Throw out the gripes of Stephen Switzer, and that much respected Reverend, William Gilpin, as well as his confrère Thomas Hale, who regarded it as ‘not very picturesque’, because it presented too uniform a surface. Let us sing the praises of the common lime.
Perhaps these 18th century opponents were over-familiar with the ancient tradition of clipping it and using it in the ‘foolish Forms’ of topiary, in pleached hedges and in avenues, where the ‘Fragrance of its Flowers’ might be ‘a great Consideration in its Favour’ – a tradition that was retained, even in the mid-18th century, and never wholly condemned, although Thomas Hamilton was not alone in his venture that ‘the Natural Shape of a Lime, with a little Correction’ was prettier.
Capability Brown could plant lime as a line of dots, like a raised seam, at Langley and Kelston, or in bands and blocks, at Fornham St Genevieve, at Wotton, and in the north belt at Wimpole. It is found in pleasure grounds and in parkland scatter adjacent to pleasure grounds (Himley and Fawley Court); it is dotted (Charlton), and it is used more or less formally in clumps or dots adjacent to the belt (Kelston and Wimpole). Then one can find pieces of his parkland that are dominated by limes: on the crown of the hill at Wardour, and on the lower ground between the house and castle, at Sheffield Place and at Swynnerton for example. These are more puzzling, it may be that something about the management of the site dictated the species of tree, though in the spread between the house and castle at Wardour, the limes work as columns might, breaking up the panorama into vignettes.
The hybrid has two important clones, the taller tree has darker leaves (‘Svartelinde’, dominant at Burghley) the more frequent (‘Pallida’) has the ‘crow’s nest’ of twigs that break from the bole after about 150 years. Lime nonetheless is conspicuously erect and light, particularly in spring with its fresh bright foliage, and in summer with its pale flowers, bracts and seeds, but there is nothing in its use to suggest that it was planted to ape nature. On the debit side it can be a dirty tree that turns and loses its leaves early.
It was reckoned to enjoy a ‘Situation somewhat rais’d’, growing very well on hills, though ‘a small Ascent, with a due Depth of some free Soil, is the Place of its greatest thriving’, and so was deployed as a signal tree, particularly on shoulders of ground, where a valley appears to turn on a bend or becomes suddenly steeper, as at Latimer or Sharpham.
Even in the 18th century beech was recognised as a better tree for emphasising the swells and gradients of an undulating country, and this allows us to look for a quite different meaning in the lime. Whereas the spread of a beech will confine the sinuosities that it creates, a lime’s erect habit will first draw the eye to itself and then allow it to range beyond. Lime so placed has the impact of a building, a Claudian tower on the shoulder of a hill. This is not a natural use of trees, it is an exclamation mark designed to emphasise the slopes and swells of a valley side, not by dressing them, like a French tailor, to make the most of them, but simply by drawing attention to them.
Such plantings are designed to be read, not to be admired as fine painterly strokes in a natural composition. The process works because to one who has eyes it says that the designer of the landscape was aware of that line of the ground but for reasons of his own chose not to plant it over as a wood. In the hands of a lesser designer, like William Emes at Penrice, one can see this use of lime (and of London plane in fact), reduced to something like a formula, with lime on shoulders and near buildings, and London plane in groups by the water.