The Green Baron, Bavaria and Bhutan

A land of fairy-tale castles and wooded hillsides, Bavaria sits in the south-east corner of Germany, bordering the Czech Republic and Austria. It is famed for its traditional lederhosen (leather shorts), Weißwurst (white sausage) and the Romantic Road, a route stretching from Wurzburg in the north to Füssen in the south, taking in enough turrets, towers and narrow medieval streets along the way to last a lifetime. Stray just a few kilometres east, however, and you can discover a completely different dimension to Bavaria, with the peaceful elegance of Schloss Dennenlohe and its garden and landscape park.

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The baroque mansion house at Dennenlohe was built in 1734, and sits in an extensive twenty-six hectares of landscaped garden. It was bought, along with the rest of the 400 hectare estate, by the current owner’s ancestor, Johann Gottlieb Freiherr von Süsskind in 1825  – he actually bought seven Schlosses, one for each of his seven children (he was a banker, enough said). Since that time some form of private garden has always existed at Dennenlohe, its character evolving from formal French parterre into more relaxed English-style country garden. But it wasn’t until 1978 that the current vision – part botanical garden, part landscape park and part family space – started to take shape.

Schloss Dennenlohe (Dennenlohe House, Dennenlohe Castle).

Robert Freiherr von Süsskind, or the Green Baron, as he is known locally, took over the running of Schloss Dennenlohe after his father died. With the estate already in capable hands and a healthy distaste for office life, he and his wife Sabine looked to the garden. ‘I had to find something to start here as a profession,’ he explains. ‘Working in an office for the next forty years, that is not my world! So I said, “Ok, we’ll start this garden”.’

A sizeable lake had already been excavated by his father, with the spoil from the dig forming banks around the edge and a series of small islands. These Robert has connected with bridges, each one with its own character, from geometric Chinese to flowing Art Nouveau modelled on the bridge in Monet’s garden at Giverny.

The water garden was one of the first areas Robert and Sabine developed, and initially the ground was full of nettle and reeds. ‘It was horrible work to cut the reed, and then pull them out by hand,’ remembers Robert. ‘But we never use pesticides: you never know how they will affect the garden long-term. Globally we are losing so many plants and birds, and we don’t know why, so it must be something we are doing wrong.’

To combat the ever-encroaching reeds, Robert decided to plant densely with rhododendrons, which did surprisingly well in the predominantly clay-based soil, provided they were given some peat to add acidity. ‘It took me more than two months to prepare the planting holes,’ he explains. ‘The lake froze over during the winter and I was able to take the wheelbarrow over the ice to add the peat into the holes before planting in the spring.’

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Today bold splashes of colour from these are complemented by the more peaceful greens of surrounding trees, expanses of clear water, and narrow pathways which snake and curl between the islands via bridges and boardwalks. This is a deliberate design construct: ‘We never make a straight path,’ says Robert. ‘Bad things go straight, good things are curving.’

As the garden has evolved and expanded, more diverse garden environments and styles have been introduced, including American prairie meadow, bamboo island, English rose garden, grassy amphitheatre, and even Germany’s largest artificial swamp. ‘It is a joint project with a botanic garden in Erlangen, near Nuremberg,’ explains Sabine. ‘It provides two hectares of extra space and habitat for bog plants which are on the endangered list.’

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Alongside this very serious aim, Dennenlohe also projects a playfulness seldom seen in large gardens. Giant giraffe-like chair sculptures prance, classical Ionic columns reach skywards, and stone cairns stand precariously on summits of man-made mounds of earth and stone. This sense of innocent enjoyment may have its roots in Robert’s own childhood: ‘One of my first memories is passing through beds of feathery asparagus ferns in my grandmother’s garden and feeling them on my skin,’ he recalls. ‘It was like a magic tunnel for a small boy!’

The crowning glory of the landscape park is a scaled-down, but authentic, Bhutan Temple, its materials all imported from Bhutan itself. Bhutan is the only country to recognise Gross National Happiness, in the form of a governmental index which is used to measure the collective well-being of its population.

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This underlines the philosophy here at Dennenlohe: not only to give nature a helping hand with the preservation of species, and to make a beautiful garden, but also to provide the opportunity for people to come and enjoy it. Sabine has been pleased and surprised by the garden’s popularity, and in particular by its broad appeal. ‘Last year we had a lot of families,’ she says, ‘and the children really liked it. A ten-year-old boy told me, “I never saw such a nice garden, so beautiful! We could run over the stepping stones and the bridges, and through the grasses. It was one of the nicest, happiest days of my life.” ’

See my website www.anniegaphotography.co.uk for more images or contact me for licensing. All words and images ©Annie Green-Armytage. You are welcome to re-blog and link-share on social media with full accreditation; no other reproduction of any kind permitted without written permission.

