Real gardens: The Bishop’s Palace, Wells

Gardens, as we know, are never a finished work. The older plots have layers of discarded designs from former owners and fashions, and the result is never really a result. It is still changing. The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens in Wells is a prime example of this. When head gardener James Cross talks me through the garden’s many guises through successive serving bishops, it becomes very clear that there is no one Bishop’s Garden. There have been many.

‘The condition and style of the gardens had always depended upon the Bishop,’ explains James. ‘So for many decades the gardens would be in a poor state of up-keep and then a Bishop with a love of gardening would arrive and they would be transformed.
‘The difficulty we have found at the Palace is that no records have been kept and only a few sketches found. It is only with the invention of photography that we start to build up a history of the gardens from the late Victorian period onwards.’

The gardens have seen a great deal since the Palace was built in the 13th century. In 1824, Bishop Law – a very keen gardener – came to the Palace, and began work on the Dutch-style gardens he found. But instead of restoring the site, or digging it up and starting afresh, Bishop Law simply ordered his workmen to cover the inner gardens with up to a metre of topsoil and work on top of that.

Bishop Law was a great admirer of the Picturesque movement, and planted exotic trees around the romantic ruins of the Great Hall. One of the gingko trees he planted survives today. There were also formal gardens and rose arbours.

But like earlier generations, this layer of the garden fell into disrepair during the two World Wars. It wasn’t until 1977 when Bishop Bickersteth created an arboretum on the site that glory began to return to the gardens. With design help from Sir Harold Hillier, he planted many notable specimens, including a Paulownia (foxglove tree), Tulip Trees, Tree of Heaven, mulberries and Indian Bean Trees.


When James started work on the gardens under the current Bishop, Peter Price, he had his work cut out to meet the demands of increasing numbers of visitors. Having worked at Sissinghurst, Sheffield Park and The Courts Garden in Wiltshire, James was no stranger to the work involved in creating knockout borders, and he set to work with a re-design for the borders next to the well pool from Mary Keen. The pastel planting scheme includes Ceanothus, Iris, Astrantia, Crambe, roses, geraniums, asters, Monarda and daylilies.

In 2007 a hot border joined the fray, featuring Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Achillea ‘Cloth of Gold’, Echinops ritro ‘Veitches Blue’, dahlias and Nepeta sibirica along with some more unusual plants such as Sedum aizoon and Aralia elata.

And there are more layers to come. There are plans for a new garden in the outer gardens with a large piece of sculpture, a community garden, a new glasshouse and a shady woodland garden. You’ll be pleased to know the garden is open to the public so you can catch a snapshot of it right now: it won’t be the same for very long. And all to the good.

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