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The Garden of Cosmic Speculation - open for just five hours a year!

The Universe Cascade at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, which spews down the hill below the house

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation in the Borders area of southwest Scotland, has become something of a mystical destination since it only opens to the public for five hours each year. I was lucky enough to get there for the 2012 open day and despite crowds which cause a Chelsea football match to pale into insignificance, I'm glad I made it for a glimpse of this extraordinary garden created by landscape architect, Charles Jencks and his late wife, Maggie Keswick. It is quite unlike any other garden anywhere. 

Landforms and shaped lakes make the backbone of the garden at Portrack (pictures sourced from Internet)

The combination of the huge crowds (all as determined as me to see this garden phenomenon); the timing of the opening from midday until 17.00 (when the light is not at its best for photography); and "iffy" weather, with intermittent heavy, dark cloud, except for the first ten minutes of my visit, conspired to make photography extremely difficult. But helped by my son, who's studying architecture at university (both with the long drive from southern England and also armed with a camera), and internet sources, we hope to give at least a flavour of this extraordinary garden.

The Black Hole terrace, where the grass appears to suck you into its centre

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation covers 30 acres of ground surrounding Portrack - a Georgian farmhouse built in 1815 - near Dumfries in Scotland. Charles Jencks' connection with the property began when he met Maggie Keswick back in the 1970s and her parents were living there. He and Maggie married in 1978 and eventually moved into Portrack, although work on the garden as it is today did not commence until 1988. They worked together to create the garden there, which now opens just once a year for Scotland's Gardens - as Portrack Garden - on the first Sunday in May. 

The DNA garden at Portrack - seen from above (centre) and up close as you wander through
When you arrive, you're given a map, that gives no concept of the scale or complexity of the garden you're visiting, or any background or history on what you're about to see, so you have little option but to surge forward with the crowd and grasp what you can en route. And although Portrack is mentioned in many books, the only comprehensive guide is written by owner and creator, Charles Jencks. He made his name as a landscape architect, writer, lecturer and architecture critic, a self-proclaimed champion of Post-Modernism and "polemicist" for this new movement. 
The Symmetry Break terrace near the main house
The garden there today is dedicated to Jencks' late wife Maggie, who spent the last seven years of her life working with him on the project and watching it develop as they experimented with different ideas. But underlying everything you see at Portrack is the principle of cosmology -

"a dynamic interaction between the unfolding universe, an unfolding science and a questioning design" - because Jencks wanted to explore the laws of nature and interpret them in his garden. The result is a man-made landscape that's almost impossible to explain or describe unless you have seen it for yourself.

The Garden of Time at Portrack
There are certain landmarks that we've all seen in print, like the DNA Garden of Senses, filled with helix sculptures; the Black Hole and Symmetry Break terraces; the monumental landforms and mounds in the lower part of the garden, sculpted around man-made lakes; and a series of bridges, buildings and smaller gardens, with names like "Nonsense", "Taking Leave of Your Senses",  The Time Garden and Garden of Worthies.
The Willowtwist, made from one single sheet of aluminium
In reality, it would be impossible to begin to appreciate the subtle humour and skill that has gone into creating this garden in just five hours. But a visit to Portrack will give you a chance to see a garden that has certainly been on my Wish List since I started visiting gardens three years ago. There's so much to see here and so many hidden messages that you'd have to live here to appreciate all the hidden symbolism, or truly appreciate any of the plants. 
Portrack enjoys fantastic views over the surrounding countryside
Portrack is set in a stunning location, with wonderful views over the surrounding countryside, so with or without the garden "created" here, you could enjoy the setting. Overall, I enjoyed the Universe Cascade (top), which falls away from the main house most, as an architectural feat and a garden - a complex step design with running water, interspersed with tiny terraces and sculptures - reminiscent of an Escher painting - that comes to life as a three-dimensional design. Sadly, you cannot gain access to the terraces, so you must view this from below and if you want see how it actually works and appreciate the intricacies of the design and the symbolism within, you need to read Charles Jencks' book.
A rare moment on a Portrack open day - a short cloudburst has cleared the decks

A half-day visit to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation is woefully inadequate to even begin to understand what Charles Jencks and his wife created here. Combine that with huge crowds, climbing over every section of mound, path, track, bridge and available space, and the whole visit becomes surreal and very out of touch with the universe or principles of nature that the owners envisaged when they began work here nearly 25 years ago. Perhaps this property will revert to the nation one day, so you can view it at a leisurely pace and without being jostled!

Portrack's annual opening day comes complete with bagpipes!

Of all the gardens I've seen to date, this is certainly one of the most interesting, rivalled only by Nek Chand's Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India, where another visionary individual created another astounding garden.

Category: Speculation

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