Exploring E A Bowles’ garden at Myddelton House
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 February 2020
Created by one of the most influential botanists of the 20th century, E A Bowles’ garden at Myddelton House continues to grow
A plant lover from an early age, the highly respected botanist, artist and author, Edward Augustus Bowles enthusiastically created a plantsman's garden at his home, Myddelton House, where he grew an extensive collection of his favourite plants. The gardens in Bulls Cross, Enfield, just south of Capel Manor College Gardens and within Lee Valley Regional Park (the house is now the park authority's HQ), are famous for snowdrops, crocus, spring bulbs and alpine plants. By 1900, aged 35, Bowles had collected more than 150 different crocus species - a particular favourite. He specialised in European mountain plants and bulbs and spent many summers in the Pyrenees gathering material. He wrote botanical books illustrated with his own beautiful watercolours and was highly regarded by the Royal Horticultural Society, serving on plant committees and eventually becoming vice-president. At Myddelton House he created planting schemes to show off his collections as they might have been seen in their natural habitat, including an alpine meadow, a rock garden, banks of snowdrops, a patch devoted to variegated plants and plants with coloured leaves, and beds devoted to irises.
An important and historic garden, it continues to evolve and develop by the extension of plant collections and addition of new planting. Bowles is never far away when work is planned, head gardner Richard Harmes says.
'Our approach is to do everything in the spirit of Bowles and before we make new plans for the garden and borders, we take time to do some research into what was planted here before and how we can move this forward. Our first question is: would this be something that Bowles would have done if he was in the garden today?'
Hence, the texture and feel of borders remain in the style of Bowles' schemes, with new planting as required.
A tributary of the New River once ran through the grounds (the house is named after its 17th century engineer, Sir Hugh Myddelton) and two bridges connected the areas. The bridges remain, but the river has long gone. It had silted up and was infilled in the 1960s with spoil from the excavation of the Victoria tube line, and the area grassed over.
The nearby Tulip Terrace once had box-edged squares and specimen tulips. Here Bowles held 'tulip teas' in spring, timed to coincide with his birthday on May 14, with proceeds going to the local church. Over time, the box succumbed to blight, a fungal disease which attacks the leaves and stems, so the decision was taken to replace them with something that would withstand the fungus and give a similar look. Ilex crenata, the Japanese Holly, was planted to Bowles' original design.
The borders alongside the New River lawn hold the iris collection - the garden is notable for them - and plants have been lifted, split and replanted and new varieties added.
Bulbs were another Bowles favourite and he created an alpine meadow to show colour from mid-winter to early summer. Masses of snowdrops are a spectacular sight in winter, followed by daffodils, fritillaries, cyclamen, spring and summer 'snowflakes' and plenty of crocuses. In winter each year there is an annual spectacular snowdrop plant sale in the gardens.
'The gardens are home to thousands of bulbs and hundreds of snowdrops,' explains Richard, 'and our gardeners and volunteers work hard to ensure the snowdrops are a wonderful sight. A very rare snowdrop discovered at Myddelton House Gardens was named Galanthus plicatus 'E A Bowles', in his honour.'
The gardens have undergone various restorations over the years. In 2009, the gardens were given a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund for a two-year project to restore sections of the gardens to their former glory, including the kitchen garden, Victorian potting shed, peach house and Bowles' original cold frames, together with the creation of a visitor centre, museum and tea room. A collection of tender plants was transferred from the 1950s London School of Pharmacy glasshouses on the site, which were subsequently demolished, to the new glasshouse. The plants, which were tended by the school, are now here permanently.
'The glasshouses are divided into four climatic zones, very much as Bowles would have done in his time,' says Richard.
During the works many artefacts were found in the gardens and these are displayed in the visitor centre museum.
Plans for the future include the restoration of the rock garden, with work already underway.
'This was the first main project that Bowles did in the garden, and considered one of his finest,' Richard explains. 'But over time, nearby trees have matured and changed the site conditions a bit. We will completely renovate the rock garden, including the three water pools, and the planting so that we get a continuous display of colour and interest throughout the year.'
This latest exciting phase of renovation is expected to be completed by the summer. Bowles would have been bowled over.
Visit the gardens & more
Myddelton House Gardens, Bulls Cross, Enfield EN2 9HG
03000 030 610
Entry to the gardens is free and they're open all year round. Parking charges apply.
October to March: 10am to 4.30pm, April to September: 10am to 5pm. The Bowles Tea Room, information centre and museum is open from 10am to 4pm all year round.