Love Downton, but Where are the Gardens?


Guest Rant by Layanee DeMerchant

I confess; I’m caught up in the romance and intrigue of the PBS series, “Downton Abbey.” I’m enjoying the fashion, the opulence and the stunning backdrop of a castle, on top of the great acting and the fascinating changes going on in British society at that time, so unfamiliar to us Americans.  But something is missing from the series, especially for those of us who have devoted our lives to gardening in one form or another.

Most of us recognize the iconic image above. The castle, framed by cedars of Lebanon, is sitting as if it just landed in an open field.  Where are the gardens? Where is the classic English perennial border? The cutting garden? The vegetable garden?

Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle. Many of the scenes are filmed on the grounds and in the rooms. The building stands as it did when first built in 1842. It’s surrounded by 1,000 acres of parkland. The grounds of Highclere include those gravel walkways and drives seen in the series. There are those towering cedars of Lebanon planted 250 years ago.  We’ve seen Lord Grantham strolling with his Cora along the walks.  We’ve seen him strolling with his yellow lab. We watched  as Cora’s mother, Martha, played by Shirley MacLaine, arrived in the mist in her fancy car. The austerity of the grounds is theatrical but what of the actual gardens have we spied? They are there, they are just not shown.

Britain is a gardening nation and the grand estates had greenhouses and vegetable gardens, along with follies, parks and meadows. The lavish perennial borders were coming into vogue a la Gertrude Jekyll, albeit perhaps first for the wealthy, the aristocracy.  In the early 1900’s the estate gardens provided food and flowers for the table year round. Flower arranging was one of the ‘arts’ which could be pursued by a lady and surely was a more interesting pastime than changing clothes yet again.  At Highclere Castle there are three greenhouses, though no hint of them is shown.  No vegetables are now grown on the property.

The filming of the series is said to take place from February through the spring, a period when the house is closed to the public. I have it on good authority that the gardens are actually off-limits to the cast and crew. I guess a homeowner has to draw the line somewhere. It would be hard for any film crew to turn a spring garden into a lush summer perennial border.

Historically, many of the great estate gardens went through a ‘renaissance’ as the English landscape style of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown took hold, changing the face of the English estate  from the former style, which was architectural in nature – think parterres and geometry. In the 19th Century formality was eschewed for the park-like atmosphere of open space. The flower and vegetable gardens of the aristocracy were mostly functional in nature – they provided food and flowers for the table.

At least the series has shown us the fruits of the garden. Three weddings have been planned, along with numerous dinner parties replete with extravagant flower arrangements. Two of the weddings didn’t take place, but no matter. The flowers were there and were magnificent. What of the number of gardeners needed to bring the flowers to bloom? They’re hidden away, along with the gardens and the greenhouses.

Are there enough of us who love gardens to petition PBS for more exposure to them in this entertaining series? Parlor maids, ladies maids, footmen and the house servants in general may be on a higher status level than those whose tasks involve the garden, but the subject matter could be equally compelling.  Perhaps PBS should consider a new series. What would you name it, ‘The Parlor and The Potting Shed”  or “Inside/Outside.”  After all, there’s quite a bit of ‘dirty’ subject matter in gardening and that always titillates the viewers.


    • OG: Of course you are right. Downton Abbey was created by Julian Fellowes and co produced by Carnival Films and Masterpiece. It just airs in the U.S. on PBS.

  1. Love the low meadow coming to the ‘house’ then gravel & swoon at the empty urns on plinths. Woodland in the distance.

    That is a garden. Pleasure grounds are traditionally further away from the home.

    A well worn template. And have adored copying it for decades.

    Gardens should begin with what they end with. Meadow, trees, stone focal point.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. There is a show called “The Victorian Garden.” Most of it is available on YouTube. It follows the garden of an estate such as Downton through a year of production. It’s fascinating and has a companion show called “The Victorian Kitchen.”

