Jacob’s Dream

Jacob’s garden completed

Sometimes you get projects you just can’t turn down. Our purpose as a business is to ‘Enhance lives and landscapes’ and about a year ago we were approached about a project that so perfectly fitted that purpose that  we knew we had to do it if we could. Jason Lock, our head of Design and Build takes up the story:

Bowles & Wyer were asked if they would like to help to build a garden for a 4 year old boy called Jacob by his grandfather Lawrence Perkins; it wasn’t until Lawrence explained that Jacob suffers from Dravets Syndrome that the significance became clear.

Dravet Syndrome is extremely rare, with less than 500 people (mainly children) with the condition in the UK. It is a form of life-limiting, catastrophic, epilepsy which is caused by a non-inherited gene mutation. Dravet children have very little immunity to illness; even a common cold can cause a seizure that leads to a stay in hospital. The seizures vary from myoclonic (drop seizures lasting seconds), hard to detect absences where children sometime stop breathing to life-threatening tonic clonic seizures (lasting from minutes to a couple of hours). Some children also have autism, others never walk, some lose or never gain the ability to talk and some cannot eat normally and have to be fed through a port in the stomach.

The main priority for Jacob’s parents is to give him a happy childhood and to expand his world to more than just a few rooms in the house. His development is slower than normal but he is a determined little boy who wants to do the same as every other toddler but there are many dangers for him, particularly in the garden. Jacob’s Dreams was started by the family two years ago to fund the building of a safe garden environment where Jacob could play on surfaces that would reduce fall injuries.

After a few meetings our Senior Designer Mark Latchford worked up a simple scheme that would allow Jacob to enjoy his garden, with an artificial lawn complete with shock pad and a terrace designed with safety play tiles. Whilst not a common site in most rear gardens they provided the perfect solution, reducing the fall risk for Jacob, yet still keeping the garden looking like a garden. Low raised borders using timber sleepers with the edges taken off and a raise area for Jacob to play in the sand were designed into the garden. The raised walls would also act as a support for Jacob to venture around the garden whilst holding onto the sleepers.

Emily, Darren and Glyn working away. Not often you see designers and landscapers mucking in together!

Over a two week period the garden was levelled and landscaped culminating in being planted by Mark Latchford and Emily Kaye from the design office as well our construction staff Glyn Christofoli and Darren Bates.

A simple garden that has made a world of difference to Jacob and his family, a dream come true.

Jacob’s Dreams was started by the family two years ago to fund the building of a safe garden environment where Jacob could play on surfaces that would reduce fall injuries. Family and friends have been raising funds ever since for both Jacob’s Dreams and Dravet Syndrome UK by running half marathons and by organising race evenings, children’s Christmas parties and annual golf events. It continues to raise money that will help to improve Jacob’s quality of life. Also the fundraising will provide new generation sensors to monitor his vital signs and a specially adapted wheelchair as he grows.

The Dream-team in the finished garden.
From L-R: Glyn, Darren, Mark and Emily

Post authored by Jason Lock, Head of Design and Build at Bowles & Wyer

We would like to thank the support received from Travis Perkins, Wickes, Easigrass, and Rochfords Nurseries that allowed us to make this happen.

Notes from Palmstead workshop 2019 – ‘How did we get here, where next and where do all the trees go?’

I apologise in advance for the length of this post. it is an almost verbatim coverage of my talk at Palmstead on 24th January. The actual presentation can be downloaded from the Palmstead website.

Come gather ’round people Wherever you roam And admit that the waters Around you have grown And accept it that soon You’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you Is worth savin’ Then you better start swimmin’ Or you’ll sink like a stone For the times they are a-changin’.

Lyrics from Bob Dylan’s ‘The times they are a changing’. I don’t think that there is a single person that doesn’t think times are changing. On almost every aspect of life, the world is changing around us, sometimes bewilderingly and often unpredictably. Often this feels threatening – we are programmed to be suspicious of change. Our survival relies on understanding the world, and if the world changes, then we find the unpredictability dangerous.

But change also offers opportunity. Businesses which do not adapt to change struggle to survive. Those that exploit change to their advantage thrive. The rest of us play catch-up. This article is about what opportunities change can bring us. But first of all, I want to look at how we got to where we are.

A short History of Urban Design(Looking especially looking at housing and landscape)

As I sit in my office and look out of the window, this is what I see: a new housing estate. This is what we all want. It must be, because we buy them by the thousand (and for a lot of money). But where are the trees? Why is it that most house-builders are so against planting trees? In fact, why are they generally against putting landscape in place? (Looking especially looking at housing and landscape)

We have all seen the dwarf conifers and Choisya ternata sundance around show homes, and the poor apology for gardens. Most of them are barely big enough to put a shed in. And yet, it seems to me that the most expensive, the most sought-after areas of housing are dominated by something larger than the houses – trees. And not just any trees; large, mature, forest species – horse chestnuts, oaks, planes trees, limes, even sycamores. So clearly, green leafy suburbs are what we really want. In fact, the media frequently use the word ‘leafy’ as a synonym for affluent when they are talking about neighbourhoods.

If we trace the roots of housing development back 100 years or so ago, we come to the genesis of large-scale housing development the garden city movement. During the Victorian era, most development had been urban. At both ends of the social scale, mass housing as a concept had really only come into being at the beginning of the C19th, with developments such as Bath and the Nash terraces in London for the wealthy and mass terraced housing for the working class.

Interestingly, if you look at Victorian terraced housing in areas where land was cheaper, they still stuck to the urban model (such as in the back to backs in some Yorkshire villages). Sometimes the built the same houses but made the gardens longer. The terraced housing in Hitchin, where I live, has plots that are only 15-20 feet wide but between 100-200 feet long.

But the rise of a middle class in late 19th century England meant that a different demand started to emerge. The landed gentry wanted their town houses to be elegant and urban – gardens were not a part of that.

