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A place to think

By Ruth Slavid
The Garden of Reflection in Wells combines cutting edge concrete technology with some decidedly old-fashioned planting to create a special and contemplative place.

Most gardens try to do so much that it is immensely refreshing that the garden designed by BCA Landscapes in Wells, Somerset, has a single purpose. And that purpose is not to amuse or dazzle or to entertain, but to be a place for repose and reflection.

It does this superbly well and boldly. Set among a host of other gardens, the Garden of Reflection is magical and a little mysterious. It uses one of the most modern of construction materials to create a place that is special and truly one of a kind.

Its genesis, like so many projects, was in financial necessity. The Bishop’s Palace at Wells has been in existence for nearly 880 years. It is next to, but separate from, the cathedral in what is billed as England’s smallest city. When Peter Price was appointed as bishop in 2002, he was told by the Church Commissioners that, while he could continue to use the palace as his home and his office, he had to make it financially self-supporting by increasing visitor numbers. He set about a programme of restoration of the palace and the grounds, which include the wells (in fact springs which bubble up into pools) that gave the city its name.

In total there are 14 acres of grounds, and in general they are looked after and developed by the head gardener James Cross who is doing a magnificent job, using swathes of colour and, in late summer, plenty of ‘bishop’ dahlias, including a specially bred Bishop Peter Price. There is a community garden, an arboretum and some temporary sculpture.

But the bishop decided that within these grounds there should be a garden of reflection, a non-denominational place where people could come and think. ‘He wanted to have a garden where people could experience something of the other,’ explained Peter Stickland, vice chair of the Palace Trust. This became one of the last areas of the gardens to be designed, partly because of a false start with another designer whose work the bishop rejected. In the end, BCA Landscape, working with artist Stephen Broadbent, was appointed in 2011. The garden was completed and formally opened just days before the bishop’s retirement in 2013.

The brief was certainly unusual. Andy Thomson, partner at BCA Landscape, explained that the challenge was simply to create ‘a garden like no other’. It is set on a former derelict area, between other gardens, and has to accommodate changes in level. Yet it is not only like no other, it also is ‘other’ – separate from what is going on around it.

You enter between yew hedges and curve around past planting set between low stone walls to create an impression analogous to the stained glass windows in the cathedral. The path takes you past a stone bench, and as you follow it you see the main area to your right. This is a semi-wild area, with birch trees that will grow up to make a grove, among grasses with some wild flowers set in amongst them. The original idea was that there would be no paths across this area, although some have been created as natural desire lines and James Cross has laid bark on one of these to facilitate wheelchair access. The paths lead to the centrepiece of the garden, to the back of the ‘poustinia’, a Russian term that means a cabin or room where one goes to fast and pray alone in the presence of God. Rather than the simple wooden structure that this might lead one to expect, this is a gleaming white near circle constructed in Ductal concrete (see box). Inside is an integral cantilevered bench, but this is not obvious, since you approach it from the back. Once inside, you can sit and think or do anything you want. There is an extraordinary echo if you stand in the centre and a relationship to the sky which shows the inspiration that the designers drew from James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace in Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The only other element is some prairie-style planting on the far side of the garden, backed by an existing stone wall, as one goes toward the exit – which could also be the entrance because nothing is prescribed. And nothing is explained. Just as you are not guided along paths to the poustinia, so you are not guided by signs that tell you what to think. There is a quotation from Antonio Machado as you go in: ‘Traveller, there is no path, paths are made by walking’ and this is also carved beautifully on the crescent-shaped bench. But even that is enigmatic, because the carving runs off the ends of the bench as they emerge and disappear into the ground, as if this was part of a large circle with only a smallish element above ground.


Designing and making the Ductal bench

Ductal is an ultra-high performance concrete developed by cement manufacturer Lafarge.
It is reinforced with small fibres and, because of its density and ductility, it can be used in many applications without reinforcement. It is very white and durable, and can be used in much smaller sections than conventional concrete.

When BCA was designing the poustinia, it looked at a number of options with engineer Barry Jefcoate, a director of Booth King. He knew that the designer wanted a slender solution, ideally tapering to the top, and was looking at a shadow gap to define the seat. He thought of Ductal which he had seen in the form of the floating stair that Zaha Hadid designed for her gallery. He realised that it would be possible to make the seat effectively be the shadow gap by cantilevering it in a manner reminiscent of the classic 1950s Danish Panton chairs. There is some reinforcement in the seat itself, but none elsewhere, and the walls taper to a mere 30mm thick at the top.

