JARS v56n4 - Windsor Great Park

Windsor Great Park
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

The date was 1931. At that time England's Windsor Great Park was conspicuously absent any garden in the whole of its inviting reaches. It took a confluence of events to propel this area to the forefront of pubic gardens. The propitious appointment of Sir Eric Savill in 1931 to the position of Deputy Surveyor of Windsor Parks and Woods became that incubating event that led to the future renown of this magnificent setting.

Sir Eric Savill began his march to accomplishment with a background that underpinned a fortuitous relationship with an old friend. Just before the outbreak of World War I, Eric Savill, while at Magdalene College, Cambridge, entered into a close and enduring relationship with one Owens Morshead. At the outset of war, Eric volunteered his services to the Crown and was later severely wounded at the Battle of the Somme. Upon recovery and return to civilian life, he set forth to educate himself in agriculture and estate management. In 1920 he joined the London firm of Alfred Savill and Sons, Land Agents and Chartered Surveyors, of which his father was head; six years later he became a partner. At this precise time his friend Owens Morshead was installed as the Librarian of Windsor Castle. Over the next few years, in his visits to his friend, Eric became intimately acquainted with the Crown land that constituted Windsor Great Park.

After his appointment to Deputy Surveyor in 1931, Sir Eric was struck by the lack of any garden of horticultural interest accessible to the public in this immense and superbly suited area. Over the next few years he became closely connected with members of the Royal family and prevailed upon their horticultural inclinations to convince them to establish a garden in this setting of fine old trees, water and undulating hillsides. Sir Eric used great skill, knowledge and artistry in selecting the specific site for a garden and then clearing and modifying the land to best advantage. In the winter of 1932 he had selected a small area for the woodland garden that eventually became the 20-acre Savill Gardens. He was most judicious in his choice of head gardener among his staff. The partnership between T. H. Finlay, who from early youth had experienced a great tradition of gardening, and Sir Eric Savill became celebrated over the years.

For some (and, I admit, in my own case) Savill Gardens was experienced as a little too neat and orderly. This perceived shortcoming was to be rectified by the establishment, after World War II, of the captivating 200-acre Valley Gardens.

The Valley Gardens, begun in 1946, constituted an undulating woodland with picturesque Virginia Water defining its south boundary. With mature trees of oak, beech, sweet chestnut and birch punctuated by stands of pine, fir and cedar the situation was the perfect foil and cover for what was to ensue.

From the start, a massive clearing of brush, bracken and superfluous trees together with a monumental shifting of soil to fashion broad, sweeping slopes was undertaken. This having been accomplished, a masterful articulation of paths was instituted; the paths were to follow the contours of the land and the presence of straight lines was to be assiduously avoided. It was agreed early on that rhododendrons and azaleas would be the major focus of new plantings; their companions would, however, be carefully scrutinized for year-round purposes of display. A careful selection and placement of trees allowed their forms to be emphasized above all else. Understory shrubs were to be set out in drifts to most closely emulate what might be found in nature. The first plantings were commenced in the fall of 1947.

Contemporaneous with the development of the Valley Gardens, the evolution of the Punch Bowl in a valley of its own southeast of the Valley Gardens became a major preoccupation. A natural amphitheater, which was to be devoted to a different character of plantings, the Punch Bowl's acres became the abode of the Kurume azaleas (Kurume is a city on the southern island of Kyoshu, Japan). The Kurume azaleas with their brilliant colors allowed the installation of massive color schemes. Only the best plants were utilized and these almost exclusively from J. B. Stevenson's collection of the "Wilson Fifty" (E. H. "Chinese" Wilson's top Kurume selections). Stevenson, it may be added, was the prime mover in fostering this undertaking.

R. ledifolium alba, Valley Gardens. Punch Bowl, home to Kurume azaleas.
R. ledifolium alba ( R. mucronatum ), Valley Gardens.
Photo by Peter Kendall
Punch Bowl, home to Kurume azaleas.
Photo by Peter Kendall

In 1950, the demise of J. B. Stevenson brought about the placement of the final piece in the development of Windsor Great Park. From 1919 until his passing in 1950, Stevenson had embarked upon an ambitious program of assembling a collection of the finest forms of the rhododendron species. In his two and one-half acres at Tower Court, Ascot, some eight miles from Windsor Great Park, he was highly successful. (The bringing together of the species with classification and grouping into series uppermost in mind, he elected to edit in 1930 the publication The Species Rhododendron.) His passing prompted his widow to consider the options for preserving this stellar collection. Intent upon keeping the collection an intact unit, she deemed the grounds of Windsor Great Park the most appropriate future residence of the lot. The 2,000 plants constituting 460 species began its move in 1951 to the west of the Valley Gardens. The final plant was installed in December 1956. The Species Collection could never attain the design objectives sought elsewhere in the park because of the planting in series. Nonetheless, meeting the cultural demands of the rhododendrons amid an enticing overstory came close to matching the masterful layout in the rest of the Great Park.

R. R. tephropeplum
R. tephropeplum
Photo by Peter Kendall

Its final objectives achieved, Windsor Great Park stood and stands as a premier public woodland garden. As Dr. Harold Fletcher, four years director of Wisley, so accurately reported, "No other garden with which I am familiar so beautifully and efficiently integrates the wide interests of horticulturalists, arborculturalists and botanists."

Travel Tip
I was indeed fortunate to reside at Knaphill Manor, a bed and breakfast establishment, during my three-day sojourn in London. This was the former home of Anthony Waterer and called Homebush Farm. The area excepting the house was later acquired by the Slococks who maintain a nursery across the road to this day. Anthony was a descendent of Michael Waterer who made the first known deliberate cross in 1810 of Rhododendron maximum with R. catawbiense . This was one year before the red form of R. arboreum was introduced to the British Isles and eventually set off the clamor that was to reverberate worldwide.

The Gardens in the Royal Park at Windsor , Lanning Roper, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1959, pp. 128.