Mayfield, a huge, private, cool-climate garden near Oberon in the NSW Central Tablelands has been described as “marvellous” and its public Water Garden a “masterpiece” and “magical“. I first saw greater Mayfield in 2010 and wasn’t that keen but thought it just needed maturation time. However, after revisiting only the Water Garden last weekend with three family members, I’m still not a fan.
Don’t be mistaken though, there’s no doubt this garden lives up to many of its over-the-top adjectives. Words like ‘stunning’, ‘grand’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘vast’ pepper people’s descriptions and that part is indeed accurate. The permanently-open six acre Water Garden is a only a tiny portion of the whole Mayfield private estate garden which opens for only ten or so weekends each year, the first batch in autumn and then again in spring.
And who can resist the idea that one of Australia’s super-wealthy men, Garrick Hawkins, would want to spend some of the millions he has amassed through investment banking and international deal-making, on building his own garden? It’s not something that our Down-Under squilionares tend to favour – large phallic harbourside casinos being a preferred edifice. Although there is that Mayfield Obelisk…
So what’s not to like?
The massive scale and overpowering structural elements
As I walked around Mayfield’s Water Garden, the relentlessly massive scale at first impressed me, then overwhelmed me and then, eventually, bored me. Much of the garden is at the ‘massive’ end, with big thick stone retaining walls separating the visitor from each garden bed, and also very wide paths. I found that this prevented me from feeling immersed in the garden experience, or reaching any level of intimacy with what I was seeing. As my husband remarked, it’s as if each plant is an exhibit, carefully removed from visitor contact.
Although you do need decent-sized retaining walls on a steep slope, when combined with the wide paths (no doubt useful for maintenance vehicles and when busloads of tourists descend en masse) the garden lacks a hierarchy of mass and void that helps sustain interest. We found that we moved quickly along these paths, not feeling called-on to linger, unlike paths that are a smaller, two-person scale.
There is one lower section of the garden with narrower Japanese zig-zag paths and bridges across several ponds bordered with only thin steel edging but the rest, especially when there are only four visitors in the whole garden as there was last Saturday afternoon, was just too big and impersonal. I like to walk along some paths that don’t feel like they’ve been designed for golf carts, and to discover parts of a garden without being so managed and directed.
Attention to detail
Yes there is attention to detail in the care and construction of Mayfield but it’s curiously absent in some necessary areas. The bluestone walls are an interesting compromise between formal and vernacular, the pavement is an easy-to-walk-on stabilised fine gravel and the cute little slate plant signs on their curly pigtail stands are clever and ornamental.
However there are several features, mostly associated with the extensive irrigation system that are not well managed. I know that it’s hard to make large-scale irrigation discreet, but I think that Mayfield’s system is way too visible and detracts from both plantings and views. Apart from the sprinkler heads, ugly water controller boxes were very obvious in the many bare beds.
It is mid summer, and the Water Garden has many empty, mulched beds. I’m assuming that many of these have spring or autumn bulbs and perennials that are now dormant but where is the seasonal succession planting to replace them? There’s obviously no lack of water that might hamper summer plantings and no lack of suitable plants to choose, whether you want the pizzaz of flowers or the quietness of foliage. After paying the standard $10 entry, I’m a bit cheesed-off that it looks like all the effort goes into other seasons.
There’s also a strange lack of substance about the Mayfield garden planting, compared to other cool-climate gardens I know. There are lots of semi-mature deciduous trees, especially maples. birches and tulip trees, and ground cover things like hosta and bog plants close to the water. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I feel there’s a structural imbalance caused by an absence of plant weight ‘down low’, in the 0.5-2m range. In cool climate gardens this is often provided by conifers and bigger evergreen shrubs, with their bulk and dense foliage. This absence of plant weight is part of what makes the stone landscaping feel overpowering and I think that will only increase as the trees reach full height.
Placement of benches and focal points
Traditional teak benches are dotted about the Water Garden in various open areas but they are strangely disconnected with their surrounding landscape and are too unprotected to offer an inviting place to stop and enjoy the view. After walking around the entire garden, I realised we had not sat on one of them.
And focal points like this copper water tree (I believe brought home from the Chelsea Flower Show) need a much better quality backdrop to show them to advantage.
It struck me over and over again how much this garden would have benefitted from the input of a trained and experienced large-estate landscape designer. Money is undoubtedly available but I read that the design is a collaboration between Hawkins and a local nurseryman turned designer, Peter D’Arcy. There’s no reason why someone can’t or shouldn’t design his own personal garden, but a publicly-open garden charging an entrance fee needs to meet a high design standard.
I can’t help but compare it to the superb design and plantsmanship of Red Cow Farm in Exeter, NSW – another 6 acre purpose-built garden (that is, it’s not a home garden) also created by a collaboration between two men, and open daily from spring through autumn each year.
A sign inside Mayfield says that its Water Gardens were inspired by those at Longstock Park in Hampshire, UK, so I went to Charlotte Weychan’s fabulous site of British gardens, The Galloping Gardener to see some photos. However Longstock more closely resembles the water garden area at Red Cow Farm, with its beautifully managed framed views, planting style and subtle hardscape elements. If there is substantial stonework at Longstock Park, I couldn’t find any photos of it, and the paths appear to be much more informal, where you are often making your own way across open grass, rather than being swept along in a one directional current.
Am I being too picky? I thought that my landscape design training was perhaps making me too critical of Mayfield but, without sharing my thoughts with my three companions until we were close to leaving, it turned out that they had individually formed similar opinions to mine – that the Mayfield Water Garden is more theme park than garden. There’s still the possibility that it will turn into something wonderful one day but I think it will need a change of approach as well as time to achieve that.
To avoid that accusation that I cherry picked out the worst photos for this review, I include, for balance, a gallery of the best.