The working classes could only afford back to backs. Whilst the middle classes could afford more in terms of housing, they could only afford one house. What they hankered after was mini version of the country estate. Both the architecture and the gardens point towards this – half-timbered houses evoking an idealised view of Elizabethan country houses; lawns, which had previously only been the reserve of the very wealthy, became available to all with the invention of the lawnmower in the C19th.

The garden city movement pulled many of these threads together. This is an early plan of Letchworth, the first ‘Garden City’. It distilled elements form the arts and crafts movement (with which it was closely allied), social reform (particularly of the Quakers), town planning, and mixed all this with a heady dose of social idealism with which all great reform movements are imbued.

The garden city movement has acquired a new relevance in the last few years, since the Government referred to it in the Nation Planning Policy Framework or NPPF, published a five years ago. Paragraph 52 says: “The supply of new homes can sometimes be best achieved through planning for larger scale development, such as new settlements or extensions to existing villages and towns that follow the principles of Garden Cities.” And who could possibly complain about garden cities; they are like mother’s apple pie indisputably good. Well, I for one will complain. For me this is where it all started to go wrong. The fork in the road where it all seemed so nice led us after sixty years ago from Letchworth to the sort of crammed housing estates we are all so familiar with. One of the reasons that the Garden City idea was so popular was that it plugged into the English Dream. But continual watering down of that dream has made it into something of a nightmare.

Well, there is another way. By way of a contrast, I want to look at some higher density schemes in city centres. Let’s go back to those posh city-centre houses.

They may not have had gardens, but those houses surrounded big chunks of leafy landscape. This is Belgrave Square – courtesy of Google Earth. Dense development, virtually no houses, but lots of trees. The houses pay for those trees. Indeed, as I pointed out in my introduction to the SGD ‘Urban’ conference a few years ago, garden design started with urbanisation. Skip forward a hundred and fifty years or so.

It seems counter-intuitive to think that if you have more houses on a site you can have better landscape, but sometimes that is the case. This is a scheme that influenced me when I first started down the route to becoming a landscape architect back in the seventies: Lillington Street by Darbourne and Darke. Social housing for Westminster City Council c1961-62. Incredible to think that this was designed 60 years ago. Just keep these images and concepts in your mind, and we’ll come back to them later. But I spoke of changes and how they would affect us. There are a whole lot of different factors which are bearing on the current situation. Any of them on its own would be important, but together, there are irresistible changes that are underway.

First: Demographics – specifically, baby-boomers.

This is a group of people born in the post-war years, normally defined as between 1946 and 1964. As a group, baby boomers were the wealthiest, most active, and most physically fit generation up to the era in which they arrived and were amongst the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time. They were also the generation that received peak levels of income; they could therefore reap the benefits of abundant levels of food, clothing, free university education, and pensions. The increased consumerism for this generation has been regularly criticised as excessive by the generations that came both before and after. So why is this relevant? Well – a few facts: According to the Resolution Foundation, baby-boomers own half of the Britain’s £11tn worth of wealth and assets. The report shows 82% of wealth increases between 1993 and 2012-14 were due to owning homes, with the gains amounting to a staggering £2.3tn wealth windfall. This generation is normally characterised as being more focussed on ‘ownership’ and goods rather than experience. However, most research shows that spending tails off with age, and that the percentage spent on things like holidays increases, whereas spending on capital items decreases. This has significant implications particularly when you think that this group has made up a major part of our client base over the last couple of decades. Actually, the shift towards experience is happening across all age groups but is more concentrated in the ‘Millennials’ as a group – which takes us to…

Millennials. There are no precise dates for when this cohort starts or ends; demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years. As I mentioned a minute ago, this generation is typically said to be more focussed on ‘experience’ than ‘ownership’. This represents the conventional wisdom for Millennials (figures from the US, but the UK is similar). This is slightly misleading In fact, recent research shows that all parts of the population and economy are becoming more focussed on experience. This is often accompanied or reinforced by technology – as in the music industry – where the whole model has moved from ownership to experience in the last 10-15 years- expand. If you look at your local high street, you will see exactly what ‘experience economy’ means. The most observable effect is more coffee bars, barbers etc and fewer shops, although it is more subtle than that. Example. Research from Foxtons also shows that Millennials also tend to buy smaller apartments than they can afford, spending a higher percentage on other things (meals out, holidays etc) than previous generations.

But the main thing is the cost of housing.

Houses have become significantly more expensive in the last twenty-five years, relative to income. This is hardly news to anyone here. There has been some softening in the last 18months or so, but the long-term trend has been upwards.

You can see from this graph the relationship between earnings and property for the whole of England and Wales. The dip in the recession in 2009 is clear and the pause in property and earnings rises can be seen up to about 2012, but thereafter it widens again. This means that across England and Wales as a whole, the cost of housing relative to earnings has roughly doubled.

The trend for London (and the south east) is even starker. This makes it clear that the trend is regional. We don’t have a national housing crisis, we have a regional one.

But there is an interesting tail to this. The rise in rental prices is much steadier. This means that until recently, developers were ignoring the rental market because the yields did not stack up against the cost of borrowing. Even though high prices have reduced buyers from within the UK, there have historically been plenty from overseas. That market is less certain. Meaning developers are becoming increasingly interested in the build to rent market. I know several major developers who are moving their attentions from Build-to-sell for Build-to-rent – CapCo and Argent amongst them.

But there is a problem: there is a shortage of land. Let’s look first at what has driven land availability over the last three decades.

The first answer is structural industrial change. The O2 site and much of the Kings Cross redevelopment are both examples of former Gasworks site.

Of course, at Kings Cross they kept some of the gasholders. Much of the development along the riverside in London is a product of industrial restructuring, such as Battersea Power Station, or Tate Modern (also a former Power Station).

The second major driver is technology and consolidation – Port facilities moving downstream, telephone exchanges, rail yards, etc.

This is the Isle of Dogs before development,

and after; with plenty of opportunities for landscape. The final structural change is the moving tide of land values, which is obviously partly linked to the first two.

