In a Manor of Speaking

If to repeat the same behaviour expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity, then to repeat the same behaviour expecting a similar experience presumably indicates the perpetrator is of sound mind? I do hope so as a happy outcome was certainly what I hoped for when I decided to return to the gardens at Chenies Manor only a couple of weeks after I’d gone there for the first time. So taken was I with these magical gardens on the edge of the Chilterns that I enthusiastically persuaded friends to return with me on 15 October. I judged they would enjoy the colourful dahlia displays and precise topiary, as well as the Elizabethan manor house and generous afternoon teas. I was only too willing to experience these again, but I also wanted to explore parts of the gardens I had missed the first time.

The Physic Garden is tucked away to the rear of the Sunken Garden and comprises several beds of medicinal and poison plants, clearly labelled with the conditions that the former are said to alleviate and the adverse outcomes should you be unlucky enough to ingest the latter. There was none of the theatricality attached to Alnwick’s Poison Garden (I recall a skull on the entrance gate and certain specimens displayed in cages when I visited a few years ago) but the range of plants grown was impressive. A handsome fig tree guards the brick gateway into the garden, conspicuous for its pale leaves in the familiar modesty protecting shape. A circular brick building, closed on the afternoon of our visit, houses an ancient well. I read later that the depth of the well is greater than the height of Nelson’s Column!

Beyond the Front Lawn, and in the shadow of the parish church, a low open hedge of pale pink roses surrounds a grassed area from which an elaborate circular labyrinth has been fashioned. A narrow gravel path branches off in frustrating impasses, entertaining the amused onlooker watching the brave soul who sets off to reach the centre of the puzzle who has to change direction every few seconds in an accelerating frenzy of false starts and dead ends.

Between the Labyrinth and Chenies’ Kitchen Garden stands a pretty orchard. The Kitchen Garden is an extensive densely planted area. As well as luscious ruby chard plants, I noticed an impressive number of rhubarb crowns interspersed with several terracotta forcers. To one side I saw a work area housing a large compost heap and a pot store. Nearby there was a pretty cottage garden (or cutting bed?) full of long stemmed dahlias and cosmos interwoven with a medium height grass which created a bronze misty effect throughout the planting scheme. I noticed that the area included a diminutive Eucalyptus sporting the disc-shaped juvenile leaves so useful to flower arrangers. Before leaving this part of the garden I took a close look at the fruit of the Medlar (Mespilus germanica) which stands in the centre of one section of the Kitchen Garden. I understand these bizarrely shaped fruits are a delicious treat once they have been ‘bletted’ or allowed to ripen for a few weeks after picking.

Having satisfied my curiosity about these outermost sections of the gardens, we returned to the Rose Lawn, White Garden and Sunken Garden which I had admired a fortnight before. They did not disappoint and it was a pleasure to see my friends enjoying their beauty too. The dahlias remained impressive despite some heavy rain during the intervening weeks and one plant had come into flower into the meantime, the tall and stately (but poisonous) Monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii).

As well as the playful Labyrinth, Chenies also boasts a fiendishly complicated Maze. The path between sharply cut yew hedges at least two metres high leads to innumerable culs de sacs before with some relief you find the central rectangular stone, from atop which there is a tantalising view of the manor house and the serenity of the White Garden. Stepping off it you embark on a bewildering quest to find the exit from which you emerge with even greater relief. Then it’s time to return to the car and to leave the timeless atmosphere of this special garden, until next spring when tulips replace dahlias as the star attractions in Chenies’ beds and borders.

To the Manor Born

A September afternoon at Chenies Manor

What links George W Bush’s Vice-President and the proprietor of Acorn Antiques? Answer: Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. According to the guide who related the history of the magnificent Elizabethan manor house when I visited a couple of weeks ago, both Dick Cheney and actor Celia Imrie are related to families who once owned the house.

Used to parking some distance away from the house when visiting a historic property, I was surprised to find myself being directed to the car park through the entrance gates and passing immediately in front of the house and through part of the garden itself. That brief glimpse from the driver’s seat promised I had arrived somewhere special. For here was a square lawn bordered on one side by a redbrick wall beyond which stood the parish church, a very picturesque scene.

The Inner Court

Once parked, closer inspection of the border beside the wall revealed a textbook blend of leaf shapes and textures: sword-like Phormium leaves interspersed with cream and yellow variegated shrubs (Euonymus and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’) and the crisply serrated blue/green leaves of the giant honey flower, Melianthus major. The lawn is cornered with yew columns, and in the centre a stone cherub stands amidst a circular bed of burgundy leafed Heucheras and castor oil plants (Ricinus communis).