Ductal is licenced to certain manufacturers, and the poustinia was precast in sections by a company called Il Cantiere, based in the Veneto region of Italy. There is a slight slope on the seats, and a drainage detail between each element. Calculation was not too hard, Barry said, although the fixing of the elements together and to the foundations took some thought. The elements were lifted in by a crane working at the limit of its reach, and there were a few hairy moments. But the project was, he said, ‘a joy to work on. It was a real collaboration and you couldn’t have had a better client.’ Peter Stickland is delighted with the poustinia. Having studied the properties of the Ductal and the protection that the reinforcement has, he learnt that it has a design life of 3000 years – ‘longer than the cathedral’.

Some visitors, Peter Stickland said, become angry about the lack of interpretation. But most love it, and he is evidently pleased that the garden evokes strong emotions, even if some of them are hostile. The garden is only a year old, but it has already evolved. James Cross replaced the original planting in the ‘stained glass windows’ with lower growing and brightly coloured annuals. These are all the plants that we have learnt to hate – bright red salvias, lurid yellow large-flowered begonias, fluffy lilac ageratums and harsh pink pelargoniums, each block of the window planted with a single species. And the effect is ... magnificent.

Andy Thomson, who had not visited the garden for a year, was horrified when he heard about this, but when he saw it he acknowledged that it worked. And Peter Stickland said that the public loved it. James Cross believes that these plants, which to many are reminiscent of stultifying municipal gardening and even of floral clocks, will become rare as cash-strapped councils turn to meadow planting in order to save money. And if he’s wrong? Well, they are only annuals, so there is no commitment.

In contrast to the annuals, all the materials used have a great sense of permanence. The stained glass windows are contained between English limestone framing, whereas the limestone for the bench, needed in larger pieces, came from the Massangis quarry in Burgundy, France. Paving is with narrow brick pavers, arranged in a herringbone pattern inside the poustinia.

Budget cuts meant that the commissioning of a glass statue at the entrance, of ‘misting’ in the birch grove and of additional benches, has been delayed. Peter Stickland is confident that they will all happen in the end – and doubtless, given the nature of the garden, they will appear without any explanation.

Prairie garden plant list

Area 1A
Lilium × dalhansonii – hybrid martagon lily
Actaea simplex ‘James Compton’ – baneberry ‘James Compton’
Astilbe chinensis var. taquetii ‘Purpurlanze’ – astilbe ‘Purpurlanze’

Area 1B
Sesleria autumnalis – autumn moor grass
Anthericum liliago – St Bernard’s lily
Actaea rubra f. neglecta – red baneberry
Campanula poscharskyana ‘E.H. Frost’ – campanula ‘E.H. Frost’

Area 2
Anthericum liliago – St Bernard’s lily
Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta – lesser calamint
Geranium wlassovianum – hardy geranium

Area 3
Anthericum liliago – St Bernard’s lily
Serratula seoanei – knapweed
Geranium soboliferum – hardy geranium

Area 4
Amsonia hubrichtii – Hubricht’s bluestar
Salvia × sylvestris ‘Pink Delight’ – perennial sage ‘Pink Delight’
Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Moorhexe’ – purple moor-grass ‘Moorhexe’
Knautia macedonica – Macedonian scabious
Eryngium bourgatii – Mediterranean sea holly

Area 5
Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ – betony ‘Hummelo’
Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia – eastern bluestar
Sanguisorba menziesii – Menzies’ burnet
Echinacea tennesseensis – Tennessee coneflower

Area 6
Leucanthemella serotina – autumn ox-eye
Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ – sneezeweed ‘Moerheim Beauty’
Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ – giant hyssop  ‘Blue Fortune’

Area 7
Monarda ‘Snow Queen’ – bergamot ‘Snow Queen’
Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ – red bistort ‘Firetail’
Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Heidebraut’ – purple moor grass ‘Heidebraut’

Area 8
Monarda ‘Snow Queen’ – bergamot ‘Snow Queen’
Astilbe ‘Deutschland’ – astilbe ‘Deutschland’
Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ – false indigo ‘Purple Smoke’
Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ – tufted hair grass ‘Goldtau’

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