There’s more to Somerset than Glasto

3 Somerset Gardens 1 and 2 June 2022

In late July a ginger kitten called Seamus, born 7 May, will be taking up residence chez Weeds Roots & Leaves. Knowing that trips away will be limited for a few months while he settles in, I’ve been cramming in some garden visits. Four weeks ago, I made a three-day road-trip to Hampshire and Somerset, taking in four glorious gardens and a horticultural gem of a nursery.  

The first day I made two visits in Hampshire arranged by the Garden Media Guild, to Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants in the morning and then on to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. The Guild asked me to write an account of the visit for the next edition of GMG News which I’ve done. I’ll publish my blog post about the visits later in the summer and concentrate in this post on the Somerset leg of my trip when, incidentally, I met Seamus for the second time. 

I stayed with a very old friend (by which I mean we’ve known each other a very long time, not that she’s very old!) in the New Forest after the Guild visits. Her garden is a delight and includes a beautiful rose garden which was looking stunning. She has planted the raised bed either side of the steps leading down to the rose garden with David Austin rose Harlow Carr and it’s the perfect scale for such a position. Several weeks earlier, a deer had got into the garden and nibbled dozens of buds off the roses, but there was no sign of this when I was there and the roses had revived, healthier than ever. 

The next morning, we drove north west across Cranbourne Chase towards Somerset, our destination Durslade on the outskirts of Bruton. Cranbourne Chase is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I cannot better the Chase’s website https://cranbornechase.org.uk/about-us/the-aonb/ which describes it as ‘a diverse landscape offering areas of rolling chalk grassland, ancient woodlands, chalk escarpments, downland hillsides and chalk river valleys each with a distinct and recognisable character’. What struck me in particular was how few villages there are and how remote and unspoilt it is. 

In Durslade, we met another old friend at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the impressive arts centre which is, remarkably, free. The current exhibition ‘Henry Moore Sharing Form’ is housed in the converted farm buildings with some pieces displayed outside.

I’ve been wanting to visit the centre for a number of years, attracted by Oudolf Field, the perennial meadow designed by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. The date was 2 June and the prairie effect less obvious than I imagine it to be further into summer when the members of the daisy family with warm colours and distinctive seedheads will dominate the planting. For now, the overall impression is of cooler blues and mauves, with Siberian irises, alliums and foxtail lilies adding height and grasses movement.

The site rises gently towards the squat white Cilic Pavilion with grassy paths winding around the metal-edged island beds. There is a broad central gravelled path interrupted by low grassy mounds which have been closely mowed and resemble smooth green pebbles. 

The pale blue flowers of what I’ve since learnt is called bluestar (Amsonia– see more below) matched the blue of the sky and toned with the slate roofs of the gallery buildings. I noticed that the starry flowers were an attraction for bumblebees. Its needle-like leaves will, I have been reading, turn yellow in autumn. Like so many of the plants here, it has been chosen to extend the period of interest in the garden beyond spring and summer. I want to see this fascinating place in the winter when I anticipate that Oudolf’s signature seedheads and grasses will dominate the site. 

Another unusual plant that caught my eye on the margins of the wildlife pond was the flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus. The planting combinations throughout are so clever: for example here are the flat umbels of a pale pink Achillea alongside the leaves of the chunky but also horizontally inclined Darmara peltata. 

I have read that the garden resembles a giant artist’s palette, an appropriate description for a garden in such a location.

Photo: Alex Delfanne

In a location to the edge of the ‘field’, stands a piece of land art by Richard Long, Stone Circle 1980, made from Swedish Granite. Our lunch at Hauser & Wirth was delicious, sitting in the large courtyard café and enjoying being together in the sunshine. 

Oudolf Field was created in 2014. Our next stop, The Newt, is even younger. The garden in its present form opened to the public in 2019. I say present form, because there has been a garden here since the C18, namely the grounds of Hadspen House, now a luxury hotel. An English landscape garden with a parabola shaped walled garden, was transformed in the 1960s and 1970s into a C20 arts and crafts garden by designer Penelope Hobhouse, whose family owned the house. The estate was bought in 2013 by South Africans Karen Roos and her billionaire husband Koos Bekker who have created a visitor attraction in the mould of the garden attached to their South African winery, Babylonstoren. 

This was my second visit and like my first, merely scratched the surface of the place. On both occasions, I have had limited time to explore and shall do so on another occasion. But what I have seen each time has made a huge impression on me. The sloping parabola planted with apple varieties from all the apple growing counties in the country, intersected by rills and pools, was a magnet for my great nephews when we were there on a hot July day after the first lockdown two years ago. Fantastical birds feature in topiary fashioned atop hedging alongside the brick wall surrounding the parabola. Beyond the huge kitchen garden, are the Colour Gardens, a series of rooms each dedicated to red, blue and white. An interpretation panel explained that the gardens pay tribute to Sandra and Nori Pope who created colour gardens when they leased the gardens in the 1990s. The gardens are separated by wattle screens, into which oval ‘windows’ have been fitted, offering tantalising glimpses into the garden next door. 

I was excited to see that Amsonia featured in the Blue Garden, and thanks to another panel, that it was the same species as that I’d seen that morning at Oudolf Field, Amsonia tabernaemontana. Retreating to the shade of the Cottage Garden for ice-cream, we didn’t explore any further and I’m saving that treat for another occasion. I was anxious by then to drive the dozen or so miles to my niece’s house where I was taking over cat-sitting duties for a day or so. I had in fact met Seamus the previous week when he was only three weeks old and I was struck by how much the four kittens had grown in a week. Their eyes now open, they were beginning to explore a little beyond the warm security of mum, though not venturing far and still a little unsteady on their legs.

In the Cottage Garden

The next morning, having made sure all was well with the cats and kittens, I headed to a delightful National Trust property, Lytes Cary Manor, a short drive away. With origins as a mediaeval manor house, the house was extended in the C16 and restored in the early C20 by Sir Walter and Lady Flora Jenner. I enjoyed the tour of the house very much. Its scale is modest in comparison to many historic houses, and does still retain the air of a home, thanks to its being fully furnished and lovingly tended by the Trust. A late C16 occupant of the house, Henry Lyte I (c.1529-1607) was a botany scholar and translated a Flemish herbal illustrated with 870 woodcuts of plants. The book is on display in a glass case, protected from light by a leather covering when not being scrutinised by visitors. It was open at a page featuring thyme and pennywort. In a mirror frame dating from the C17, the stumpwork embroidery had been added to by Sir Walter’s sister in law with a panel depicting the house and part of the garden.

The present garden layout dates from 1907 when the Jenners began to create a garden in the Arts and Crafts style so fashionable in Edwardian times. Three sides of the house are surrounded by a series of ‘garden rooms’ divided by yew hedges and stone walls. The main entrance to the house is on the east front, reached by a stone path flanked by 12 yew bushes, each topiarised into an immaculately clipped half sphere topped by a cone. This is the Apostle Garden. I hope the photos capture a flavour of the gardens with their formal  topiary, stone walls and gateways and exquisite planting. 

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And finally, Seamus the kitten!

Kew

2 July 2022

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