Saturday, 11 May 2013

Green & pleasant

It must have been holidaying in Dorset as a child that instilled in me a love of earthworks. Driving through the lush countryside a few miles from Bridport our local landmark was Eggardon Hill, a prominent feature on the local skyline but, to a small child, all the more exciting for the iron age hill fort and burial mounds to which it is home. As a family we became adept at identifying the telltale swollen welt of tumuli in the landscape, while my sister and I learnt how to read the contours of the land on the Ordnance Survey map and home in on the gothic typeface that indicates a Feature of Interest. On the same vacations I remember scaling the windswept grass terraces of Maiden Castle, and clambering around the Roman amphitheatre at Maumbury Rings in Dorchester.

I’ve been asking myself what it is that so appeals to me about these constructions. It’s not merely the frisson you feel when encountering a familiar object – or, in this case, material — used in an unfamiliar way, or even the play of light and shade across the horizontal and vertical surfaces of the banks, paired with the relentless green of the closely cropped turf. But there’s also the delight of seeing the commonplace being used to create something of more complexity in both purpose and meaning. The grass itself has a semiotic link to something deep within most of us, recalling moments of carefree fun from childhood — whether it calls to mind grand lawns, country pastures or a welcome patch of green among the urban jungle. There’s something quintessentially British about grass, and pulling and pushing the land about into forms that suit our purpose before covering it over with a blanket of grass seems an entirely proper thing to do.

It’s exciting to me that garden designers and landscape architects like Charles Jencks and Kim Wilkie are incorporating these features today. But what unexpected joy, when entering the newly redesigned walled garden at Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, to discover crisply defined curved terraces of grass. Inspired no doubt by agrarian practices in the foothills of Nepal, it still somehow feels rooted in the Kentish landscape, only a few miles away from the sites of hill forts at Ightham and Plaxtol. The garden was full of children, throwing themselves with gusto at the embankments and laughing as they slid down the terraces. I’ll certainly be coming back to spend some time gazing at these lush green contours. Quite apart from anything else, in the absence of a flock of sheep which would have unwelcome consequences for the contents of the borders, I’m interested to see how they get on with the mowing.