Creating a retreat from the grind and noise of a city takes a bit of imagination, especially when the city in question is home to nine million. You need to travel a bit in the mind, travel somewhere peaceful. Which is why a homeowner in Twickenham, West London, under the Heathrow flight path, looked to the East for inspiration when seeking to turn their back garden into a tranquil haven.
The gardens of Japan have long been a source of inspiration to landscapers in the West. Early Japanese gardens would have evolved fom places holy to Shinto. Shinto, though not formalised as a religion till modern times, is regarded as Japan’s indigenous faith, a set of beliefs which long predates the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6thcentury CE. It is animistic and pantheistic, founded on the idea that things in nature, trees and shrubs, and even inanimate objects such as ponds and rocks, are inhabited by kami, gods or spirits. These kami are worshipped at shrines, both private, in the household, and public. This idea, that everything is sacred and to be revered, has therefore guided Japanese garden design from its origins.
In Japan, then, the idea has always been to work in consonance with nature. This is very different from what historically has been the dominant landscaping tradition in Europe, that of seeking to constrain nature within an abstract formal notion of beauty (think of the paths and planting of the gardens of French chateau, their topiary). Closer were the parklands of the English Enlightenment, by designers such as Capability Brown and Humphry Repton, which rebelled against geometric design (and may have been partly inspired by Chinese traditional landscaping). But whereas this English style aimed to emphasize what was wild, sublime, forbidding, and Romantic in the landscape, the Japanese way has always been to shape so as to create a sense of peace, and to bring life into a space. It also makes use of the rich symbolism of Japanese culture to suffuse elements in a garden with meaning.
In creating a Japanese-style water garden for their customer’s garden plot behind their Edwardian home in Twickenham, Brit Ponds used all of the things that make Japanese gardens unique, evoking natural harmony in the design and planting, and playing on symbolic meanings.
The water garden had originally been conceived to complement an existing flowering cherry blossom tree, a Prunus Royal Burgundy. But when work began on taking up the paving and preparing the plot, it was discovered that, though it was blossoming and appeared healthy, the tree was sadly dead at the roots. When the support of a raised bed was removed, it began slowly to keel over. There was nothing to be done, so it was unfortunately necessary to saw the tree up and cart it out of the garden in pieces. But though this might seem an unfortunate beginning to the project, it can actually be seen as auspicious. In Japanese lore the cherry tree is very important. Its blossoms are called sakura. While the trees flower, people in Japan enjoy eating and drinking out under the branches, a custom called hanami, which literally means ‘to view the flowers’. This tradition goes back many centuries, to before the rise of feudal Japan. Cherry trees were transplanted from the mountains to the rice paddies by early farmers who believed they had brought the deities of the steeps down to watch over their crops in the fields and that the flowering of the trees would usher in the spring. Sakura are therefore seen as symbolic of renewal and plenty. And, because of the short season of their blossom, a little over two weeks, cherry trees are seen as representing the way in which the fleeting nature of life enhances its preciousness, its beauty.
So, though it was sad to lose the existing cherry tree, there was an aptness to it, a reminder that life is short, that we must find moments of peace when we can. And a young Prunus Royal Burgundy was planted in the stead of the old tree, a symbol of the new beginnings and opportunities the garden offers.
Japanese gardens are traditionally designed to appeal to all the senses, not just the sense of sight, and for this client, living under a flight path into Heathrow, creating a sense of serenity through sound was especially important. The laughter and murmuring of water, as it flows or trickles, is immediately evocative of peace, and the design of the garden includes three waterfalls and a gentle stream running into a pond. Ponds in Japanese gardens can symbolize the ocean or a lake, vibrant life or calm stillness, and, in their response to the weather, to wind and rain, can give rise to many moods.
Stones are another important element within Japanese gardens, and in the Twickenham design there are blue rocks, pebbles, and gravel. The larger stones symbolize mountains, again evoking both awe and stillness, and their reflections in the water, along with gleams off wet pebbles, provide opportunities for contemplation and meditation. Gravel, which can stand for water in dry Japanese gardens, in this space works together with the stream and pond to suggest flow and transformation.
The construction of the garden was not quite as tranquil as the result. Not only was there the sad toppling of the cherry tree, but the miniature earthmover needed to excavate had to be driven through the narrow Edwardian house, as there was no other access. This was fraught, but with some delicate manoeuvring was managed with all the period features intact!
The planting was really important in creating the Japanese feel. The new cherry tree became the centrepiece, but all the other plants were crucial. Black bamboo now grows up against the garden fences, and the water garden is planted with Acer trees, ferns, and Irish mosses. Two Japanese cloud trees remind, with their flowing shapes, of the importance of a balance between nature and design.
Decking made of tactile millboard provides a great spot for the kids to sit and dangle their feet, and for the parents to sit with a glass of wine and enjoy the peace.
Koi swim in the waters of the pond. In Japanese culture, koi are important fish, associated with perseverance, accomplishment, courage, good fortune, and success. Brit Ponds gifted the client with a koi on completion of the job, a white bodied carp with red patterning, known as a kohaku, which symbolises success at work, which was certainly apt. And the pond, as an Ecosystem pond, oxygenated naturally by the flowing water and surrounded by plants, will attract other wildlife, and create an oasis, calm yet thriving, in West London, a refuge under the contrails of the jets flying past overhead.
It may even be that kami will also take up residence.
To document this fantastic London Japanese water garden project, Brit Ponds worked in collaboration with the University of Bedfordshire’s, Innovation & Enterprise Service, where professional support and expertise were made available through the ERDF funded, Innovation Bridges project.
University academic and lecturer in Creative Writing, Dr Tim Jarvis, then provided consultancy to develop the ‘Brit Ponds Japanese Water Garden story’, focussing on the creation of this elegant Ecosystem pond designed to the client's requirement of wanting a Japanese Kyoto styled water garden at his London home. As a result of our collaboration with Dr. Jarvis he has carved out a project customer focus piece, charting the narrative of this symbolic success story with its ups and downs, thereby documenting a very special Ecosystem Japanese water garden that evokes the senses.
Our garden water feature display with spillway bowls and stacked slate walls can now be seen at Hemel Hempstead Garden Centre, Berkhamsted, HP4. See you there at their outdoor cafe from 12th April 2021 next to our display with the sound of running water accompanying your cuppa.