Changin' with the times in Connaught Gardens
- Credit: Stefan Drew
Connaught Gardens are a horticultural delight and an encapsulated history of Sidmouth. But as Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin'.
Of course people often hate change. But it's inevitable and I believe we should embrace it.
As far as I know Dylan never visited the gardens, but that’s not to say they are obscure. Far from it. Named after Queen Victoria's third son, His Grace, The Duke of Connaught, they were opened in 1931 by none other than the Duke himself. He wasn't the first Royal to visit Sidmouth. As a child Queen Victoria had stayed in what is now the Royal Glen Hotel, before reigning over a significant part of a changin’ world.
The first railway opened just 10 years before Victoria's reign, and quickly changed her world as it expanded across the country, with Sidmouth station opening on July 6, 1864.
As for Victorian gardening, it was very popular amongst the moneyed people, and benefited from cheap labour. It featured formality, carpet planting schemes, iron railings, exotic plants such as cannas, dahlias, and trees from across an empire and beyond. Locally the Veitch nurseries at Killerton and Exeter ensured exotic trees and other plants were plentiful and today the country’s first civic arboretum is testimony to that.
Fast forward a generation or two and the railings were salvaged for war effort, cheap labour was no more and the times they were a changin’ again! A few more generations and carpet bedding became passe and informality was the garden style embraced.
Sidmouth has excelled at moving with the times. Though arguably still Victorian in some senses, it has a sense of values that pervades all it does.
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One man that I believe who would appreciate Sidmouth today was a rebel in his day. He fought against architectural change and symbolises an age where values mattered. But John Betjeman was a realist and recognised that whilst protecting the past we must embrace change.
Of Connaught, Betjeman wrote:
“Pause on Peak Hill, look Eastward to the town,
Then to the Connaught Gardens wander down,
And in the shelter of its tropic bowers, I see bright and outsize Devon flowers.”
In the 90 years since the Duke opened the gardens much has changed. Arguably they have been years that are instrumental in the next change the gardens must embrace. The expansion of railways, King Coal and in latter years plastic have wreaked havoc on the environment. Betjeman knew nothing of global warming. Nor did Queen Victoria.
But we do. Global warming, climate change, oceans full of plastic. These are today's realities. Of course the Victorians were unaware of the havoc they were creating. But since Silent Spring, we cannot offer that argument. Biodiversity has suffered. Birds, pollinators, butterflies, mammals .. all have suffered. And with it we also suffer. Without the pollinators many of the foods we rely on cannot be pollinated. Without pollination there is no seed for the next crop. Without pollination there are fewer crops.
Of course we can’t turn the clocks back to bygone ages. But we can change the way we behave today. And at Connaught Gardens and elsewhere in East Devon the council is attempting that. Going are the carpet bedding schemes that consumed so much peat, labour and oil. In come perennials, more trees and a gardening style more attuned to today's needs.
No doubt there were voices of dissent when previous changes were made. And it is the result of those changes that some now take as the benchmark for the future. Benchmarks are always a matter of perspective.
And no doubt, in 20 years, when the times they are (again) a changin’, there will be more dissent. However, I suspect that with hindsight, the Queen, the Duke and Poet Laureate would smile and accept that change is both needed and inevitable. They would undoubtedly award Connaught Gardens more well deserved awards.