Often as at Kings Cross more than one of these factors works together. But it is important to consider that:

  • Much of the structural change has now occurred
  • Most of the remaining large plots of land are publicly owned.

Which brings us on to the fifth piece of the jigsaw: Cash-strapped Local Authorities. Councils in the UK are not only cash-poor, they are income poor.

This is an interesting little – and slightly depressing – graph showing the divergence between funding and expenditure.

However, Councils are relatively asset rich This map shows land ownership in England and Wales, by percentage owned by local authorities. ‘HRA’ refers to Housing Revenue Accounts. In October, the Prime Minister announced that the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) borrowing cap for local authorities will be abolished with immediate effect in England. This removes one of the biggest constraints on council house-building.

Local authorities will now be able to borrow more money to invest in larger scale development and contribute significantly to the delivery of new affordable housing. We have estimated that councils could build at least 15,000 homes a year in the long term.

Lifting the debt cap only affects those local authorities with housing revenue accounts, about half of all councils. However, the implication of this is that because of years of austerity, local authorities lack the skills to carry out development. But you might remember that developers have all of the skills, but no land. Let’s go back to Kings Cross for a minute. Let’s go back to Kings Cross for a minute. This scheme worked partly because of a really good balance of assets and return – a long term partnership between the local authority and the developer that benefitted both parties.

Another well-known ‘partnership’ (this time in inverted commas) is the Lendlease-Southwark one. Many people feel that this is too one-sided, with the local authority not gaining as much form the deal as they could have. The proportion of council or social housing is low and it has effectively led to a diminishing in the local authority housing stock, at least locally. Lendlease tried the same sort of deal in Harringey, signing a £2bn agreement in Jan 2018, only for the council to back out in July 2018 citing: “the deal did not provide the answer to the challenges faced by the council”. The local authority also objected to the level of risk it claimed the JV indirectly exposed it to through its 50 per cent stake in the venture. Haringey Council added that it did not agree with the deal’s “approach to public assets”, as the agreement would see the council’s commercial portfolio move “out of 100 per cent public ownership”. So, getting the balance right is not easy for local authorities. In Haringey, the entire labour council fell and was replaced.

This somewhat idealised CGI leads us neatly into the final piece of the jigsaw. The Green Agenda.

You may not think that this is such a ground-breaker – it has after all been around for a while. Local Authorities have had a requirement for green infrastructure plans for some time now. There is a mass of evidence for the benefits. The real difference here is that Developers are beginning to move in the direction that this is something worth doing for marketing, rather than for planning, especially in the commercial property sector. Part of this goes back to the demographics. More and more employees are asking for a good working environment, so developers are anticipating that and pitching it to prospective tenants.

A quick example:

Tishman Speyer acquired this building about 5 years ago. We were initially taken on to design some monoculture planting around the edges of the terraces. However, to their credit (and following on from our amazing presentations!) the developer saw the possibilities. They were getting rid of lettable office space to make the terraces. In addition, they were surrounded by a huge development by Landsec which had the potential to completely swamp their development. They needed something to set their scheme apart and fixed upon landscape. they renamed it ‘Verde’ and marketed it as ‘The park in the sky’. This attracted higher quality tenants and they made a record profit on the scheme. The tenants in turn spent yet more on the terraces.

This was the pitch…

And this was the result (incidentally photographed from the site next door where we are also working).

So that is my jigsaw of the principle factors underlying the changes. But what are the overall implications of this, particularly in terms of the landscape industry, and are they positive or negative?

And what are the key learnings from all this?

  • The rental market becomes much more important, particularly in the south and in cities.
    • Developers will be moving more towards a build to rent model.
    • They will therefore have a longer-term stake in the development, rather than looking for a short-term return on investment.
    • This implies more consideration of ‘whole life’ costs.
    • It also means that they will be interested in protecting their investment – they will have an interest in it continuing to look good.
  • The economy moves more towards ‘experience’ than ‘ownership’, particularly in younger age groups. Millennials want to spend a greater proportion of their income on ‘experience’ rather than ownership. What are the practical implications of this to landscape?
    • Smaller apartments, more green space
    • More public space – more restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, parks and squares;
    • More attractions, holiday destinations, etc.
  • Expect to see more public-private cooperation, though friction may result.
    • Developers have a shortage of land, but a surfeit of skills ◦Local authorities have a shortage of skills, but are asset (land) rich and cash/income poor.
    • Result – more public-private partnerships. But this is a minefield. Expect plenty of friction along the way. Ultimately central government needs to set some ground rules, but there are plenty of opportunities.
  • Cross industry co-operation will be become more the norm. If you look at the really successful developments, there are a result of close collaboration and partnership. Not only between public landowners and developers, but also across the disciplines – contractors, landscape architects, urban designers and master-planners, garden designers, nurseries etc. Cooperation and partnership increase value, increases quality and makes for a better experience for all concerned.
  • The green agenda becomes universally more important.
    • More important to planning authorities
    • More important to consumers
    • More important to developers

The lessons?

  • Flexibility of approach is key – don’t stay hitched to one model.
  • Cooperation and partnership increase value, boost quality and make for a better experience for all concerned.


I’d like to kick a curved ball now to finish: the automobile. The car has come to completely dominate our lives from the second half of the twentieth century onwards. Is this about to end?

These two photographs were taken only 13 years apart – the impact of the car is clear.

Cars along the side of streets are a common sight in most of our cities. Whilst the introduction of electric cars does not alter this situation significantly, other than by reducing pollution (which is welcome), the onset of driverless cars will. There will not be fewer car journeys made, but there will be much less roadside parking and the road infrastructure could well change. What opportunities are there?

This is a linear park over and expressway in Boston that I went to have a look at last year.

Closer to home, this is some of Nigel Dunnett’s work in Sheffield – part of the ‘Grey to Green’ initiative. This clearly demonstrates some of the possibilities for roadside planting. A bit like the Churchgate scheme – you make your own opportunities.

