I am always on the lookout for beautiful gardens to visit on our travels and was very excited to discover Hamilton Gardens is only an hour drive from Matamata, perfect for a day trip. The world class gardens are situated alongside the Waikato River, an area that was once a thriving Maori settlement and home to Ngaati Wairere chief Haanui. Sadly, after European settlement, the land was used for other purposes including a rifle range, sand quarry, go-cart track and finally the city’s main rubbish dump. In the 1950s, the Hamilton Beautifying Society lobbied for a public garden and, with most development occurring since 1980, the gardens now occupy 54 hectares.
Passing by the Events Centre, we were drawn to a huge wood carving depicting real and imagined life in the gardens. The intricate carving was created from a single camphor laurel tree which grew on the river bank, far too big to capture in one photograph.
At Hamilton Gardens, the emphasis is on different types of garden design rather than plant collections, exploring the history, context and meaning of gardens. The individual gardens are presented in three separate themes – Paradise Gardens, Fantasy Gardens and Productive Gardens – too much to cover in one post so I will start with the Paradise Collection. Each garden radiates from a central court, in this case it is Cloud Court featuring statues of Egyptian gods Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky and Sobek, the crocodilian ‘Lord of the Waters’.
We started in the Japanese Contemplation Garden, entering into a karesansui, or dry landscape garden, of the Muromachi era from the 14th to 16th century. Often called ‘Zen gardens’ because they are found in Zen temple complexes in Japan, these are designed for quiet contemplation and study.
Beyond the pavilion, a pool surrounded by Japanese Maple trees infuses a serenity felt by even the smallest inhabitants.
The traditional gardens of the Arts and Crafts period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the inspiration behind the English Flower Garden. Walls and hedges create a series of outdoor rooms, each with a different planting theme, that are linked by pathways terminating at an arbor, fountain or seat.
It is easy to see why the gardens of this era are often referred to as ‘the gardens of a golden afternoon’.
The art of Chinese gardening dates back to the Han period, at least 2,000 years ago and this influential art form has been called the ‘mother of gardens’. The Chinese Scholars’ Garden represents a traditional Chinese garden from the Sung Dynasty, 10th to 12th century, when a social class of mandarins, scholars and the landed gentry created and maintained these distinctive gardens.
The winding path led to a blooming Wisteria bridge and would eventually reach a pavilion with views of the Waikato River.
Instead, we retraced our steps, past the giant bronze half turtle-half dragon, the Celestial Yuan of Taihu, symbolically protecting the garden from floods.
The 20th century brought the minimalist design of the Modernist Garden, particularly on the U.S. western seaboard and northern Europe in the 1930s. Elements such as swimming pools, barbecues and outdoor eating areas dominated with little ornamentation or formality. Not really my idea of a garden.
In stark contrast, the colourful Indian Char Bagh Garden was stunning. The symbolic four-quartered garden was designed for the Mughal aristocracy and spread throughout the Muslim world between the 8th and 18th centuries. The Mughal emperors, descendants of Genghis Khan, expanded their empire eastwards from Persia into northern India from the 13th century onwards. The design was adapted to local conditions but the basics of geometric layout and a focus on water and irrigation remained integral. In harsh climates, the subtle trickle of water combined with floral perfumes made for a sumptuous living Persian carpet.
Beyond the pavilion, some were making the most of this glorious day on the Waikato River.
We retreated through the decorative entranceway
and made our way to the Italian Renaissance Garden. Many of the elements of earlier Medieval gardens have been retained such as high surrounding walls, square beds and arched trellis work.
The Renaissance designers introduced a strong central axis linking different compartments of the garden and included antique sculptures. A perfect example is the copy of the original 5th century Capitoline wolf with Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who, as babies, were thrown into the Tiber River, which carried them to Platine where they were suckled by a she-wolf and then raised by a shepherd.
I could imagine enjoying a beverage on the vine covered terrace but there was much more to see.