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Througham Court garden: blinded by science

Througham Court Garden prompted Mary Keen to ask: is the head or the heart our best guide when evaluating the finer points of a garden?


There are peaceful gardens which make you feel calmer about life and which ground you. And there are disturbing gardens which leave you feeling puzzled and totally detached from nature’s life cycle.

Dr Christine Facer seems to me to have made the second sort of garden at Througham Court, in Gloucestershire. Precedents for this do exist. Sutton Place, in Surrey, was designed by the great Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe as an allegory of human evolution. He asked me once what I thought of his work there. Perhaps rather rudely, I replied that I didn’t understand what he was trying to do and found it odd and disturbing.

“Good,” he said. “Good, that’s just what I want. You should go on thinking about a garden long after you leave it.” I didn’t then know that Jellicoe, like Magritte, was trying to break the spell of familiarity. Since then, I have tried to “get” gardens which are not plugged into the growing cycle, which are doing something different.

Visiting Througham Court was part of this education.

Christine Facer began her career as a scientist. She has been a distinguished haematologist and an expert on malaria. She is now a garden designer and her showplace is her own patch. Througham is a typical Jacobean Cotswold house with an Arts and Crafts makeover, and a garden by the Gloucestershire architect Norman Jewson. His preferred influence was the “gothic craftsman tradition”

He also wrote a book called By Chance I Did Rove. Both are a far cry from a 21st century, razor-sharp scientist’s take on aesthetics. His olde English work is still very much in evidence: topiary, crazy paving, small walls and flights of circular steps that reek of nostalgia. You expect to round a corner to find lavender and a cat licking its paws in the sunshine.

The view down the Holybrooke valley is the sort of place where “roving” would have been de rigueur. Into this, for the past 10 years, Facer has, she says, been “designing new contemporary areas (or fragments as I prefer to call them), craftily shoehorned into an existing Arts and Crafts garden.”

I think that is what I found hardest to take – the juxtaposition of very old and very new: The Haddonstone with the classical urns from Jewson’s time. The ‘Iceberg’ roses among grasses. When I asked Dr Facer about her taste in art, she volunteered another contrast: Tracey Emin of the unmade bed and Jonathan Myles-Lea, one of the traddest painters around; a pairing as surprising to me as the phormiums she is growing on a Cotswold hill.

Dr Facer thinks that gardens represent a history of someone’s life. That you can tell a lot about a person from their garden. She knew I was uneasy and was brave enough to say, “You don’t like it, do you?” She added that she had been to my garden and thought, “it was all about plants, rather than ideas”. I countered by saying that I hoped there was an emotional content, too, and that my associations might be more literary and painterly than hers. We parted friends, but as two people clearly puzzled by such different approaches.

Througham Court’s garden seemed to me to be more didactic than atmospheric. It is about explanation rather than exploration. The “fragments” include an iron gate at the entrance, designed to illustrate risk and probability. A roulette wheel, tumbling dice, the ace of spades, a black swan, a ball… that sort of thing. You move on, over a Jewson terrace with topiary to the right, above frothy alchemilla, but on the left is a pattern of red, black and white stone illustrating chirality. That’s left-handed and right-handed molecules to the rest of us. Sugar is right-handed. But I want to be prompted to think about life, death and the universe in a garden. And it makes me feel stupid, not knowing that sugar is a right-handed molecule.

In another compartment, a mound has been thrown up for the view to the valley, over a small apple orchard which contains a loquat and a weeping Mexican pine. Dr Facer took me there to admire the view. Later I learnt that the mound was in fact a pile of rubble left by previous owners which the builders suggested should be grassed over. That was in 1995 and the area awaits a redesign.

Included in the same space is a rusty border around a sculpture by Pete Moorhouse. This area felt like a painting which is composed of a patchwork of artists – a canvas which has a little gentle watercolour corner, a patch of Rothko purple, a Picasso person with a nose in the wrong place, a dash of Jackson Pollock and a child’s drawing of a house. Too many ideas can banish all thought. You have to restrain the hotch potch of influences to make it work.

Or do you? I asked about this, for me the overriding impression at Througham, and Dr Facer answered that there was one overarching idea. Science. But most of us are hard-wired for beauty and respond emotionally to a garden or art work.

Curiosity about unfamiliar facts may not be enough.

“Never let your memories be greater than your dreams,” Dr Facer says. I found the garden a bit like a surreal dream, an Alice in Wonderland place. There is a carpet of red AstroTurf on some stone stairs, which made me laugh, a zigzag tiny arboretum where I felt claustrophobic. There is a DNA garden, with a box parterre to illustrate the double helix, a Fibonacci walk, a chaos gate, the theory of waves and origami stairs so steep and so narrow that anyone over the age of 50 might find them a challenge in winter.

Yews are caged, flags fly in the landscape above silver birches. Flowers tend to be red (the colour of blood) and black. But then a grove of black bamboo appears, all airy stems and rustles, with a calm space at the centre. There I felt normal.

Following my tour, the question I went home with was, should any art, and that includes gardens, need a full explanation before it can be appreciated? The problem with Througham is that most of us don’t have the knowledge to appreciate it.

I asked Anne Wareham, from, for her view on conceptual gardens. Her answer came slowly. Like me, she thinks we may need more expertise to enjoy higher levels of appreciation in unfamiliar surroundings. Ultimately though, like me, she feels that a challenge to the brain cells is not enough and some emotional response is still what matters to most people.

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