A new courtyard for outpatients at Addenbrooke’s Hospital

The finished garden at Outpatients

It was a bright sunny day in April, and I was on a site visit to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where our fourth courtyard was underway. Once I’d finished on the site visit, I wandered around to take a look at one of our earlier projects at Addenbrooke’s – a courtyard for Outpatients. I was delighted to see fifteen or twenty people in the spring sunshine reading, eating sandwiches or just sitting quietly.

Two years before, this had been a dark and somewhat foreboding space – hardly an ideal environment to have outside a room where outpatients were waiting (sometimes nervously) to attend appointments. Now it was a pleasant airy space with flowers, raised beds and a bubbling water sculpture.

There is a mass of evidence to show that natural green spaces aid recovery. So it was with great pleasure that we started a few years ago helping Addenbrooke’s Hospital with refurbishing a number of their courtyards, beginning with the stroke recovery unit. The work was funded by donations channelled through the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust. The programme was driven by the relentless enthusiasm of Rachel Northfield, Head of Estates and Building at Cambridge University Hospitals. Her determination to see these spaces transformed has paid off hugely.

The entwined bronze otters

The hospital had been given a bronze sculpture of two entwined otters, which had been designed to have water flowing over it. This piece was incorporated into the second courtyard, along with Schellevis paving and raised CorTen steel beds.

Like most Garden designers, we often work for wealthy clients on private projects. This series of spaces has been a refreshing change. When the outpatients Courtyard was finished, I was standing with Rachel looking at the completed space when a woman came up to us and asked who had been responsible for this. When I said rather meekly that I was (not being sure what to expect), she stepped forward, threw her arms around me and gave me a hug! What better thank you could I have had!

The garden received an SGD award last night, which is a great honour.

(We have completed three further courtyards since then, one of which won a BALI award in December 2018. I will do separate posts on these in due course.)


Thinking about thinking

I was reading WTF by Robert Peston this morning. ‘How on earth’ I asked myself ‘does a man with as many commitments as this find the time to write? And not just a paragraph now and then, but a whole book!’

Thanks to @PaperPolly for illustration

I suppose that the answer is just a simple one of prioritising actions. I know that I want to write; it’s just that I don’t seem to be able to find the time to do it. The short answer is therefore to make the time. In the end, we do what we want to do. But… sometimes in retrospect we wish we had done things differently. Perhaps a little less time spent on my phone? Or looking at emails? I have (at least) three books in my head. Probably a dozen half-hatched ideas. So my failure in life isn’t failing to finish things (like some people); it’s not starting them in the first place!

Over the last two years, I also have come to realise the importance of ideas. And ideas start with thinking. The funny thing is though, ideas don’t always come along when you expect them, much like many other things in life. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that constant rumination of a problem or an issue is what drives the generation of ideas. Then before you know it, you are in the shower (my favourite place for ideas generation) or on your bike (second favourite) and – Bing! (lightbulb). Acting on and enabling these ideas is at least as important as having them in the first place.

So my New Year’s resolution is twofold: Think more and write more. I want to have at least one book finished by the end of the year and perhaps another half-done. Ambitious? Yes, definitely. Over-ambitious? Check in same time next year!


Remembrance and Hope at Kew Gardens

The beautifully detailed Remembrance and Hope bench at Kew gardens.

I have written before about Gaze Burvill’s furniture on this blog (What makes a good chair?), but after attending the unveiling of their new handmade bench at Kew Gardens a couple of weeks ago, I was moved to write again.

Over one hundred years ago, a soldier picked up some acorns and put them in his pocket. He was in France, about 30km from the Belgian border. The acorns were from the battlefield at Verdun, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, with over 700,000 casualties. The soldier survived and returned with his acorns to the UK. They were handed over to Kew and in 1919, an oak tree was planted out in the grounds to commemorate the fallen.

The damaged Verdun Oak at Kew gardens (photo courtesy of www.familyaffairsandothermatters.com)

In the St Jude storm in late October 2013, the tree was badly damaged, and the decision was taken to fell it. Simon Burvill takes up the story: “Four years ago in early 2014, I received a call from Tony Kirkham, Head of Arboretum at Kew, to tell me that he’d had an idea for a challenging yet inspiring project… …Tony asked me if we at Gaze Burvill could create a commemorative piece from the wood of the Oak tree in time for the centenary of the end of the War. Tony is one of the world’s leading tree experts, and responsible for all 14,000 of Kew’s trees. He knew of the difficulty of this project – this tree was young for an oak and grew in parkland, not forested and therefore unlikely to produce prime quality wood. We had only four years until the Centenary event, to mill and dry the wood, followed by the designing and building of the seat, meaning timing would be tight. However, I felt honoured to be part of such a unique project, so I said yes…”

I called in to Gaze Burvill’s HQ and workshops in late 2014, where Simon told me about the project. When they were milling the timber, the saw had snagged on some nails deep in the timber and broken the blade. The position of the nails dated them to about 1947-48. That was the end of the milling, although most of the timber had been planked. Simon showed me the remaining ‘wedge’ (with the nail stains) which was made into a simple bench to commemorate Verdun and unveiled at Kew 100 years to the day after the end of the battle.

The concave side of the bench has a design based on the barbed-wire loops of the front in the battlefield.

The main bench was designed and beautifully made by Gaze Burvill and a site was chosen. It was to be curved, with the concave or more reflective and introverted side facing the war memorial at Kew. The more outward looking convex side was to face out over the gardens, looking over the water and trees.

The more outward-looking convex side faces the lake and grounds of Kew Gardens.

There is a delightful space (small enough for a child) between the bench backs.

