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A Victorian Garden Lives Again

Long-neglected Biddulph Grange is being restored to its mid-1800s, eccentric glory

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`DO you think the man had a sense of humor?'' ``He must have,'' head gardener Nigel Davis answers instantly. He adds, ``He was very forward-looking, I think.''

The man in question was a Victorian industrialist named James Bateman. More exactly, it was his father who was the industrialist and James's real interest (with plenty of money to foster it) was plants and gardening. Orchids were his special love. He wrote a luxuriant - and physically enormous - book about them. Today, however, Mr. Bateman's name is about to achieve a fresh prominence, nearly a century after his death, as the maker, from the 1840s to the late 1860s, of a quite extraordinary, entertaining, and certainly humorous garden called Biddulph Grange.

Through most of the 20th century, this 15-acre garden in the Staffordshire potteries and mining district has lain largely forgotten, the victim of changed circumstances, but also of changed taste. The house that stands where Bateman's did (his neo-classical house was extensively destroyed by fire) has served as a hospital since 1920; Biddulph Grange was just one of many large private houses and gardens in Britain that became financially untenable after World War I.

But Bateman's taste, with its strong ingredients of fantasy, its Victorian love of gloom and mystery, and its wit, may well have been dismissed by 20th-century taste in the same way that Victorian gothic and classical architecture have been.

Today people are far more appreciative of Victorian eclecticism, Victorian style, even Victorian clutter. Once again - and just in time - a place like Biddulph Grange can be fully appreciated.

Amazingly, this garden has been looked after sufficiently well in the interim for restoration to be still possible - though by 1988, when Britain's conservationist organization, the National Trust, took it on, vandalism and decay had begun to make terrible inroads. It is by far the most ambitious garden restoration the Trust has ever attempted, and contrary to its usual policies this property did not come with any financial endowment for its future. Money-raising is still very much afoot.

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