Visit to the American Museum & Gardens in September 2022

All aboard for Bath, the rain lifts and the sun shines before we reach Claverton Manor, sitting high above the Avon valley, the site of the original Jacobean manor house resided in by Ralph Alan. Purchased by John Vivian in 1816, a London barrister, he demolished it four years later being persuaded by his architect to build a new contemporary manor house high above to enjoy the natural vista.

When this manor was inherited by the grandson, George Vivian, an Italianate style pleasure garden and parkland were present with water features, balustrading and curtain walling, still in existence today. From 1855 until 1958 the property was let and sold on several occasions. 1897 a young Winston Churchill made his first political speech at a garden fete; it was the headquarters of No. 32 Balloon Barrage from where Squadron Leader Kenneth Horne recorded wartime radio programme and in 1947 it became accommodation for domestic science students. Then in 1958 the manor was purchased for £10,000 by the Anglo-American co-founders Dr Dallas Pratt and John Judkyn, who were collecting interiors from demolished buildings in America which were then reconstructed within the house. In 1961 the American Museum in Britain amidst thirty acres of parkland was opened.

In 2018 the gardens were completely redesigned by Washington DC-based landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden and what an accomplishment.

The gardening club were kindly given a comprehensive tour of the gardens starting at the new ticket office where steps lead down through beds and paths to an original grotto, turf amphitheatre, stables and Italianate courtyard.

Original Grotto
Courtyard from the Original Gardens

Below is a replica of George Washington’s 18th century garden at Mount Vernon: a potager which fed his estate and is surrounded by a pollinating wall to trap in heat for fruit trees, Chardonnay vines, vegetables, as well as native American flowers. Included are Batista Australis, the indigo plant used by the indigenous natives, rudibeccia Goldstrum and Black Eyed Susan.

Passing through the fleur-de-lys parterre, a tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette who assisted in winning the American War of Independence, and under a stone arch, the path is lined by sculptures of notable Americans.

Fleur-de-lys parterre

Below is a dell and the 1984 Arboretum: showcasing both English and American trees including an Indian Bean tree and a glorious Persian Ironwood tree, as backdrop to bald eagles on either side of a restful stone garden seat below balustrade steps.

Bald Eagle and a Persian Ironwood

Further along views open out above ancient cedars near the site of the Jacobean manor: above the path winds through and up to the heart of the free-form American perennial planting, using broad swathes and large groupings of plants including sedum Matrona, russian sage Perovskia, panicum Karley Rose, late allium Summer Drummer, hydrangea Vanilla Frasse, as well as New York aster. Across the lawn sculptural and bright coloured plants, including Knock Out roses, reside nearer to yews standing like sentries against the first curtain wall by the house.

To the east a wide terrace overlooking the lawn and prairie planted beds is the perfect place to have lunch before appreciating American art, history and textiles within this comprehensive museum.

While the grounds have been greatly improved there is one plant that is to be removed: broad leaved statice, Limonium Platyphyllum, which although disease and pest free gives off a distinct stink during hot weather, you have been warned.

Unfortunately “Mrs Conkey” no longer bakes delicious gingerbread beneath the ‘Rules of this Tavern’, childhood memories from a visit on 23rd November 1963, when the stars and stripes flew at half-mast the day after President Kennedy had been assassinated. Returning home nearly six decades later we heard that our Queen Elizabeth II had died, and the country went into mourning.

Article and photographs copyright Sarah Herring