Apart from being a very poignant story, this also has something else. Landscape projects work best when they have a clear link with the land on which they sit – when they are (quite literally in this case) – rooted into the landscape. But this has another dimension: the back story arches over history, from the battlefields of France to the peace of Kew, and embedded within it there is an idea of the healing power of nature and by extension, horticulture. This concept is already deeply rooted in our collective psyche through the icon of the poppy, which flourished in abundance on the battlefields in the summer following the war. Not all projects have such a fantastic story, but the combination of link to the site and some deeper story of the client is a powerful one. For more exploration of this idea of landscape design rooted in the site, read a post I did a few years ago, called: ‘Why are landscape designers different?

Master-planning country estates and large gardens

Image copyright Ketih Hornblower, commissioned by Bowles & Wyer for a garden in Surrey

I recently was asked to give a talk at the landscape show on the subject of Master-planning country estates and large gardens – what do you do when confronted by several acres and an expectant client?

Estate master-planning is an area in which Bowles & Wyer have considerable experience, built up particularly over the last decade or so, in this country and internationally. So, question 1 –

What is master-planning? And how is it different from design?

There is often confusion about the differences between design and master-planning. Many inexperienced designers approach a master plan in the same way they would a garden design – they do some analysis, but often quite quickly get bogged down in shape making and fail to think radically about what is needed – they think in terms of features and style rather than areas and networks.

    • Masterplans establish a framework of land use spaces or zones, connected by a distribution network. It is within this framework that design occurs.

Which leads us naturally to question 2 –

What processes should you go through to masterplan a site?

There are three basic stages – Information gathering, Analysis and Design. Remember the S-A-D process you were taught at college? This applies doubly to landscape (or any) master-planning.  There is a fourth process that overlays this, which is stakeholder engagement. In the public realm this is a continuous and multi-layered procedure. However, for private projects, although important, it is more straightforward.

1. Information gathering stage

Magic maps (https://magic.defra.gov.uk/) can be a really useful resource in desk surveys.

  • Before you go to site, before you start on anything else, it is good to carry out a thorough desktop study into background information. Web-based sources like magic map are useful for this – look at designations, neighbouring land uses, local planning applications, planning history, etc.
  • The next step obviously is to Visit the site: spend as much time there as possible. Walk around the whole area and take lots of photos.
  • Talk to people who know the site well. Obviously, this may include the owner, but also site managers, gardeners, people who have had previous dealings there (other designers, tree surgeons, local authority officers etc.). This information can be invaluable.

This is a slope analysis for a site we master-planned in the south of France – the red areas show the steepest slopes.

  • Again this may seem obvious, but Aspect and topography are crucial – they have a major bearing on almost everything. Resist the temptation to start formulating design solutions until all the information is analysed and collated. In most cases, aspect and topography are likely to be bigger drivers of the final masterplan than the client brief.
  • Use aerial or satellite photography
    • Look back at previous cached satellite/aerial pics to get an idea of history/change on the site. This is not always easy, but can be really useful.
    • Sometimes useful for looking at seasonal change – not all photographs are taken at the same time of year.
    • Combine overlays and aerial photography – we find this a really useful methodology and it makes sure that your design process is always pinned back to site.

  • Other Surveys may also be useful:
    • Commission a tree survey if possible, or in the case of a woodland a walking woodland health survey. Generally very useful, although sometimes you have to convince the client to spend the money.
    • Commission ecological survey information – especially if there is a lot of semi-wild (or wild) landscape.
    • Hydrological information – if Hydrology or drainage are an issue, then this is vital in formulating solutions.
    • If abroad, local climate
  • What is the house going to be used for?
    • Main residence – family use? Is it going to be a low-key home for the family?
    • Holiday or country home? If so what are the times of year of visits?
    • Entertaining (shooting, country house parties, etc)? How many guests and how often? Sometimes larger houses have to virtually function as hotels – if so, you need to consider this from the start.

2. Analysis stage

  • What are the overriding physical constraints that affect the site?
    • What further research is needed? Often a consideration of this stage throws up extra research that can be useful to undertake.
    • What is the nature of the constraints?How can they be mitigated to meet the client brief?
  • How are the client requirements going to impact on the site?
    • How might these change over time?
    • How might the various client uses have different impacts? Sometimes these can be in conflict – quiet family use and formal large-scale entertaining for example require a completely different approach.
    • What land use zones need to be near the house and which can afford to be further afield? Swimming pools for example generally need to be near the house. Ditto kitchen gardens. Games pitches or tennis courts can be a little further away, whilst woodland walks, lake etc. can be quite distant.
  • Budget and timescale
    • What are the client’s time horizons (and are they realistic)?
    • Are there overriding budget constraints? Although be warned, it is best not to get sucked into budgetary discussions too early.
    • What future management or maintenance resources are likely to be available? This needs to be one of the earliest questions you ask.
  • Context
    • What bearing does the context of the site have on usage and design?
    • How might land use on neighbouring plots change in the foreseeable future change and what are the implications? It is not uncommon for example to find neighbouring farmland under threat of future development – this has happened to us during the master planning process at least three times that I can think of.
    • Analyse key views across the surrounding countryside, particularly from the house. These need to managed rather than just kept. Use clumps of trees or other objects to mask unwanted parts of a view.

3. Design Stage

  • Access and distribution are important
    • Look at the journey that visitors will make when approaching the house. Not all should be revealed at once – there should be a serial vision as to how the design unfolds.
    • Think of day-to-day use by the family; this may well be different from guests.
    • For larger houses in particular, think of servicing. Remember that a very large house with say 15-20 bedrooms acts like a hotel when full for a weekend or other event. There will need to be drop-off and parking for guests, parking for staff, but also separate access for food, drink laundry and other deliveries. This needs to work smoothly and as nearly as possible, invisibly.
    • Security may be an important factor for some clients. This has a significant bearing on communications and distribution networks
    • You will also need to think about how maintenance equipment (such as minitractors, mowers etc) move about the site.
  • Uses:
    • The internal and external uses need to be aligned. For example, main reception room and spilling out space; pool room and sun terraces. We had one project where the architect completely reworked the internal layout when we pointed out the potential of the views and west facing façade.
    • Consider grouping uses together where feasible – entertaining or grander spaces, family use spaces, sports and outdoor activities (tennis, swimming, trampoline, play equipment etc.) There may be scope for spaces to have more than one use.
    • Think about practicalities for gardeners – composting, equipment storage etc, but also WC and break facilities.

