Pottering on the Patio… Taking Tea on the Terrace
Jeremy Hobson very much enjoys that little bit of paved area between homes and garden, regardless of where one sits on whether it’s the terrace – or the patio
A year or so ago, I was fortunate enough to be a summer lunch guest of the late Sir William MacAlpine at his home in Buckinghamshire. It was taken outdoors – and I was delighted to discover that, instead of an immaculate, sterile place, the paved eating area overlooking the valley and ‘Bill’s’ private railway was, like the house (and Bill himself), full of evidence of individuality.
Rather than flagstones regularly jet-washed and clinically clean; interesting herbs and wildflowers grew in abundance from between the cracks and added greatly to the ambiance. But, were we on a terrace or a patio?
What’s the difference… might Nancy Mitford have considered one U and one Non-U in her book, Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy?
The ‘Etiquette expert’ who penned an online ‘lifestyle’ piece for a national newspaper certainly thought so – at least judging from his comments in which he quite categorically stated: “No one… of any remotely decent stock has a patio… That thing with some nice Gloster table and chairs on off the French doors? …that is the terrace!”
To some, the word ‘terrace’ might suggest the place from where supporters watch their favourite rugby team: others of a more Bacchanalian bent might think of neatly tiered and manicured Mediterranean vineyards. Some – myself included – cannot think of ‘terrace’ in any other way than that place to which guests at a country house in a period drama retire in order to discuss private matters… or where the likes of P G Wodehouse’s Gussie Fink-Nottle loiters in the hope of a few minutes alone with Madeleine Basset, the girl of his dreams.
Even today’s literature uses any available outdoor area as a device for creating liaisons. In Gail Honeyman’s Sunday Times best seller and 2017 Costa Book awards winner; Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the heroine apparently felt ‘the need to escape the noise and heat… and stepped out onto the patio… mostly paved with concrete slabs… “Nice night, eh?” said Raymond, loitering unnoticed in the shadows…’
In builder-speak, a patio is (concrete-slabbed or not), ‘any paved area near a house that is used for dining or recreation.’ A terrace on the other hand, can apparently be ‘any level area… not necessarily attached to a dwelling’ – or, according to various dictionaries; ‘a raised, levelled-off section of ground, often in a series; not always paved.’
In the past, landscape gardeners – most notably Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – eliminated any artificial structures that might have previously been fashioned around the country house in favour of rolling lawns and more natural surroundings. Then, according to James Stevens Curt in his book, A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (Oxford Press, 2006) Humphry Repton re-introduced formal terraces, balustrades, trellis work and flower gardens around the house in a way that became once more popular. Of a common-or-garden patio there is sadly no mention!
The National Trust; proud owners of Powis Castle are, however, quite eloquent when extolling the view that can be seen from their top terrace (imagine having space for more than one!): ‘As you look out… you’ll see the entire garden and valley laid out before you… See the terraces descend to the Great Lawn… To the left see the elegant Edwardian Formal Garden, deer park and in the far distance Long Mountain and the Breidden Hills.’
Travelling abroad, one is spoilt for choice – and no wonder, bearing in mind the fact that many terrace designs at country houses originate from the likes of Italy, Spain and France. As far as the latter is concerned, at the Château de Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, the terrace there, with its incredibly dramatic parapets is, from personal experience, most definitely the best vantage point from which to see both the gardens and the incredibly stunning countryside that surrounds.
Those landscape designers of old definitely knew a thing or two when they created long-lasting terraces of note. Ideally, for best effect, any terrace or patio (and whisper the latter), should be made from either flagstones or weatherworn bricks. And, should you ever be thinking of commissioning a modern-day Repton to design something for you; listen not to their pleas for concrete paving slabs – and make the sign of the cross should they venture as far as suggesting wooden decking. As the aforementioned etiquette expert opined in his article, if you choose to do that, you most certainly ‘dancing with the devil.’!
Jeremy Hobson is a freelance professional author, writer and journalist www.j-c-jeremy-hobson.co.uk