes, however, I am puzzled over the English neglect of treasures like Nearing's 'Windbeam'.
|R. glischrum (new leaves)
photo by Martha Prince
I photographed only a few rhododendron species. R. souliei was in fine bloom, - white centered, rose edged. The Rhododendron Species Foundation offers this for sale to members, and I'd like to try. It is expensive, so I must find a really good, protected spot. Leach gives an H-3. For my next picture, I was enchanted by the new leaf growth on R. glischrum. I really like this photograph better than anything else I got that day. Photographers are a little batty, so I've been told! Actually, mid-May is late for the best quantity of species, and there were not all that many available to pose. Augustinii, in a seemingly infinite assortment of lavender shades, was everywhere; arboreum was still bright, and there were some trusses on such things as habrotrichum. The yakushimanum plants were in full array. The Royal Horticultural Society holds its Rhododendron Show in late April! The later blossoming ones go into the gigantic everything-show, at Chelsea. We wanted much more time to explore the expanse of Valley Garden, but, as always, time-to-leave comes too soon.
As it turned out, Queen Elizabeth left Windsor the same day we did, - for her official visit to the Chelsea Show. We were headed for Chelsea, too, - but members (though they have a Private Day) may only come on the day after the royal tour. Our plan was to stop at Hampton Court Palace, on the way to London, and we decided not to "trade in" that excursion for a glimpse of Henry VIII's armor at Windsor Castle. I'm glad we didn't. Hampton Court was very special in many ways (though not for rhododendrons. We didn't even pause at the one wan bed of deciduous azaleas). We, too, had the long-anticipated glories of Chelsea before us.
We will go back to Windsor and its gardens someday, I hope. As it is, I am lucky to be an artist with a very visual memory. I can see the beauty of Windsor Great Park, its plantings, blooms and vistas, whenever I want to, - even in the middle of the night.