When well located, walks and drives convey the idea of habitable-ness, imparting an air of welcome and freedom to a home and grounds, and in no slight degree seem to promote the beauty of the place. The most important walks and drives are those at the entrance…. Architects ask that a house be thus seen to show it at its best. We should aim to make the first view of a residence and grounds as favorable as possible.
Long, Ornamental Gardening For Americans, 1896
Well made carriage drives, like this one at Point Ellice House in British Columbia, were critical parts of the Victorian landscape. Photo: From a Victorian Garden, Courtesy, Archives of British Columbia
The Victorians lavished tremendous attention on their walks and drives, both as a practical means of entrance and egress, as well as an aesthetic pleasing link between the various areas of the gardens. While today’s gardener has not forgotten the value of the former, the latter is an entirely another matter. Very often nowadays, walks and drives are laid down without much thought as to how the paving moves through the landscape, or the impact they will have on the look of the garden as a whole. The unfortunate result is that very often a side or front yard begins to resemble suburban mall parking lot. In the same way that it is important that fences match the design and feel of the house, it’s critical that sufficient time, energy and effort be invested in garden paths and drives to be sure that they match the overall style of the garden as a whole.
Victorian gardening manuals abound with extensive advice on making paths and drives. In general they consisted of crushed stone and gravel, which was the staple of Victorian landscapes. Solid surfacing such as brick and stone was actually quite rare outside of major urban areas, due to the high cost of transport. (Concrete and asphalt, never particularly appropriate to the garden setting, didn’t become common until well after 1900.) Unlike today’s gravel paths though, Victorian paths were quite elaborately constructed, using multiple layers of crushed stone and gravel, with the coarsest material on the bottom, rising through more finely grained material at the top. This layering technique produced an extremely hard, durable surface that drained quickly even in the wettest weather. Additionally, the walks were periodically rolled after heavy rains to produce a flat, even surface.
Steel rollers, like this one at Point Ellice, were essential for the proper maintenance of gravel drives. Photo: From a Victorian Garden, courtesy Susan Seubert
In terms of design, the Victorians firmly believed in combining “grace with utility”, and one of the ways this was achieved was by paying close attention to how the line of walks and drives moved through the landscape. Although straight lines were not unheard of, (especially in small urban gardens where space was restricted, or in purely practical areas like the kitchen gardens, at larger sites, Victorian walks and drives were generally governed by the eye. Laid out in pleasant bends and curves, they always made sure though that there was some apparent reason for the deviation, even if one had to be created through artificial props like evergreen plantings. So fond in fact were the Victorians of these curves that as the century wore on that taste-makers of the day were forced to speak out against the practice of making too many unnecessary deviations:
It is no unusual thing to see the owner of a neat cottage make himself perfectly ridiculous by the way in which he lays out the walk from the street to his front door. There is a prevailing opinion that such walks should be curved ones, and gentlemen, often otherwise shrewd and intelligent, place themselves without question in the hands of some self-styled “garden architect,” and thus manage to make themselves the laughing stock of a neighborhood.
There was a well marked instance of this in a garden occupying a block in almost the center of Jersey City, where a man pretending to have a full knowledge of the subject, induced the proprietor to have a walk running about one hundred yards from the street to the house, made so curved that its length was nearly twice the distance. It was hard on the butcher’s and grocer’s boys, and it was said that even book-peddlers, sewing-machine agents, and lightning-rod men looked ruefully at it and left him in peace.
If walkways were intended to curve, the Victorians preferred that plantings frame the points of curvature to provide a visual "excuse" for the deviation, even if the "excuse" was installed after the walkway.
Some old authority on this subject (presumably Edward Kemp – MDW) says that there “never should be any deviation from a straight line unless from some real or apparent cause.” So if curved lines are insisted on, a tree, rock, or building must be placed at the bend as a reason for going around such obstacles. It will be evident to any one who reflects upon the matter, that a curved walk running a distance of a hundred yards or so, from the street to the house, across an unplanted lawn, is utterly absurd. All short foot-walks from the street to the house should be straight, entering from the street at as near right angles as possible, and leading direct to the front door. There should be no necessity for a carriage road to the front entrance of a house, unless it is distant at least 100 feet from the street, and then a drive is best made by having an entrance at each side of the lot……..
The width of the roads or walks must be governed by the extent of the grounds. For carriage-way the width should be no less than ten feet, and for foot-walks, five-feet. Nothing is more annoying than to have a shower-bath in early morning from the dew from an overhanging branch in your narrow walk. We often see gardens of considerable pretensions where the walks are not more than three feet wide, where it is utterly impossible for two persons to walk abreast without getting their dresses torn or faces scratched by overhanging branches. Besides, it argues a narrowness in the owner, particularly if the grounds are at all extensive, and looks as if he were determined to cultivate every foot of land. Of course, it is another matter when the garden plot is limited to the width of a city lot (20 or 25 feet); then such economy of space is perfectly excusable.
Henderson, Gardening for Pleasure, 1893
Finally, the choice of surfacing is critically important: it’s very crucial to select a surface that won’t fight with the rest of your landscape. While gravel is often the most appropriate for many historic homes, it does require maintenance and upkeep; a modern version of the gravel drive – tarred asphalt overlaid with gravel – gives the appearance of an aggregate surface without revealing the hard surface underneath. In urban areas, hard paving based on the house works well. For example, if your home is made of brick, then extending brick out into the landscape may be appropriate. If your landscape is rocky, stone may be a good choice. For an area near the shore, crushed oyster shells or sea stones set in mortar would work well. The important idea is to make sure that the paving surfaces contribute to the year round interest of the property. By all means however, avoid using deadly black asphalt or ugly unadorned concrete: there’s no quicker way to cry out “ugly modern” than these surfaces. Whichever method you choose, however, don’t forget the edging: paths and drives with clearly defined edges will add a clean and tidy look to the landscape throughout the entire year.
(For more on Victorian garden design, be sure to check out my book, From a Victorian Garden)