A Spectacular view from an estate in Hertfordshire – image copyright Quintin Lake

  • Views and spaces
    • Look to ‘manage’ key views. It may be that removal of some trees (or groups) may open beautiful views. Alternatively, there may be other features (pylons, buildings etc) that can be hidden by tree planting. Consider using landform for this as well, preferably combined with tree planting.
    • Segues between spaces are crucial. This is particularly important where uses vary between spaces.
  • Finally, style – this should be quite a long way down the list. Land use and practicality are much more important.

Light touch landscape design – lessons from Croatia in combining large numbers of people with sensitive landscapes.

As some of you are no doubt aware from my social media posts, I went to Croatia earlier this year. I say that because I had more comments than almost anything else I had put on Instagram in recent months. All the comments from people said the same things – ‘I had no idea that the national parks there were so beautiful!’ There were some who said things like ‘Another cocktail?!’, but we will gloss over those.

Water – and waterfalls abound in Croatia’s Plitvice and Krka National Parks. The Tufa geology allows for some spectacular formations.

The national parks in question were the Krka National Park and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Of the two, the Krka is the smaller and more recent, but also much more accessible from the coast, which is the where main concentration of tourists travel from.

Examples of some of the combinations of landscape forms that make up the parks’ scenery.

Typical tufa formations brought about by accretions of calcareous deposits from the water. This picture is of a naturally abandoned river course.

There are huge number of insects in the parks, both predators like these but also many pollinators.

Both represent very good examples of typical Karst topography and Calc-sinter formations. These are relatively rare in river formations but similar features in lakes exist elsewhere in the world. This sort of topography is both breath-taking to see and rich in biodiversity. Eight hundred and sixty species and subspecies of plants have been identified within the territory of the Krka National Park. The Plitvice Park alone has 55 species of orchid.

Because of this, visitors are a problem. Over one million people visit Plitvice every year, which is incredible given that most of it is either water or inaccessible rock cliffs and slopes. For this reason, if you are intending to visit, I would stick to early in the season or leave it until autumn. If you must go in the summer – get there early!

The boardwalks wind through trees and water in a very picturesque (if sometimes nerve-racking) manner

These people are accommodated through a network (around 18kmin total at Plitvice) of timber boardwalks. These are cut from local timber sources and maintained on a rolling basis by a dedicated labour force. There are many advantages to this.

Firstly, it is a natural limit to the number of people that the Park can accommodate. There is only the walkway. If you step to one side or the other is it generally water or a towering rock face. At times this can be quite scary as you can see from the photos!

Secondly, it allows large numbers of visitors to be funnelled through the park with minimal physical impact on the landscape in the way of actual footfall.

The boardwalks are relatively low impact, although there is some evidence of damage to the substrates from the timber stakes. The Park Authorities are currently exploring alternatives


The walkways themselves are relatively low impact. I say relatively because there are some issues with this. The original walkways (particularly in Plitvice) were put in place decades ago using wooden stakes driven into the substrate. This has caused some degradation of the tufa layers beneath and the Park Authority is now moving towards less invasive methods such as pontoons. Interestingly, the timber walkways are very similar in concept to those on Reed Hildebrand’s ‘Half-Mile Line’ project (link here opens in separate tab). There, RH used simple metal screw-piles into the soft substrates, but here I suspect that even those might cause damage. Either way, the timber walkways have a low environmental footprint – locally produced, sustainable and biodegradable.

The walkways can be exceptionally beautiful as they dip beneath trees and swing past bodies of water.

They are also exceptionally beautiful. There is nothing quite like the curve of one of these walkways across a march or lake or nestled against a cliff. And some of those that swing almost rope-bridge style across the falls are genuinely awesome. These walkways allow you to get right in amongst the landscape and its flora/fauna. Somehow you are both a participant and observer at the same time. These parks left a deep and lasting impression on me.

Calming the Chaos

The following is a blog from Max Harriman, one of the most recent (and talented!) additions to our design team at Bowles & Wyer. You can reach him on Max@BowlesWyer.co.uk. The garden is currently under construction and due to open next week – please visit!

A hi-view perspective

‘Mental health’ is the buzzword of the moment, and for good reason. One in four people in the UK will suffer a diagnosable mental health problem each year [1]. Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of anxiety and depressive disorders increases by up to 20% for urban dwellers [2]. Urban life is stressful; increased social stresses, high population densities, disturbed chrono-biological rhythms and increased pollution are all major contributors. However, a surge of recent research has also pointed to the link between poor mental health and the lack of contact with the natural world or ‘Green Space’.

Plan of the Tatton garden

On 2nd July I, and a team from Bowles & Wyer, began the build of a show garden of my own design selected to compete in the Young Garden Designer of the Year competition. The competition, run by the RHS, allows the opportunity for aspiring designers just starting their careers, to exhibit a show garden for a chance to win the coveted title. This year’s theme for the competition was to design a garden that highlights the benefits plants and gardening have on health and wellbeing. I decided to focus primarily on mental health, designing a garden to maximise the restorative benefits green space has on our mental fitness, particularly for those of us living in the urban context.

A perspective view of the Tatton garden from the front

My garden ‘Calm in Chaos’ was inspired by scientific literature surrounding the subject as well the realisation of the importance of green space in the urban environment having moved to London two years ago. The stresses of urban life are pacified when in the garden, transporting the guest far from the hustle and bustle to a woodland-like setting. Design elements aim to distract and absorb the guest, to take their mind off the associated stresses of city life. The garden is also designed to prolong the time the visitor spends in the space, therefore maximising the effects of the associated restorative benefits.

