Artwork of the Walled Garden by Tom Stuart-Smith
Artillery Row

Training nature

Hephzibah Anderson reveals how RHS Bridgewater illustrates some of the tensions inherent in our newfound appreciation of what remains a highly curated kind of nature

Salford’s Worsley New Hall estate has been many things in its long history, among them a royal retreat (the nearby Bridgewater Canal was dyed blue the first time Queen Victoria visited), a wartime infirmary (it was loaned to the British Red Cross in 1914), and a family home to four generations of the Earls of Ellesmere. More recently, it’s languished as a tangled wilderness, through which deer roamed freely and local Scout groups – not to mention 90s ravers and alleged ghosts – rampaged. That all changed in 2017 when planning permission was granted to transform it into the nation’s fifth Royal Horticultural Society garden, heralding the start of Europe’s largest gardening project.

Its opening comes at a time when the stresses, strains and rejigged priorities of the pandemic have boosted the public’s infatuation with the natural world to an all-time high

The freshly transformed 154-acre site opens this month, amid a flurry of promotional material trumpeting community engagement and education, gardening inspiration from award-winning designers, a biodiversity boost (more than a quarter of a million plants have gone in), and jobs and revenue for the local economy. Its location nods to politically bankable decentralisation and “levelling up”, while a “wellbeing garden” plugs into the therapeutic trend for “prescribing” nature. There are allotment plots dedicated to growing food for a local food bank, a Chinese garden has been created alongside members of Greater Manchester’s Chinese community, and a woodland play area aims to instil green instincts in the next generation. It’s little wonder that RHS Bridegwater, as it’s now known, made a Guardian list of 20 global destinations for alternative holiday-makers.

Its opening comes at a time when the stresses, strains and rejigged priorities of the pandemic have boosted the public’s infatuation with the natural world to an all-time high. And yet, peer a little closer, and you’ll find that the project also illustrates some of the tensions inherent in our newfound appreciation of what, after all, remains a highly curated kind of nature. Just don’t mention the deer.

When the first Earl of Ellesmere inherited the Worsley estate, he grumbled that it was “a God-forsaken place, full of drunken, rude people with deplorable morals”. He nevertheless went ahead and commissioned a new family seat, Worsley New Hall, a Gothic mansion completed in 1846. Surrounding it were elaborate gardens: terraces, a croquet lawn, a boating lake with an island grotto. There were also glasshouses and walled kitchen gardens large enough that they could accommodate the entire Chelsea Flower Show, had it existed back then. Tending the estate’s lilies, phloxes, rhododendrons, delphiniums, poppies, anemones, asters, pinks, sweet scented stocks, fragrant mignonette, grapes, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, and fruit trees was an army of more than 30 gardeners.

And yet, as was the way with so many such houses, the hall fell into disrepair during the 20th century. Beset by dry rot and subsidence caused by mining, the once-grand building was gutted by fire in 1943. Four years later, it was sold to a scrap merchant for all of £2,500 and promptly demolished. (In a socialist twist, 800 tonnes of stone from the Hall was used to construct council houses in Southfield, Yorkshire.)

A short video produced by the RHS offers a glimpse of the estate as it had become before their project got underway: wrought iron gates open onto an overgrown, sun-dappled path; ivy scrambles over brick walls, obscuring long-closed doors; bracken and brambles burst from smashed glasshouses. Click on another video, showing the project close to finished, and the site is unrecognisable. A maze of wide gravelled walkways hems immaculate beds; a wood and glass “welcome building” squats behind tidy borders; and there’s of course an enormous car park, too.

On the one hand, the RHS’s first urban garden promises to be a sublime illustration of human creativity harmonising with nature. On the other – well, Joni Mitchell said (sang) it best. As Richard Green, the head of Bridgewater, has noted: “There is no other garden like this in the north-west of England, not on this scale. It is a mix of stunning horticulture and a place for people.” But what of the displaced wildlife, one wonders? What of the wildness through which it tunnelled, grazed and buzzed – don’t people have enough places on this planet already?

In the gulf between those “before” and “after” videos hovers the spectre of destruction. Rare-breed pigs may have helped dig up the brambles, but the brambles were still dug up and, yes, last year tree- and shrub-munching deer were culled. Unsurprisingly, elements of the local population were in uproar, responding with pledges to boycott and signs reading “murderers” attached to Bridgewater’s gates, but the episode isn’t the only shadow hovering over its much-vaunted green credentials.

What of the wildness through which it tunnelled, grazed and buzzed – don’t people have enough places on this planet already?

Gardening and conservation have been far from compatible, historically. Think of all those lawns – water-guzzling, monocultural wastelands so reliant on chemicals. Think of fads like covering soil with old carpet to supress weeds, and of the industry’s continued reliance on peat. Bridgewater appears to be making a sustained effort, embracing permaculture, harvesting rainwater, planting for pollinators and so on. Like all such gardens, however, it promotes the idea that nature must be trained to our will, that true beauty lies in our ability to tame and tidy it. There’s an inherent hubris to grand gardens like these, and however green they strive to be, they perpetuate the idea that nature is a mere backdrop to human drama.

Covid restrictions have of course given parks and public gardens a fresh leash of life. Not only do we appreciate their opportunities low-risk al fresco socialising, but there’s also the solace of bird song, the restorative benefits of leafy fractals, and the perspective-bolstering reassurance of watching the natural world move through its eternal cycles, oblivious to human struggles. And yet here we go again, looking to nature for we can take from it, because even the vegan in the solar-panelled eco-house is out to mine improved mental health.

Still, it’s a big improvement on the pleasure gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries that so defined London’s nightlife, right? After all, their allure was hardly botanical – it was the music, dancing and feasting, the fireworks and operas and masquerades that drew the well-to-do hordes. But the current vogue for nature isn’t so very different. When pampas grass went viral at the start of this year, Instagrammers didn’t balk up uprooting plants used along the coast to protect sand dunes from erosion. Its feathery fronds were of course mere props in their posts.

Curated nature is very different to the kind of nature that took over Worsley before the RHS came along. It’s nature packaged as an “experience”, hashtags at the ready. It’s the wilderness with a gift shop attached, the forest with a well-trodden path and swings for the kids. What Bridgewater offers is a profoundly mediated encounter, one that’s also deeply misleading in terms of where the balance of power truly lies at this point in our species’ timeline. We talk of saving the planet but really it’s we homo sapiens who need saving. Nature, after a fashion, can look after itself. It can fight back by growing fiercer, creating a less hospitable habitat for us. You don’t need to be Swampy to see that in order to avoid this, we need to alter how we view the natural world.

So, go to Salford for those stunning RHS borders planted to ensure multi-season interest. Go for the cream teas in the Garden Cottage Cafe and tasteful array of homewares on offer in the garden centre. But don’t forget what came before, because any notion of mastery is temporary at best.

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