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

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own