Melianthus major

The redbrick of the Manor House forms an L around two sides of this entrance lawn. Variegated hollies frame the doorway of a grand brick porch, one holly trimmed into a five tiered design, beneath which grow ferns and ladies’ mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lead planters at the door blend shades of yellow and white, with dahlias, nicotianas and hydrangeas. Grouped containers feature elsewhere in the garden. Coincidentally, when reading the September chapter of Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ this week, I noticed she calls such arrangements ‘pot gardens’. The architecture of the house is perfect for tucking terracotta pots of ferns into shady corners or filling a courtyard with a collection of clipped box in pots, the evergreen foliage softened by a blue-flowered Salvia. A metal jardini√®re houses a collection of tender pelargoniums, amongst which I spotted Pelargonium sidoides, which I’ve grown for the first time this year in my own pot garden.

Dotted around the garden are a number of sculptures, all for sale, including a greyhound-lurcher which, according to Boo McLeod Matthews, the current chatelaine of Chenies Manor, who I chatted to whilst admiring the sculpture, is so lifelike that her two spaniels growled at it when it was first installed. Two angels in conversation and a swooping owl also appealed to me, nestling naturally in the greenery.

The garden consists of several rooms beyond which lies a larger expanse of lawn, clipped yew pyramids drawing your eye towards a pretty metalwork gazebo, a souvenir of the filming onsite of an adaptation of Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’. At the far side of this lawn stands an ancient oak tree, where legend has it Elizabeth I mislaid a piece of jewellery.

The Little Dorrit gazebo, viewed from the Rose Lawn

Chenies Manor is a popular wedding venue and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you turn are vistas and flowery bowers, a wedding photographer’ dream. Boo explained that with no wedding business this year, she has worked almost-full time in the garden with the rest of a small team of gardeners.

The first room I explored was the Rose Lawn bordered on one side by plantings of frothy annuals, formality imposed by broad based clipped box cones. Purple Heliotrope and Verbena bonariensis flowerheads jostle against Cosmos (in pink and white) and graceful pink Nicotiana and Cleome. The pink and purple theme is continued around the Rose Lawn, pale and deeper pink dahlias interspersed with more Heliotrope amply fill beds trimmed with a foot high hedge.

Dividing that bed from an adjoining lawn, tall lavenders and nicotianas tumble either side of a gravelled path, on which stood a wheelbarrow of deadheaded Dahlia blooms, a clue to the garden’s immaculate presentation. The path continues beyond domed yews to a metal pergola-covered green alley, square slabs set into the gravel at an angle to create a diamond pattern. Luminous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) illuminate the edge of this secret path which divides the next two rooms in the garden, the White Garden and the Sunken Garden.

Entered via an archway in a Wisteria laden wooden trellis screen, the White Garden’s restrained colour palette creates a calm tranquil atmosphere. The lawn snakes around imposing yew drums, embedded between which white dahlias (including the single-flowered ‘Twynings After Eight’) and tall Nicotiana sylvestnis dazzle against the dark green of the yew.

The Sunken Garden comprises a rectangle within a rectangle, a narrow strip of grass separating the planted sections. Repetitions of the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), blue/grey Euphorbias and ribbed-leafed hostas provide an understated backdrop for the stars of the show, dozens of dahlias in warm shades from peach through soft orange to scarlet and crimson. The skilful staking which must surely have been necessary to support the taller and larger flowered decorative dahlias was all but invisible.

Seated at a trestle table near the tearoom was Mary, one of the garden team, who generously shared her expertise in the annual propagation of many hundreds of dahlias, demonstrating the technique for taking cuttings from stored tubers early in the season. Arrayed on the table were several vases each containing a single bloom, in bright and pastel colours and of differing shapes: single, cactus, pompon, waterlily, collarette and the large bloomed decorative. By mid November, ideally after the first frost, the dahlias are dug up and dried off for a week or so. The stalks are cut down to 2 or 3 inches and the tubers are covered with dry compost or shredded newspaper in fruit crates and stored in every conceivable space that can be found, protected from frost, damp and mice. 60% of the dahlias in the garden are grown from cuttings. The rest are last year’s tubers or new varieties. Some are also grown from seed. Cuttings taken in January are started off in heated propagators. The new shoots from the tuber are sliced off with a small piece of tuber attached and dipped into rooting compound before being planted into pots with four other cuttings, watered and covered with a plastic bag.

The varieties Mary showed us included:

  • ‘Karma Prospero’: a longlasting waterlily style decorative dahlia
  • ‘Karma Choc’: a deep chocolatey red, good for flower arranging
  • ‘Spartacus’: a velvety red dinnerplate sized decorative dahlia
  • ‘Belle of Barmera’: terracotta fades to soft pink and buff
  • ‘Caf√© au Lait’: cream blush blooms, a favourite for wedding bouquets
  • ‘Labyrinth’: apricot orange with wavy petals
  • ‘Honka Fragile’: White star shape with red edging

Massed tulip planting takes place before Christmas in preparation for a magnificent display each April. Judging by the impact the dahlias make, I can only imagine the spectacle that awaits visitors to this beautiful garden next spring.

Next time…..I pay a return visit to Chenies Manor. Having concentrated on the central areas of the garden on my first visit, I saw neither the Kitchen Garden nor the Physic Garden and have booked tickets to return with friends later this week. And I plan to take a closer look at the ancient oak tree with its royal connections.