  3. Slight correction, its actually not a BBC series. I believe its being produced by an independent production company for ITV, the BBC’s commercial rival in the UK. The BBC went with a rehash of Upstairs Downstairs which was immensely popular in the 1970’s and they hoped would be again. Downton stole the mantle from them, they are fairly similar although one in a London townhouse and the other in a country estate.

  4. Frankly I think we need to be petitioning PBS for a revival of a much more useful and practical “Victory Garden.” Hmmm Roger Cook as host, sorta the Norm Abram of landscaping has its appeal…

    • Peter: Let’s have it all! Why not? I think Mr. Bates would be an excellent host…or the actor who plays Mr.Bates.I hear he is into gardening but that could just be rumor.

  5. Downton is OK, but many, many Masterpiece and BBC productions (Brideshead Revisited for one) were much much better, especially in terms of writing. I guess it must be the timing or some special confluence of circumstances that have made Downton such a mad hit. I wouldn’t bother with it if it were not for Maggie Smith.

  6. What? There is a show called The Victorian Garden? I must check that out. I love watching Downton Abbey, but like Layanee, I wish a couple of the characters were gardeners on staff.

  7. More of the beautiful garden, vegetable gardens – yes, please. Thanks for the info about Victorian Garden/Kitchen.

  8. Couldn’t agree more! The gardens were very important at that period, and it was such an interesting time in gardening. And so much in the head gardener relationship with employers and staff.
    Actually we in the UK are pretty cynical about Downton Abbey, it’s export fodder – feed the fantasies of the rest of the world about how the Brit aristocracy used to live.
    If you want some fictional stuff about English gardens (including an aristocratic element) you should check out my gardening soap opera – Dig, Plant and Bitch. Its on Amazon Kindle.

    • Noel: And oh so interesting fodder to those of us across the pond. I will certainly check out the soap opera ‘Dig, Plant, Bitch’. Love that name.

  9. More looks at those gorgeous English gardens please! I would love for them to revive Victory Garden and I suggest drop the cooking segment or make it a full hour.

  10. I wish they would show the flower and vegetable borders too. There was the show in Season 2 which had an episode about the village flower show. I enjoyed it very much because it was funny and gave us a respite from WWI. Must check out YouTube now for the Victorian Garden.~~Dee

    • I loved that episode with the flower show. Violet always won, of course. Still,it was a reprieve from the daily grind of changing clothes, yet again.

  11. I watch the show but I think the writing has gone downhill since the first season. And the Matthew character is just too annoying. As for alternative shows, how about “Little Garden on the Prairie” with Neil Diboll?

  12. Missing the point of the “rant!” Yes, I do wonder why we arent shown more of the gardens, and I will sign a petition if ever one begins! Do you think Julian F. is not fond of the outddor life? Or is it simply more difficult to fim outdoors, having to work with Mother nature?

    • The production schedule seems to be problematic for showing the gardens with the bulk of the show being filmed in early spring when the gardens would not be looking their best. The English Landscape Style shines all year round, majestic and static. There is also the historical component but it is entertainment after all.

  13. I love the lawn that we see on Downton Abbey. It is the classic English garden which means an extensive lawn. It was the vogue from the eighteenth century. I think of Stowe, Stourhead, and Chatsworth. I love them because they speak to the early history of landscape gardening in Englland. The lawn shots in Downton Abbey give the setting that classic meaning of the English garden.

  14. Okay, did you notice the big INSULT to gardening in last night’s episode? Maggie Smith looked down her nose and said Edith couldn’t possibly be “desperate” enough to take up gardening.! My word!

    Unrelated to gardening, CBS Sunday Morning had a story yesterday about the castle itself and mentioned that there were over 50 bedrooms! Also, the current owners of the place are very casually dressed and would fool any of us as to whether they’re aristocrats or not. In fact, to be a bit snarky, the Lady in question was wearing jeans that were two sizes too small on her chunky body. Titles and money, but not enough to buy good clothes, I guess, though their finances have improved post-Downton, thanks to all the Downton-loving tourists.

