Pathway to Perfection

It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it's the journey that matters in the end. This is not just a metaphor for life, but a fundamental principle of garden design. If you visit any well designed garden you will find yourself being guided by the careful positioning of paths and vistas – it becomes an almost automatic response to walk down an avenue, especially if you can't quite see what's at the end of it. A clever design will, as you get to the tantalising focal point at the end of one vista, send you off down another route in search of the next, so that each point reached becomes just a part of the journey around the garden. The trick is not revealing everything in the garden all at once, but hinting at it (another life metaphor?) and creating a series of vistas leading from the first.

Whether you're talking about the breathtaking views and theatrical reveals of landscaped parks and grand gardens, or the view from your back door down towards the end of your own garden, the same principles apply, just on a different scale. In this way you can borrow from the great landscape architects and bring a sense of drama and mystery to the smallest of spaces.

Within a large garden vistas can be created using hedges or dramatic planting on either side of a path – restricting the view with a hedge, or, for increased drama, a line of pleached trees such as hornbeam or lime. This ‘avenue' technique can be mimicked on a smaller scale with a succession of regularly planted, clipped shrubs (for a more formal look), or a line of herbaceous perennials. A tunnel would be the ultimate dramatic frame to the vista, either living, or in the form of a pergola, or covered walkway. The view may be channelled down a narrow vista, but at chosen points along the way, surprises and new areas may be revealed – ensuring that journey again and introducing mini destinations before the final one.

A vista can also be used to good effect not just to draw the eye towards a view, but by defining and restricting the vision away from a less pleasant object. A well placed pergola or line of shrubs/small trees can do wonders to hide boundary lines and the less enticing world of next door's windows or a washing line.

The speed at which you travel down a given path ican also be controlled by the design and materials used. You may not have noticed this before, but what the path is made from will either speed up or slow down your pace. Look around you next time you are in a public space. Rough textures and bumpy surfaces will slow you down, as will a meandering path, but you will find yourself zipping along on smooth, regular paving – make the path straight, too, and you'll be at your destination in a flash (useful at a train station or an airport, but less relaxing in a garden). Make a path meander too much and you will find people taking the shortest route anyway and treading a new path. Having to take a scenic route from your gate to the front door, or to where you put the bins may cause path avoidance.

A path can be as simple as a strip of mown grass through a meadow, or it can be significant and formal, made from paving stones or brick. Gravel is an interesting material to use – dressed up in the broad sweep of an approach or drive, or downplayed as a path between vegetable beds. It's all texture and noisy crunch, completely irresistible to small children (they just can't help throwing it around), but useful when you want to know who's approaching. Brick pavers and stone give an air of permanence and will visually link the garden with the house and other structures, so choose with care and suit them to your property.

If you are about to embark on making a path, consider first its significance. If it's a primary path or within a vista, be generous on the width - picture yourself on a fine summer's afternoon walking down it with your beloved, perhaps to a nearby arbour (or bench) whereupon you might plight your troth (or at least sit down for a bit). Imagine how much less romantic the amble would be if you had to walk in single file as queen and consort. No hand-holding, linking of arms or comfortable side-by-side banter would be possible. A mean, thin path could spoil the mood entirely. If the path is just for access (that scenic trip to the dustbin or compost heap) it can be narrower – but make sure it's ‘fit for purpose'. We have a lovely path that's just a little too narrow for the Sainsbury man to wheel his trolley along. Fortunately he's cheerfully polite and well trained and has worked out a way of loading the boxes on sideways, but possibly deep inside he's seething and cursing at the meagre dimensions of our path.

Where hard-landscaping is concerned, there's often (but not always) a man involved, wielding a special piece of kit that's been designed for a specific purpose. The machine you need for making a proper path is something called a whacker - that being what it does. A compacting plate whacks the ground – sorry, the hoggin base of the path (once it's been levelled), making it firm and compacted and ready for whatever surface material you've chosen. Of course we have a whacker and it is jolly useful for making paths – if you visit us you will see that it's been put to good use, as there are now quite a few of them (vistas remain a work in progress). Whackers, you'll be relieved to hear, can also be hired on a daily rate, so your shed need not be clogged with the outdoor equivalent of the toasted sandwich maker (another excellent piece of kit, but also fairly limited). Flat, level paths are important – rustic can look good, but may also be hazardous. Make sure that paths for areas of heavy use are smooth and even, that no paving stones are loose, or cracked. Tripping on uneven pavements are the cause of many a hospital visit (and subsequent legal claim).

Paths and vistas do much of the work in ensuring that focal points, be they manmade objects like an urn or fountain, or points of interest within the natural landscape, are set off to their best advantage. An arduous journey on a difficult or boring path may cause us to lose interest in the destination before we've travelled very far along it. On that note, I must get out now and start pleaching some lime trees!

  • words Jo Arnell