Reclaiming History

An interview with Dominic Cole

by Hazelle Jackson


"At school," says Dominic Cole, "I hated history and sport: all I was interested in was geography and gardening." This focused set of interests left his school and family perplexed when it came to thinking about a career for him.

In the end it was his godmother, who was on the Design Council, who came up with the inspired suggestion that Dominic should become a landscape architect. "It was a profession unknown to his careers master at Stowe", he says, laughing - the school is set in one of the world's great landscape gardens.

As we sit in the sun-filled library of Land Use Consultants' unassuming London offices behind Euston station, over 25 years later, it is clear that the choice was the right one. Despite the studied informality of his appearance today, (cropped cargo pants and bare feet), Dominic Cole is now at the top of his profession, a leading figure in the restoration of historic landscapes and a familiar figure around the London historic gardens scene, both in his capacity as Chairman of the Garden History Society, and as a Principal of LUC, working on a number of historic garden restorations, both in the London region and elsewhere in the UK.

"A Proper Polytechnic"

Dominic qualified at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Metropolitan University), "when it was a proper polytechnic and placed huge emphasis on design."

In 1982 he joined Land Use Consultants (LUC), the consultancy founded in 1966 by Max Nicholson to bring together the multiplicity of skills needed to work on government-backed reclamation schemes. An early project was the reclamation of Harmondsworth and Bedfont Lakes gravel pits.

In 1983 Dominic got his first taste for historic landscapes at Dover Castle, where 12 acres of trees had to be removed from the important historic earthworks. Then he says his interest in historic landscapes was "really galvanised" by working on the historic restorations at Wrest Park and Audley End, where "I found that my skills in large-scale landscape reclamation translated nicely into historic parks."

A current London project is upgrading the grounds at Alexandra Palace. The trees on the site have caused him a lot of headaches. Wildlife lovers are reluctant to see older trees thinned, while local residents living near newly planted trees, added to define "bleak site boundaries", protest that their light will be obstructed and the tree roots will undermine their house foundations. "Involving local communities in the process can sometimes be very frustrating," he says ruefully. "There are endless discussions where the same issues are repeatedly gone over and progress can be painfully slow."

At Hampstead Heath he is working with the Superintendent Simon Lee to create a new Management Plan, "based on a proper understanding of the Heath as a resource". Pollution, he says, is a particular problem there, both air-bome and the ground pollution generated by dog faeces and bird droppings. This means there is " very little chance of the heath being naturally bio-diverse", due to the quantities of nitrates accumulating there each year. This also affects the water run off into the ponds. Data must be collected and elements like these factored into the Plan.

Greenwich Park

London from Greenwich (LMW Turner)Greenwich Park, together with the Queen's House, is also on his drawing board and Dominic enthusiastically describes how they have been tracing the footprint and planning the regeneration of the original LeNotre layout. This will provide the opportunity to restore the linear layout within the wider landscape. Other plans here include moving the path back from the ha-ha and replanting trees to make a new courtyard. [See the website for more on Greenwich Park].

Other London projects have included a Conservation Plan for Bunhill Fields, and work at Valentines Park, Wolourn Square (helping to prepare an HLF tender) and Richmond Hill terrace.

In 1993 Dominic worked with Tim Smit on the restoration of the 'lost gardens' at Heligan in Cornwall. This marked the start of a lengthy and successful business association. Writing in The Lost Gardens of Heligan (Gollancz 1997), Smit says, we began compiling the Restoration Plan for Heligan. Having been greatly impressed by Dominic Cole, a garden historian and landscape architect from London, we decided to appoint him as the leading consultant for its development."

The association with Smit was renewed on the Eden Project, the £100m+ project to create a series of giant "Biodomes" (greenhouses) in Cornwall. At the outset, the site was a 15-hectare (34-acre) old china clay pit near St. Austell and the LUC team, led by Dominic, faced a completely new challenge in landscaping the huge sloping hole in the ground and successfully concealing over 1000 parking spaces in the surrounding grounds The much-praised results reflect the industrial history of the site. Today Dominic is lead landscape architect. Since it opened in 2001, the Eden Project has been one of the UK's most successful tourist attractions.

Dominic's interest in historical landscapes includes horticulture and planting and he has been working on the Upper Parterre at Trentham Gardens at Stoke-on-Trent. This is now being reinstated by St Modwen Properties as part of a £120m restoration of Charles Barry's celebrated 1840 Italian gardens.

But, even though Dominic has now worked on over 50 historic landscapes, he is reluctant to align himself with conventional historians. "I have never set foot in the Public Records Office and I have no wish to do so."

In 2001 he was appointed Chair of the Garden History Society, which he saw as an opportunity to "give back something" to the garden historians, luminaries like Mavis Batey, David Lambert and John Phibbs, who "have been so generous to me over the years."

A key aim was to refocus GHS activities to appeal to a younger generation and he initiated a successful reorganisation of the GHS Winter Lectures and extended the scope to introduce horticultural themes. An outreach programme to give free lectures to schools has also proved popular.

Dominic is also a council member of the Landscape Institute. With its former Librarian, Shelia Harvey, he has been involved in setting up UKLAP - the UK Landscape Architects Archive Proejct, which approaches landscape architects to ensure copies of their work are held in the library.

National Trust Rôle

This year Dominic stands down from the GHS to focus on his recent appointment as Chairman of the National Trust Gardens & Parks Panel. Here his objective is to improve the image of tradesmen gardeners. "Many gardeners are highly qualified and give advice at high levels. They need equal professional status to landscape architects and landscape managers". Dominic thinks the poor pay of head gardeners is "symptomatic of the general low status of tradesmen" in British society and feels there is "a schism between head gardener and landscape historian", which needs to be removed.

Among the current generation of garden managers Dominic particularly admires Mick Thompson at Ashridge and Michael Walker at Trentham Gardens for their knowledge and expertise.

If garden managers are overlooked at present, with Dominic in the driving seat, this will not remain the case for long. After over 25 years restoring historic landscapes, his enthusiasm for seeking out new fields to conquer burns as brightly as ever.