On Sunday I went to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. That’s not a phrase I often drop into conversation because the garden is only open once a year.
The garden is at Portrack House, just north of Dumfries. The lakes were designed by Maggie Keswick Jencks (whose parents originally owned the house) and the landscaping and art works are by her husband, Charles Jencks.
The focal point of the garden is the mounds reflected in the curving lakes. Despite the crowds of visitors it was a special experience to walk along the narrow path between the pools – the therapy of water.
There’s a good view of the mounds from the Rail Garden beside the railway line (the slow line to Glasgow). It has an Auden feel of grassed over mine workings, but along the boundary are quotations from Scottish writers, cut as metal stencils. Two poets were included among these Scottish worthies – Burns (of course) and Joanna Baillie.
The garden at Portrack house is the only garden I have visited where ideas from contemporary science have played an important part – there were two fractal bridges, a Quark Walk with installations representing elementary particles and string theory, a Comet Bridge and DNA sculptures in the Garden of the 6 Senses (a modern take on a physic garden).
More disturbing was the Birchbone Garden. The beauty of the circle of white-barked birches just opening their translucent green leaves was in stark contrast with the bone sculptures within the circle. White birches are indigenous to Eastern Europe. A sinuous path make of black and white cables incorporated words from atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries – all summed up in “Exterminisms Words that kill”. Very black and white – that was the point.
But there were life-enhancing words in the finely cut calligraphic stones which I encountered in different parts of the garden. “Synthesis” could relate not just to the physic garden where I found it but to the garden as a whole.
What about flowers? you may be wondering. The first week-end in May was (almost) perfect. There were rhododendrons in lovely pastel shades, some particularly classy hellebores in striking colours and a few elusive blue poppies (even more elusive than usual after Friday’s late frost). There were plenty of wild flowers too – marsh marigolds on the stream’s edge, primroses, red campions, and a bluebell wood in the Garden of Taking Leave of Your Senses.
Taking Leave of Your Senses included a Nonsense building designed by James Stirling. The building incorporated a babel frieze of words in different languages beginning with LANATURE and ending with REGARDS.
The Octagon on the lawn was the envy of many visitors. It is an elegant 18th century stone lodge rescued from demolition a few years ago and re-erected here where it is used as a library. What a wonderful place to read and write.
The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is an ambitious design which embraces literature, history, philosophy, mathematics and science in a holistic way. Everywhere the observer is challenged to think and interpret as well as to admire. With so many visitors it was difficult to find any peace and quiet for cosmic speculation, but what is certain is that the open day will have raised thousands of pounds in support of the Maggie Cancer Caring Centres charity. If Maggie’s ghost was taking a look at the visitors to her garden on Saturday I hope she was pleased.