 

Skomer Island: so much more than a rock in the Irish Sea

Sunset through the sea thrift, Skomer Head

puffin flying above the sea

I hardly ever revisit places. I love discovering new landscapes, meeting new people, seeing everything with fresh eyes. So the fact that I decided to return to Skomer, a tiny island just of the south-west coast of Wales, must mean that I think it’s pretty special.

We first visited last autumn, on a two day guided trip to get up close and personal with the large Manx shearwater colony, and I was so blown away by the place that I vowed to go back in the late spring to photograph the island’s most famous inhabitants, puffins. What I didn’t realise was that the bleak windswept heathland would be awash with wildflowers, the sun would be shining (we were lucky), and the whole place would be an oasis of calm.

sunrise over Skomer and its wildflowers

The island is a National Nature Reserve managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. It is an important site for seabird breeding, home to colonies of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, as well as the Manx shearwaters and puffins. As such it is protected from development and just a few hardy souls live here full-time: the warden and his partner and a couple of staff, supplemented by researchers at various times of year, and volunteers who clean the hostel and undertake monitoring tasks in exchange for the chance to be in this unique place.

Stepping onto the little jetty is like stepping out of the modern world in the best possible sense. No roads, no motor vehicles apart from one tractor to take luggage up to the Old Farm, no TV or internet –  so no bad news -no distractions apart from the business of living in the moment, right here, right now.

little girl walking the grassy pathways of Skomer

At the end of May grassy pathways wind through carpets of wildflowers: red campion, bluebells,  thrift, even the occasional foxglove. All inland paths lead to the Old Farm in the centre of the island and this is where you stay if you’re an overnight visitor. Most people stay for two nights but I wanted to have the best chance of at least one dry photographing day so we opted for three.

The Old Farm at bluebell time, Skomer

The Old Farm, Skomer

 

 

 

 

 

There are very basic facilities here. You need to bring all your food and drink with you, although there was a box of Tunnocks tea-cakes in the communal lounge for the severely sugar-deprived. Bedrooms are basic and can be damp and chilly. You are advised to bring a duvet cover for the supplied duvet or a sleeping bag; I brought both and layered the sleeping bag over the duvet. I am a cold soul. The whole island is off-grid and power is solar; water in the shared bathrooms gets hotter as the day goes on, more so if the sun is shining. Power sockets are few and far between, just three in the whole building, so if you feel bereft without your devices bring a backup battery. I hold my hands up to needing my phone at all times, if only to feel like I can talk to the rest of the family if I need to (which my daughters will confirm that I very often do.)

This ‘hardship’ – my daughter calls it first-world-problems – was easily outweighed by the sense of peace which descended on me as I walked up the path on the first morning. It was like the weight of my day-to-day problems – and those of our world – just rolled off my shoulders, leaving me free to breathe for the first time in months. Admittedly my shoulders were pretty sore again at the end of each day but that was due to carrying half a hundredweight of camera and lenses on my back. 

Sunset through the sea thrift, Skomer Head

The silence, filled only by the wind, waves, and sound of bird-calls is healing. The beauty of nature, whether it be mad puffins doing a courtship dance ten feet away, the sweeping view of hills across the bay from Trig Point, the highest point on the island, or a rich sunset off Skomer Head, all these make Skomer a really special place.

puffins in a courtship exchange
puffin with sandeels, SkomerThe stars of the show are, of course, the puffins. When we were there, they were just getting into the breeding season, taking possession of the burrows they use for nesting, and a few even had chicks, or pufflings as they are so cutely known. These were hidden away but evidenced by a few adults starting to carry back sand eels in their rainbow beaks. There are spots on the island where you can get really close and other parts where you can watch their antics from further away – they waddle like diminutive penguins on the ground but fly like little torpedoes, albeit with very flappy wings. They are fast!

puffin landing, skomer island

But it’s not just puffins that are the wildlife draw – there are short-eared owls hunting, oystercatchers and curlews crying, and black-backed gulls marauding like pirates, on the lookout for hapless chicks or shearwaters. All this amongst rolling heathland, little sheltered valleys, and never-ending views out over the crashing Irish sea. I may just go back again.Bluebells on the cliffs near the Garland Stone, Skomer

Next up – Skomer’s birds and how I found out I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer