Ursula's Cambridge Garden

Freelance gardener, plantswoman and garden-designer writing from my small urban garden in a great city

The Gibberd Garden – A Review


I would like to have been able to have sat down and had a cup of tea with the late Sir Frederick Gibberd CBE RA, the acclaimed architect designer of Harlow New Town.

 Head of Frederick Gibberd, bronze cast by Gerda Rubinstein, with Mother and Son, fibreglass cast by Gerda Rubinstein in the background.

I would have sat back in one of the comfy sofas in his lovely duel-aspect sitting room in his home, and admired the carefully framed view of his splendid garden pond through the large picture window.

And I would have told him what a magical haven he had created, with such an atmosphere of fun, exuberance, and, above all, eccentricity.

The Gibberd Garden, near Harlow, in Essex, is just a 45 minute drive up the motorway from my house, and on both my visits there I have been struck by what a memorable and uniquely personal garden this is.

Sir Frederick was the master-planner of space and vistas in the garden, from 1955 until his death in 1984, and an avid collector of sculpture, along with his second wife, who, if this plaque of the two of them is to be believed, did the actual hard graft of planting and weeding.

Frederick Gibberd at his desk and Patricia Gibberd weeding, concrete cast relief by Gerda Rubinstein

Together, they created a quirky garden, stuffed full of intriguing works of art, dotted around the large garden in unexpected places.

The primary purpose of the garden is billed, by the trust who now administer it and open it to the public, as a sculpture garden, rather than a horticultural tour de force, but I would say there is a lot that is instructive to the keen gardener here, not least because it really inspires you to integrate artworks into your own garden.   And there is nothing remotely precious or pretentious in this endeavour – Sir Frederick and his wife purchased many beautiful works from professional artists, but they also made full use of anything that caught their expert eyes – many ordinary objects are elevated to the status of artwork just by Sir Frederick’s careful placing or use of it in his garden. (For example a piece of drift wood shaped like a stag’s head mounted on the end of the house wall.)

So we have now coined a phrase in our household – something arty for the garden,  is termed  ‘gibberd-esque’ ( or even ‘gibberdy’ ) and we  know what we mean.

Sir Frederick obviously had a terrific sense of humour – here are just a few examples:

Pair of pine wood columns by David Nash

Portland stone columns salvaged from Coutts Bank, The Strand, with classical acanthus

Two bronze cast dogs by Robert Clatworthy

Above all Sir Frederick liked to do things in his own way.   Refreshingly, he seems to have been not overly fussy about how expertly he used paving stones and concrete – a rough and ready approach was fine, as long as it was homely and truthful.   His philosophy seems to have been – it doesn’t have to be too expert, because once your garden has matured, the artworks and landscaping will weather down and fit in.  He was a great enthusiast for concrete (he was even president of the Concrete Society) and did much of the hard-landscaping himself – and you really have to admire his just-get-on-with-it spirit.

I also liked his appreciation of somewhere secluded to sit in the garden – at either end of his Edwardian bungalow (much adapted and extended) there are excellent seating areas, with a sheltered Mediterranean character.

The use of shallow pottery pans planted with sedums on the patio really caught my eye – I aspire to find something similar myself.

I also liked the use of Akebia  quinata (chocolate vine) on the pergola structure directly outside his conservatory and have therefore purchased one to plant this autumn in my own garden.

My children found much to enjoy the garden – most importantly – the impressive castle, with real moat, which Sir Frederick built for his grandchildren –

And the splendid gentle hill to roll down –

The Gibberd Garden is a great day out – reasonably priced, with an excellent car-park, tidy toilets and a lovely tea-shop, and helpful and enthusiastic volunteer staff.  The house is also very interesting inside, with models of Sir Frederick’s building projects and an archive of his personal working files lining the walls.


8 thoughts on “The Gibberd Garden – A Review

  1. This is truly remarkable, speechless!

  2. Anyone who would have build such a brilliant castle for his grandchildren must have had a good heart. My kids would have been thrilled at one time, perhaps they still would be. Thank you for the tour! I am definitely putting the Gibberd Garden on my list of gardens I must visit.

  3. Ursula – great review and pictures of one of my favourite gardens! Look forward to seeing more from your area as I don’t get there often enough.

    • Hi there – glad you liked the review – not strictly Cambridgeshire, but so close we can claim it as a local day out! It’s one of my favourite gardens too. I love your blog, and will catch up on your recommendations for my next expedition. Happy gardening!

  4. Ursula ,I loved the centaur and the placement of objects in a garden is an art in itself.You seem terribly well organised but I rather take Christos (Lloyd) advice and do it when I think of it.I remember my tangutica became a monster and every year had to be hacked down in case it suffocated all around it.Have you been to the East Ruston garden up here probably the most interesting in norfolk done in the Hidcote manner but still very fascinating plant -wise.Wayne

  5. Dear Wayne – thanks for leaving a comment much appreciated. Glad you liked the Gibberd sculpture garden it’s a real gem. Yes, I have to hack the tanguitica right down to the ground every year, and it gives a wonderful display all round my front door. I will note East Ruston garden for Norfolk next time we are there. We were there recently and visited a great walled garden Wiverton Hall Farm which I will be doing a post on soon – watch this space.! Best wishes, Ursula

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