An elevation of the garden at Tatton from the front

I designed the garden around four main elements of the natural world that have been proven to have a positive impact on mental health in the urban environment [3]. The first is the feeling of ‘being away’ or removal from the city hardscape, which goes hand in hand with the second, the notion of scale or the feeling of extent in a space. Overthinking or rumination is a common symptom of mental health problems, so the third element is fascination or captivation to distract the guest’s attention away from the stresses of urban life, if only for a moment. Finally, the last intended element of the design was accessibility. I wanted the green space to be useable and inviting to encourage entry and therefore exploitation of the positive effects the garden would generate.


Gardens have the power to transport us to another place, which is the one of the main concepts behind ‘Calm in Chaos’. By using visual cues, for example planting style, the guest is psychologically removed from the urban setting. The feeling of escape on sight of the garden, and then once crossing its threshold, hypothetically would increase the uptake of restorative benefits. The path in the garden is made of compacted gravel to convey an ‘off the beaten track’ aesthetic far removed from the concrete and tarmac constant of urban life. The naturalistic woodland style of the planting is adopted to give the visitor the impression of being as far removed as possible from city life. A woodland planting palette was also chosen as walking through woodland has been proven to be an effective preventative health care measure: lowering blood pressure, reducing stress hormones and boosting the immune system.


Space in cities is scarce, and green spaces even more so, therefore ‘extent’ or an impression of scale was an important element of the garden to address. The winding path is essential to the design; snaking and meandering through the garden, it maximises the space and increases the sense of scale. The main feature of the garden is the series of timber posts that frame this winding path. The posts create a porous barrier through the space that only allows small glimpses through certain areas, adapting to the moving perspective of the guest as they walk along the path. The dynamic concealing and revealing of views in the garden is designed to give the impression of a larger expanse of space.


Taking your mind off something is not always an easy task, especially for those who suffer from anxiety and depression. The natural world, however, is full of ‘soft fascinations’- things that can hold your attention in an effortless fashion such as waves hitting a beach or rustling leaves. Therefore, ‘distracting’ elements were a significant consideration whilst designing the garden. Planting in the garden was designed to include a multitude of leaf forms, shapes and textures (much like a natural woodland) to visually stimulate guests. Increased fascination distracts guests from their urban stresses, makes them pause, slow down and ultimately increase the time spent in the garden. The posts, obscuring views whilst opening up new ones, are designed to entice and captivate visitors. The calming effects of water are also well documented, increasing creativity as well as possessing restorative qualities of its own. Water evokes a child-like fascination in all of us and people are generally attracted to it, so I have placed a reflective water dish central to the garden.


Compatibility of urban green spaces and its intended use is important. I often notice public green spaces that are not only unimaginative and repetitive, but also seem not to encourage exploration or spending time long enough to achieve any associated benefits. Sure, it can look great – but can you use it? Do you want to use it? The path in ‘Calm in Chaos’ plays an integral role in inviting the visitor into the garden, with the water bowl and bench providing an enticing destination point. This is the best place to enjoy the garden. It encourages entry into the space and will ultimately be the place where guests stop, sit down, whilst immersed in greenery and soak up the restorative effects of the design.

Research has shown that those living in urban areas close to green spaces are significantly less likely to suffer poor mental health [4]. Interaction with nature and the integration of green spaces into our busy modern lives will undoubtedly become increasingly important in reducing the prevalence of mental health issues – a daunting but very exciting prospect!

‘Calm in Chaos’ will be exhibited at the RHS Tatton Park Flower show from the 18th-22nd of July. More notably the show garden will be relocated and transformed into a permanent feature garden at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge after the show to be used and enjoyed by patients and friends and families of patients alike.

How the garden will look once it is installed at Addenbrookes Hospital

How the garden will look once it is installed at Addenbrookes Hospital

How the garden will look once it is installed at Addenbrookes Hospital

Elements of ‘Calm in Chaos’ were kindly sponsored by Groundwork UK and UBS Wealth Management. I would also like to thank the following supporters of the garden.

  • London Stone
  • Crowders Nursery
  • AllGreen
  • The Pot Company
  • Hedges Direct


1] McManus et al. (2007) Adult psychiatric morbidity in England: 2007 results of a household survey [online] Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/adult-psychiatric-morbidity-survey/adult-psychiatric-morbidity-in-england-2007-results-of-a-household-survey [Accessed 17.06.18]

2] Peen et al. (2010) The current status of urban – rural differences in psychiatric disorders. Acta. Pyschiatric. Scand. 121(2) 84-93

3] Kaplan S. (1995) The restorative benefits of nature: towards an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15 169-182

4] Richardson et al. (2013) Role of Physical activity in the relationship between urban green space and health. Public Health 127:4 318-324


Photos from the Bowles & Wyer 25th Party

For those of you that came to our 25th Anniversary party last Thursday, below are a selection of photos from the party – spot yourself! For those of you who couldn’t make it, we missed you!

I also include a transcript of my speech as quite a few people missed it and asked about it afterwards. I may have added one or two jokes on the night, but this is roughly what I said! John.

“It will surprise very few of you that when I first met Chris Bowles thirty-four years ago, I was riding a bike (although equally unsurprising is that he wasn’t). Chris was working for Clifton Nurseries at the time and I joined shortly afterwards. Five years later, Chris and I went out for dinner and came up with the idea of Bowles & Wyer, with my brother Nick. The plan was delayed for four years, partly due to the recession in the late eighties. Our business advisor in those day was Michael Johnson and looking through the job book the other day I saw that his garden was the second project we undertook – so he put his money where his mouth was!

I can’t quite believe it, but here we are, twenty-five years later. Nearly all of you in this room, friends, family, suppliers, clients (and some of you are in more than one category!) have played a part in that journey. The drawings on the invitation are part of that story. 19 Wilton Crescent was a project we undertook with Paul Davis and Partners in 1993 – and we are still working with them today on Kings Road and Regents Crescent. Klas Nilsson of Northacre gave us our first large commercial project at Observatory Gardens (and many others afterwards, including The Lancasters). Northacre are still a client today – we are working on Palace Street with them. We first worked with KSR twenty years ago on the Pavilion Apartments and they, BTP and Elliot Wood (also old friends) are all involved with 41 Frognal – another remarkable job, currently on site.

