Few of us could identify what inspired the design of our garden. Generally, we have muddled along as our garden developed, adding a bed here, a border there, a feature, a seat, a specimen tree, a vista, the lawn, the general planting etc. etc. However, there is absolutely no doubt about it, we each and every one has been influenced, inspired even, to make our gardens in the way we have. We oftentimes may not recognise nor realise what these inspirations are; we may put it down to something we saw on a television gardening programme, read in a magazine or book, admired in a garden we visited but, seldom realise nor recognise the deeper unexplored sources which may have influenced us. Then, there are those who have a deep knowledge and understanding of their inspirations and set about creating a garden faithful to their muses. Alastair Forbes is one such garden creator.
Plaz Metaxu is the 32-acre garden which Alastair Forbes began in 1992. He came to Coombe House in Devon, which is set in a west-facing valley with a stream, a pastoral landscape grazed by sheep and he has developed it over the intervening years. The stream became a canal in front of the house; a walled garden and former farmyards became courtyards/enclosed gardens; further down the valley, the stream was dammed to form a lake; a cascade was built along with vistas, woodland, hedged enclosures, sheltered walks and groves. The extensive and existing panoramas were maintained and featured to maintain the intimate contact between the garden and the surrounding fieldscape. He created a beautiful garden.
With his training and experience as an art historian, Alastair Forbes wished to reflect myths, literature and art in his garden, balancing these with the inspiration of the place itself. Garden scholars, like John Dixon, architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, psychology myths and philosophy have all contributed to his inspirations. He acknowledges the influence of British, Italian and Japanese gardens and especially the gardens of Rousham, St. Paul’s Walden Bury and Studley Royal and sees his work in the garden as “working out something worthwhile between the play of meanings and feelings and spaces” and Coombe House as “a vocational necessity” to include all the cultural stimuli he had absorbed.
Also fundamental to his approach is the inclusion of sorrow in the garden. The Garden of Eden is still the dominant model in garden culture in the west but, he points out, Gethsemane was also a garden and he wonders why “unlike the other arts, gardens so seldom acknowledge that” and, hence, the prominent place of Psyche at Plaz Metaxu.
“Plaz Metaxu” means “the place that is between”, a garden between the hills, and these spaces link perfectly with archetypal drives and mythical characters – Psyche etc. He recognised that each space within the garden was appropriate to a god and this is marked with a dedication, a recognition and, regularly, a symbolic representation. Throughout the garden he seeks to create in-between spaces, spaces which stop us in our tracks, places to pause, to experience the emptiness, to reflect on what we have passed through, to anticipate what is to come, moments of nothingness. Spaces, he says, are “all about anticipation, about the world waiting for meaning to inhabit it”. The lake at Plaz Metaxu is such a place: “The garden revolves around a truant centre, a groundless pivot…lacking any stable footing…emptiness in contrast with fulness…a constant dialogue, in counterpoint”
The main part of the book is a guided tour of the garden, tracing the course of the stream, with side detours, moments of suspense, with descriptions of the horticultural elements and the various gods and memories which inspired each space. In each part of the garden dedication follows inspiration rather than being superimposed on it for the gods not only inspire this garden but occupy it. This book is a discussion of philosophy, literature, classical and mythical gods and gardens and the interaction between them – how a garden can represent these personalities and thoughts – and it is important to say that, from the purely horticultural view, the author has created a marvellously beautiful garden, a joy to behold and worthy of great praise and admiration. His interests range far beyond the purely horticultural and the frequency of classical and literary reference and quotation throughout the text demanded a substantial appendix to list source material. There is also an illustrated chronology of the development of the garden with maps showing the layout of the garden and the residences of the various gods. Alexander Pope emphasised the importance of considering “the genius of the place”, the “genius loci”, referencing the presiding deity of spirit, when he wrote to Richard Boyle on garden design and he would surely be delighted with Alastair Forbes’ approach at Plaz Metaxu where he has unearthed a legion of spirits.
This is a beautifully produced large-format book, fabulously illustrated, which provides a different view of gardening to that normally encountered and for that has much to recommend it.
[On Psyche’s Lawn, The Gardens at Plaz Metaxu, Alastair Forbes, Pimpernel Press, 2020, Hardback, 304 pages, £50, ISBN: 978-1-910258-871-1]