Kate gave us a very interesting presentation which certainly whetted the appetite of those going on the outing later in the year. She told us how the young woman Ella Christie was an adventurer of her time both in terms of her domestic situation and in terms of her determination to change them and to carry on her father's work in the establishment of the garden. She went on an extensive tripto the far East and came back through Russia at a time when ladies travelling on their own was unusual to say the least.
The story of the garden itself is one of opportunities and chance encounters with inspirational people.
Ella Christie inherited the garden in astonishing circumstances having had to fight alongside with her sister in the courts to get her father's will changed. She then went on a long journey to China, Korea and Japan where she met the water colourists Ella and Florence Du Cane. These French ladies had been in Japan for about a year and took her under their wing. She became inspired by the Japanese gardens she saw and started a shopping list of Japanese things to buy for her garden back home.
Once she arrived back she made contact with what turned out to be the only known female gardener outside of Japan who was at that time studying horticulture and garden design at Studeley college. This was Taki Handa. Taki Handa came to visit Cowden in the March of 1908. They drew up plans and the garden was laid out over a period of 3 months. The ideal was a design that closely resembles Willow pattern plates and the fashionable designs seen in London at the time. The result was a garden that lived up to its name of Sha Raku En or 'Place of Pleasure and Delight' Built around a lake formed using a dam on a tributary of the Ochil river it featured zig zag bridges, a boat house, a dry garden and many specially selected lanterns. There were vistas and borrowed landscapes and the trees were cloud pruned according to Japanese techniques. The garden was maintained by Prof. Suzuki and then by Shinzaburo Matsuo until 1937. After Ella died in 1949 the garden passed into the care of trustees of her great nephew Robert Stewart.
Unfortunately the gardens fell into disrepair after a vandalism attack in the 60s. As this has been a story of luck and adventure it happened that by chance at a meeting of the Japanese Garden Society the latest owner of the garden met Prof. Masao Fukuhama. Mr Fukuhama was so inspired to learn of the garden's history that he agreed to come and help the Stewart family restore them.
He was inspired by the idea of restoring such a unique garden - unique because it had been built by a woman in the years before Japanese ladies were allowed to travel outside of Japan alone; and inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of Ella Christie back in the days before women even had the vote, fighting for her and her sister's rights. Kate's presentation gave us an insight into the lives of women gardeners and designers from the time and a peek into this inspiring Place of Pleasure and Delight. Surely a much needed tale of happy chance and determination bringing pleasure and succour to many people. The gardens website is www.cowdengarden.com