Those of you close to Bowles & Wyer know that we have being going through something of a quiet revolution in the last two years, helped by Alan Wick. The business has transformed and is re-inventing itself. Although a lot of people have been with us a long time, many new faces have joined us, and we have welcomed a few old friends back as well! We have been doing a lot of thinking about what we are for. We’re in this industry for the love of it. The closest we could come to why we do what we do is that we are here to ‘Enhance Lives and Landscapes’. We want people to be happier for having worked with us, either as an employee, a client, a supplier or on the same team. And enhancing landscapes is not just about creating beautiful spaces; we also want to leave the environment better than we found it.

Two and a half years ago sitting round a table we asked ourselves what we wanted from the future. The answer we came up with was ‘Better fit for our employees; better fit for our clients; just better.’

So, thanks to all of you who have played a part in this story over the last twenty-five years and will continue to do so.”





25 years in drawings

What stories do drawings tell us? Each site, each client is different and each drawing represents a snapshot in time. Some of you may have seen the invitation that we sent out for our 25th anniversary party. We wanted to choose some drawings to represent the last 25 years of Bowles and Wyer. This was not an easy task – there are thousands of them! Each of the drawings we chose tells a story.

IMAGE No1 – A garden in Parliament Hill. Project 100

At the beginning of 1992 I was lead designer at Clifton Nurseries. I left there in the May of that year, two months after the birth of our first child (the illustrator and graphic designer, Polly Wyer: http://pollywyer.co.uk). My first project under my own name (job number 100 – I didn’t want to start at 1!) was a garden in parliament Hill, Hampstead. This was an interesting project – a ground floor flat belonging to a fund manager. The garden had two awkward features. One was a large angled rectangular ‘bite’ out of the plot. the other was more fundamental. The apartment had been extended out over the previous patio so that only about 70cm of flat space remained. Beyond that all you saw from inside was a retaining wall over one metre high and a load of weeds at the upper level. To combat this, I designed a ‘scoop’ of space at the lower level, leading up a flight of steps to a landing at an intermediate level. My solution to the odd shaped plot was to divide the space along two radii; one to a small circular sitting area to the left and the other to a narrow vista to a sculpture or pot. I remember doing this drawing; it was drawn by hand at home, around 10pm the day before I was meeting the client! I still like the design now. It went on site almost immediately and was my first project to be finished. The profit from this was basically my seed capital for the business.

IMAGE No2 – A trellis feature in Wilton Crescent, Belgravia. Project 154


A spot of Classical trelliswork! This was for a very grand house in Belgravia. A year has passed since the last project. The brief was to provide a shelf for planting at first floor level opposite the dining room and ‘something to look at’. This drawing got us the rest of the project and formed the basis of a long working relationship with PDP, with whom we still work today (Regent’s Crescent and Kings Road). Looking back I am fascinated to see the detail I went into with the notes and the fact that I combined presentation and construction on one drawing! All looks a bit classical now as well, although I do like it!

IMAGE No3 – Thames Court Roof Garden. Project 460

Although never built, this was one of my favourite projects. We were approached by the developers to design a roof terrace for a speculative office development overlooking the Thames in Central London. For the first time, we looked at the space in a really different way – back to first principles. The environment on roof terraces is always extreme – sunnier, windier, colder, hotter than it is at ground level. This design was strongly driven by its context. In terms of its physical environment, this led us to look at other similar environments and their ecologies. Cliff-tops, foreshores, dry hillsides and the like. This in turn drove the plant selection. It also led us to specify thinner, less fertile soils which required low levels of irrigation and were lighter. The historical context also played a part. the swooping lines on the drawing represent the different shorelines of the Thames over previous 2000 years or so and are expressed as cuts running through the timber decking. The ‘view contours’ of the St Paul’s visibility corridor were also influential in the design. This scheme permanently changed the way in which we approached all projects, but roof terraces in particular. (Drawings by Stephen Richards)

IMAGE No4 – Seafield House. Project 1155

One of the more unusual projects we worked on – conversion of a former nuclear bunker into a luxury home. The building and site had lain empty and unused for years. This was a challenging scheme, but also a fascinating one. This was the first time we began to merge three different media to give a cohesive drawing style – hand drawing, 3D packages (in this case SketchUp) and Photoshop. This combination is still at the centre of how we render work thirteen years later. (drawing by Neil Percival)

IMAGE No5 – The Lancasters. Project 1115

This was one of the most unusual (and for us iconic) projects we have worked on. We were approached by Northacre, a client with whom we had worked for many years, on a new development overlooking Hyde Park. I was struck by the flamboyancy of the original façades – the way they overlooked the park reminded me of promenade buildings. Later I discovered the architect had been influenced by French design, particularly on the Riviera. Following a lot of research, we came up with a design based on ornate contemporary C19th motifs, cut and pasted – almost sprinkled – in a randomised pattern along the garden. The scheme was finished of with a row of 6-7m high fan palms in front of the façade. The client was so delighted with this that they adopted the palm tree and the idea of travel to the Riviera as a theme for all the marketing for the event. (drawing by Neil Percival)

IMAGE No6 – A Hampstead Garden. Project 2160

This sketch is for a project about to go on site. The style layering digital and hand drawing is typical of the way we present designs at the moment. You can read more about how we build these up to the finished drawing in a separate blog-post: ‘Anatomy of a sketch’

So there it is – 25 years in six drawings. From the first one drawn in my flat in London in the spare room to the final one worked on by three different people and across three different software packages and hand drawings. The fascinating thing is that hand drawings are a consistent thread from 1993 to 2018.


if you want to read more about the history of Bowles & Wyer, go to ‘Who is Chris Bowles, How did it all start and where do we go from here?’

Here’s to the next 25 years!