Squeals of thrilled laughter and cries of surprise skip and hop over the top of the yew and hornbeam hedges, accompanied by a variety of sounds of water: the squirt, the jet and the pitter-patter as it hits the paving; hints of the delights awaiting us before we see them.
The Garden of Surprises at Burghley was conceived as a modern take on the Renaissance garden, and was inspired by descriptions of the original Lord Burghley’s (advisor to Elizabeth I) famous garden at Theobalds in Hertfordshire, which included concealed water tricks (known at the time as giochi d’acqua), mazes, statues, obelisks, a sundial and a grotto. The modern garden was created to add something for families and it certainly does that. Country houses can be stuffy places for kids; gardens are the natural vent to the energies than can get pent up inside grand state rooms, and this garden is the ultimate vent. Creating a garden to cater for this need is so much more original – and far more relevant – than investing in an adventure playground, as so many places do. To the garden historian it may be Renaissance–Lite, but it isn’t intended as a slavish copy and I don’t want to be too stuffy about it, because there are interesting modern references to Elizabethan garden devices, so there are gentle lessons in historic gardens to be learned here – and it really is also a lot of fun.
The garden is set in a rectangular plot and is sub-divided into compartments either side of a central rill, which steps gradually down a gentle slope and runs between the Water House and the Grotto. The Water House contains furniture seemingly made of water; the sort of clever trick the Elizabethans would have loved. The Grotto at the lower end of the garden has a statue of Neptune and is decorated with a few shells stuck on the walls (to me a bit of a disappointment). As one enters the garden you come immediately into an area with three jets which shoot up from the paving. Unlike some of their Elizabethan counterparts, which were set off to soak the unexpecting visitor, these seemed to be going all the time, so they were not really a surprise. As my children started by splashing each other and escalated to running through them, I realised that there was no way they were going to get just-a-little-bit wet.
After this one reaches an area in the centre at the top of the garden which is a complex of fences with gateways through them. Periodically the gateways turn into showers. But you would have to visit the garden on a very quiet day and be pretty unobservant to be caught by them unintentionally, so they are not much of a surprise either. By this point my kids were completely saturated and I understood why other people’s children were in wet suits.
The boys loved the round yew compartments with the single jet in the centre which they could run through or sit on, or direct with a carefully placed foot, even more than the area they call the Paddling Pool. This isn’t really a pool, but a grid of 15 jets set in a paved area with benches for the grown ups to sit back and watch the further saturation. No historic references here, just pure soaking-wet fun.
Beyond the paddling pool area is a compartment containing the longitudinal sun dial surrounded by exuberant herbaceous planting around busts of the Roman Emperors, some of which rotate slowly on their bases. These are a specific reference to Burghley’s garden at Theobalds and it makes me wonder if they were all meant to turn and why each of the Emperors was thought worthy of inclusion here. There are small information boards at most of the features, but I would have liked a bit more interpretation to read, possibly in the form of a short book, perhaps with some detail about what was here before and about the design and construction process. After the Ceasars one comes to the small but rather effective mirror maze. It is a bit claustrophobic in there, which I thought might worry the boys, but didn’t. There is just enough thrill and not too much maze to negotiate. Mummies beware though it is a bit like the 360 degree mirror box Trinny and Susannah used to shove their victims into on What not To Wear a few years ago.
I also liked the Dark Moss House, a small rustic domed building which you discover after passing through a steaming, misty, rocky arch. Both the arch and the building felt more Georgian than Elizabethan to me. But I don’t want to be precious about it, yet more gentle lessons in garden history. Another reference to historic garden devices is to be found to the right of the entrance to the garden where there is a quieter area, which I suspect most kids just run right past. Here in a rectangular pool is a copper dripping tree, which is a very historic device – there is a very famous 17th century one at Chatsworth.
The problem with a garden this intensive is that you have to keep the tricks and novelties coming and I felt that by the end of the visitor route it had run out of steam. The penultimate compartment of the garden contains four ‘Transforming Obelisks’, which supposedly represent earth, wind, fire and water, and change their appearance at the press of a switch. For me they didn’t work at all, but were rather clumsy. After this one can play a giant version of a Tudor board game before one last surprise – but I shan’t ruin that one for you!
The Garden of Surprises sits in a landscape of many historic layers. The great master of design Capability Brown worked here for over 20 years building on and adapting the work of previous generations and the parkland is well worth a stroll. If you are lucky you may encounter the herd of fallow deer. We picnicked by a fallen tree trunk into which the estate have helpfully cut steps for the shorter legged members of the party to climb up; nearby are some of the oldest and most magnificent hawthorns I have ever seen and they are very good for climbing too. Adjoining the Garden of Surprises is the Sculpture Garden which contains an eclectic mix of pieces, some of which the children really enjoyed.
But for kids it’s the Garden of Surprises which will always be the highlight. For all my purist garden historian reservations I defy anyone to dislike this garden. Watching other people, it seemed to amuse every generation – old ladies were in giggles as they dipped a toe into a jet of water and they beamed at the drenched children. Go for a whole day. Take a picnic. And take lots of changes of clothes – they won’t get just-a-little-bit wet.