Country & Garden: Dreams of the perfect garden

Easter weekend is the ideal time to visit one of the gardens open for charity, and to glean ideas for your own plot.

Yellow as the daffodils waving in our garden, the new directory listing gardens of England and Wales open for charity is now stashed away in what is still quaintly called the glove compartment of my car. Sticky- sweet compartment. Ancient-OS-map compartment. Guilty-parking-ticket compartment. But gloves? Never.

I like to know it is there. Three-and-a-half thousand different dreams are packed in this little paperback; three-and-a-half thousand interpretations of an ideal, private world. Just reading it, stuck in a traffic jam, keeps the blood pressure down. "Thousands of fritillaries" at The Coppice, Reigate, Surrey (open 14 April, 2pm-5pm, admission pounds 2), "crown imperials, Victorian hyacinths and old primroses" at Netherhall Manor, Soham, Cambs (open tomorrow, 2pm-5pm, admission pounds 1), "old oak wood with primroses and bluebells among giant boulders" (Higher Knowle, Lustleigh, Devon, open Easter Sunday and Monday, 2pm-6pm, admission pounds 2.50).

On a visit, my antennae are wobbling like some crazed ant's. What do I learn from the approach to the garden? What wild trees and shrubs are growing? This gives some indication of the kind of soil to be found. Is the site sheltered or exposed? If exposed, how have the garden owners coped with it? Is this a garden where plants rule? Plantsmanship is a wonderful madness, but the best gardens always offer more than just a collection of plants.

Increasingly rare is a sense of timelessness in a garden. We live in a restless, fidgety age. To spend eight years in the same house is thought to be extraordinary. To have spent a lifetime there, unimaginable. But gardens benefit from owners who stay rooted in them. They take the long view. They plant trees. They understand that gardening is a process, not a product.

So it was a treat to amble through the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels, perched high on a rise above the river Thames at Clifton Hampden in Oxfordshire, and let myself into the garden of the Manor House. Christopher Gibbs, an antiques dealer, who has owned the place for the last 20 years, grew up here. He remembers his mother "always standing on her head in the borders. My father endlessly engaged with bonfires. We children splitting snowdrops. Me cutting branches of shrubs to decorate the house. My father consequently exploding with rage..."

The house, started in the 1840s, has the same fine, high position above the river as the church. The land drops steeply away to the south in a series of narrow terraces, finishing in a long, meandering walk along the river bank. From the vantage point of the big lawn on the west side of the house, you look out over river meadows to distant steeples. From the river bank, 40ft below, the view is veiled by skeins of willow and the knobby, dark fruit of alder, hanging alongside the season's fresh catkins.

A lot of fresh things have happened in this garden since Mr Gibbs returned to live here. But, understanding the spirit of the place so well, he has melted his new additions seamlessly into the old. A local blacksmith made the wide iron frames for the new lime tunnel, which marches along beside the old herbaceous borders. Pools of blue scillas backed by white grape hyacinths lap across the path. Behind is lily of the valley. These are quiet effects, but magic all the same.

At the other end of the borders is a huge pergola, built of larch. Most structures of this kind are flat-topped, but this one is broken up by big, pointed towers. The effect is wonderfully eclectic, though I wouldn't like to be the person who wobbles on a ladder tying in the roses up there.

"Oh, well, it's all very well, for him," you may mutter, with acres lapping out around the Clifton Hampden house. But however small your own garden may be, there are always lessons to learn from the way other people do things. The lesson here is that you can scarcely ever think too big. Most of us think too small, and the smaller the garden, the bigger and bolder you need to be to avoid fussiness, spottiness.

As you might expect from a man whose business is antiques, the garden is well-dressed with statues, busts and a stone fountain in a green room hedged with yew. Was it a temptation to keep pieces for himself rather than sell them? "Only the things that no one else would want," replied Mr Gibbs pragmatically. "The knee-capped Roman soldier, the headless Juno." Juno lies in the middle of the kitchen garden, couched on snowdrops.

This is a garden to roam through quietly. Look out for the magnificent multi-stemmed phillyrea leaning out over the river below the lawn. Admire the cedar of Lebanon grown from a seed brought back from the East by a great-uncle. Transport yourself to the tropics with the bromeliads in the greenhouse.

Though this is gardening on a scale that is now unusual, it is still a type of gardening that we understand: flower borders, vegetable garden, terraces to sit out on. Gardens made in the early 18th century, more than 100 years before the Gibbs came to Clifton Hampden, are more difficult to unpick. They may be unchanged, as is the garden around Shotover House at Wheatley, Oxfordshire, but we have changed so much, we cannot read them in the old way.

Partly, it is a matter of allusion. A landowner of the 18th century understood the culture of classical Greece and Rome almost as well as he did his own. The Grand Tour was an essential preamble to laying out an estate. Claude Lorrain's paintings provided the models for idealised landscapes made from the three classical elements of water, wood and stone.

So it is not surprising that when James Tyrell, who had fought with the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim, started a new house and garden at Shotover in 1715, he should have looked to ancient Greece for inspiration. When he died three years later, his son carried on the work.

From the east front of the house you look down over gently sloping ground to a long canal with a Gothic temple at its end, perfectly reflected in the water. As you stand in the entrance porch on the west front, your eye is drawn on up the slope to a magnificent great obelisk, topped with a spiked ball. Walk to the obelisk, and you find the same straight vista running down a slope the other side to an eight-sided pond.

Think of this as an idealised landscape, rather than a garden. There is plenty to admire, especially trees: a weeping beech half masking the obelisk, ancient oaks with stomachs fatter than Buddha's, elegant sweet chestnuts, long avenues of limes. For the moment, forget flowers. Think Arcadia.

The Manor House, Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire is open tomorrow only, 2.30pm-5.30pm, admission pounds 2. Shotover House, Wheatley, Oxfordshire is also open tomorrow, 2pm-6pm, admission pounds 1.50

Other Gardens to Visit at Easter

ESSEX

Glen Chantry, Wickham Bishops: unusual perennials, limestone rock garden, foliage borders. Tomorrow, 2pm-5pm, admission pounds 1.50.

Lower Dairy House, Nayland: spring bulbs, blossom, natural stream, waterside plantings. Tomorrow and Monday, 2pm-6pm, admission pounds 2.

GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Beverston Castle, near Tetbury: moat, kitchen garden and orchid-filled greenhouses. Today, 2pm-6pm and tomorrow, 11am-6pm, admission pounds 1.50.

Cinderdine Cottage, Dymock, near Newent: hellebores, pulmonarias. Today and tomorrow, 12pm-5pm, admission pounds 1.50.

HAMPSHIRE

Bramdean House, Bramdean: six-acre garden with matching herbaceous borders, spring bulbs. Today and tomorrow, 2pm-5pm, admission pounds 2.50.

Fairfield House, Hambleden: informal layout with fine trees and wildflower meadow. The garden is open today only, 2pm-6pm, admission pounds 2.

HEREFORDSHIRE

Newcote, Moccas: exotic trees, water garden, new formal garden with fountain. Open today, 2pm-6pm, admission pounds 1.50

LONDON

The Chelsea Physic Garden: the second oldest botanic garden in the country, four secret acres tucked away off Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. Tomorrow, 2pm-6pm, admission pounds 4.

15 Lawrence Street, SW3: 12 different camellias and spring bulbs in a small town garden. Tomorrow, 2pm-6pm, admission pounds 1.

SUSSEX

Five Oaks Cottage, West Burton: uncommon plants, organic vegetable plot and plantings to attract wildlife. Today and tomorrow, 2pm-5pm, admission pounds 1.50

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