Last weekend we experienced an exciting serendipity in garden visiting. Though knowing it would be a three and a half hour slog in the car and that we would probably pay for it with exhausted children by the end of the following week, we took a deep breath and trekked half way across the country this to visit the Out of Nature sculpture exhibition at Newport House in the deepest depths of Herefordshire. It never occurred to me that I might want to blog about it – I still have a backlog of sites visited in the summer to write about – but it was such a rewarding experience for the children that I felt compelled to allow it to leap the queue. We were drawn by the art rather than the garden, and it was also a very social trip – seeing three lots of friends – so I didn’t really have my garden head on, but the landscape stimulated in unexpected ways.
Newport House is a pretty, doll’s house sort of a place. It was built around 1718 and originally set in a typical formal early 18th century landscape with a square pool in front of the house and avenues through the park. What one sees today though owes more to the Victorian period when it was given an Italianate make-over by the designer W.A. Nesfield, who also designed part of the gardens at Castle Howard and was responsible for the mammoth fountain at Witley Court in Worcestershire, (which was apparently once coveted by Bing Crosby, but was too gargantuan to be moved to Hollywood). His efforts at Newport were slightly more modest though.
The present owners of Newport House are putting their estate to excellent use, co-running a project called The Cartshed which allows a wide variety of people, of very different backgrounds, to experience the therapeutic effects of interacting with the natural world, mainly through teaching traditional coppicing and green woodcraft skills, and working in the walled garden. As part of the fundraising to keep the project going, an eclectic exhibition of exciting nature-inspired art is being hosted in the garden and the pub next to the main house until 26th October.
Once kitted out against the grim weather, the children enjoyed zooming up and down paths, as ever; experiencing the contrasting senses of space a historic garden often gives. In places the juxtaposition of art and garden stopped them in their tracks and there were not-quite-smooth marble balls to stroke and pieces described by the three year old as like a stone skateboard to stop and look at, as well as a wacky construction with multicoloured paddles which reminded me of a rowing team up a scaffold tower. But best of all, there was art we could help make. On the lawn in the centre of the main vista between the house and lake, (which would not have been my first choice of location, though I can see why it was chosen), artist Kate Raggett invited visitors to help her create a vibrant, surprisingly colourful piece of land art. We grabbed large flower pots and filled them with our choices of a variety of different seasonal natural materials: slices of wood, pine cones, conkers, orange marigolds, multicoloured gourds, brilliant pink chard stalks, apples, potatoes, purple-grey sage and created our own patterns within sections of a flower shape sketched out by Kate and outlined with sheeps wool to create white(ish) lines. The children were engrossed and the result was stunning. At the end of the day a photo was taken from a cherry-picker and it was a great pleasure to open my email the next morning to find out what it had ended up looking like.
As well as the fun of discovering the garden and making land art, there is – set in a massive sweet chestnut which is probably contemporary with the house – a great tree house, complete with rope swings and a near vertical slide. Though there is very little time left to see the Out of Nature sculpture exhibition, I have a feeling it won’t be the last such event, and the garden is also open under the National Garden Scheme (this year in June and October).