  15. Not sniping at anyone, just a reminder that this is a show about people, not gardens. And there are very few exterior shots around the castle proper in general, so it’s not as if they’re giving us tantalizing little glances at the garden(s) that leave us wanting more. (As for Lady Violet and her gardening jab, keep in mind that her concern is that Edith would want to actually get her aristocratic hands dirty doing the work. Edith would never have been permitted to learn to drive a car and a tractor had it not been for the war. No doubt it made Violet’s soul groan to think that Edith not only was good at it, but enjoyed it.) Anyway, just my two cents….

    • Susan: Oh, I did catch that comment and with an audible groan. Flower arranging would be okay but actual gardening might result in dirty fingernails. Hah! We did see one of the follies, the pillared Jackdaw’s Castle built in 1743. It was shown in last week’s episode as Lord Grantham is told the good news of the money situation by Mary’s new husband. It was a beautiful long shot across the lawn.

  16. Sadly, out of sight, out of mind. I have heard the gardens at Highclere are quite lovely but hardly in bloom during the series filming.

  17. Downton is a very pretty soap opera. If it weren’t so pretty–and it had no Maggie–most of us wouldn’t give it a second look. Fellowes’ writing for this is certainly not on par with his Gosford Park…not by a long shot.

    the “garden” is the sweeping vista of the English landscape that surrounds the “house”, with room enough for those fantastic trees (beautifully featured in the filming) to grow to their fascinating full sculptural potential. the glass houses, flower borders, etc are separate, but there. Why the writers and producers chose not to feature an iconic “English Garden” is a puzzlement and separates them from most of this genre.

    As for the Dowager’s dismissive comments about Edith and gardening in the most recent episode, she is reflecting the attitude of her class in that period and certainly her youth. Gardening was most certainly not considered a proper activity for “ladies”–because you could not garden while wearing a corset, and you did not leave your dressing rooms not wearing your corset.

    • It is very pretty indeed and Maggie has some of the best one liners doesn’t she? As for a corset, can you just imagine trying to even breathe in one? Ugh. Good thing propriety was on its way out at that time and Gertrude Jekyll was apparently no lady.

  18. Layanee,

    I’ve been saying the same thing! Where are the gardens, and why is the entrance so bland without any landscaping? Great show, but they are missing a grand opportunity.

    Nice post; maybe they will add a mysterious gardener character to liven up the grounds.

    • Well, John, historically the depiction of the building and entrance is accurate for the time period but there are gardens and this property does have three greenhouses which are not shown. Glad to hear we are ‘of the same mind’ on this. Yes, a gardening character would add a bit more earthiness to the show.

  19. Layanee — You’re one of the best writers on this site.

    I haven’t been caught up in the Downton craze, but your write-up made a period drama sound … Interesting. Maybe I’ll give it another try …

  20. Just from a historical accuracy viewpoint, remember that the varieties now in the gardens at Highclere are vastly different from the plants that would have been there in the period portrayed in the television series.

  21. Having read several articles on the subject, my understanding is that the gardens have been designated ‘off limits’ to the cast and crew. I can totally understand the current residents trying to achieve some sense of privacy in the success of the show. ( but I’d still like to sneak in!!)

    • I did read that as well. Many of the scenes in the show are filmed at many different locations so a garden of the period could be filmed elsewhere and shown. No excuses, right? 🙂

  22. A terrific show centered on gardens (mostly in England) is Rosemary & Thyme. Real garden sites and fictional (mystery) stories with Felicity Kendal (who was also in the magnificent series Good Neighbors — loved the episode where they harvested potatoes in the rain) and Pam Ferris. It lasted 3 seasons and is available on dvd.

    • Thanks for that info. I should order it right now! As for BB’s talk, I wish I were closer so I could hear that lecture. Thanks for the info.

  23. oh, and I looked at the seminar schedule for the SF Flower and Garden Show in March and see that Bruce Bailey is giving a talk on The Flowers of Downton Abbey. I assume it’ll just be about Edwardian era gardens in general.

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