ENCHANTED GARDENS / Lord Merlin's Magical Folly: The late Lord Berners, artist and novelist, cultivated eccentricity on a lavish scale. Helen Chappell visits his surreal garden in Oxfordshire

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'AND THIS is the orangery,' says Sofka Zinovieff, unlocking the vast glass doors of a Georgian pavilion. The humidity envelops us. Assorted tropical plants scramble towards the ceiling and portraits of obscure ancestors moulder on the walls. 'I don't know who they are,' she says, 'but some people are quite shocked to find them here like this. Other people say they look more eccentric this way.' This is a garden where there is no contest between the sensible and the surreal. Eccentricity wins hands down.

The round pond in front of the orangery is a good example. Dead centre is a half-submerged bust of General Havelock, with military moustache and a steely, masculine gaze. The absurdity of his position is emphasised by a tiny wooden staircase leading out of the water. 'That's for the frogs,' explains Sofka. 'We put some tadpoles in there but they seem to have disappeared.' Their demise follows that of the goldfish, one of which gasps near the surface, looking horribly unwell. The general seems determined to repel all invaders and keep his pond to himself.

Up a flight of steps from the orangery, a row of Gothic battlements appears. Next is the swimming pool, glinting in the sunlight. On the far side, two giant stone dragons snarl at one another. These wyverns, to use their correct heraldic name, were originally made for Elizabeth I. The reason they are here is the same as for everything else that is rich and strange in the gardens of Faringdon House, in the pretty Oxfordshire village of Faringdon. The owner of the estate was once Lord Gerald Berners, an eccentric musician, artist, novelist and collector of strange artefacts. In the 1930s he lived a charmed and bohemian life here with Sofka's maternal grandfather, Robert Heber-Percy.

When Lord Berners died, in 1950, Heber-Percy inherited the place and carried on the traditions of artistic whimsy. When he spotted a pair of dragons in an Oxford Street antiques shop ludicrous enough to adorn his new swimming pool, Heber-Percy simply bought the beasts and brought them to Faringdon in an open-topped car like a carnival float.

So here they are adorning the swimming pool, balanced in one corner by a crenellated turret which serves as a changing room. The turret floor is inlaid with thousands of old pennies. Hidden in such an unremarkable landscape, Faringdon surprises the visitor all the more effectively.

As we proceed through a gap in a tall yew hedge, it is almost a relief to find some normal herbaceous borders, kept in check by neatly trimmed box edges. Sofka points out the pink roses she has recently planted, bordered by peonies and irises. A little further along she shows me a reassuring mixture of dahlias, red-hot pokers and buddleia. But there is also a voluptuous fig tree against the wall, defying both the climate and the orthodoxy of its neighbours. 'Those figs,' she says, 'are absolutely delicious.'

We take a detour to investigate a narrow pathway hemmed in by hefty trees. In Lord Berners' day this was known as the Angel Walk, after a statue of an angel which perched in the branches of a tree. Since she inherited the house and gardens in a surprise bequest from her grandfather in 1987, Sofka Zinovieff has been trying to preserve the best of the past and to halt the process of decay where it threatens to go beyond quaint disorder. 'This part of the garden had become a terrible mess,' she explains, 'with a tangle of old lilac trees blotting out the light.' In their place she has planted laburnums, crab apples and winter-flowering cherries.

Returning to the path, we are taken down another mysterious green corridor, the Berners Walk, where Heber-Percy planted incongruous monkey-puzzle trees. Finally we emerge into the sunlight again. A pair of red brick gate lodges appear, one of which is home to the gardener. If you peer into the window of the other, a fox sitting in a chintz armchair winks back at you. He is reading a copy of The Faringdon Standard. 'My grandfather had that trompe-l'oeil painted because a game-keeper called Mr Fox used to live there.

He still does, but he's retired now,' she says.

The eccentricity of her ancestors is evidently something which Faringdon's new owner takes for granted. She is related to these colourful men by virtue of a brief wartime marriage between Robert Heber-Percy and her maternal grandmother. One day, however, her grandmother decided enough was enough and left Faringdon House with Sofka's mother, Victoria. Her mother married a Russian aristocrat and kept her three children away from the spell of Faringdon House and their mercurial grandfather. Sofka can only recall one childhood visit until her 17th birthday, when she decided to get in touch with him.

A rapport soon developed between them, but she thought no more of it than that. Then, while she was studying for a PhD in Greece, she heard that Robert Heber-Percy had died, leaving her Faringdon House and its grounds in his will. 'Everyone said, 'How lucky]' but I thought, 'Oh God]' It didn't fit in with my life, I wasn't remotely like the lady of the manor. Something as big as this felt a bit oppressive.'

The house certainly had a chequered past. Henry Pye had built it and laid out the gardens around 1770. Pye had the dubious distinction of being Britain's most ineffectual Poet Laureate, a man described by Sir Walter Scott as 'eminently respectable in everything but his poetry'. He built the classical pavilion, lake and ha-ha in the style of the day and went on rhyming 'doggedly and dully' (according to Robert Southey, his successor as Laureate) until his death in 1813. Faringdon then passed through several hands, including the Cunard family until it was inherited by Lord Berners.

He studied music with Stravinsky and painted in the style of Corot. He also had unusual ideas on interior decor and the design of gardens. The boundaries of his grounds, for example, were marked out with notices announcing: 'Anyone throwing stones at this notice will be prosecuted.' Across the road to the east of the house he erected a towering folly (supposedly a 21st birthday present for his protege Heber-Percy) against fierce local opposition. Lord Berners loved to annoy his neighbours and spread a rumour that the 140ft folly was to be topped by a revolving lighthouse and fog horn. Dalmatians with diamond collars ran about in his gardens enraging his stolid neighbours.

Nancy Mitford immortalised him as Lord Merlin in her novel The Pursuit of Love: 'Lord Merlin loved jewels; his two black whippets wore diamond necklaces . . . this was a neighbour-tease of long standing; there was a feeling among the local gentry that it incited the good burghers of Merlinford to dishonesty.' Only the breed of dog was changed to protect Lord Berners.

'Lord Merlin' also encouraged the gilded youth of his day to frolic in his bizarre playground. He would throw tea parties attended by Cecil Beaton and the Sitwells, Mitfords or Betjemans, along with a handsome white horse. He took the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli to village jumble sales while photographer Lee Miller, Aldous Huxley and Gertrude Stein strolled through the daffodils.

Today, though, Faringdon seems a calmer, more reflective place. But just as we are approaching the house again, there is a whirring of wings and a blur of multicoloured feathers. A flock of fan-tailed doves, tinted pink, blue and purple, flap down from the stone pediment in search of an afternoon snack. Another of Lord Berners' mad ideas, and one which Sofka continues - with harmless vegetable dyes.

Sofka is getting used to the idea of owning Faringdon and has now grown to love the house and its quirkiness. 'The whole celebration of eccentricity is quite British, isn't it?' she says. 'The idea of us being too conventional, but tolerating people who go to extremes. Perhaps it's something which is so repressed, it has to burst out somewhere.' Fortunately, it still bursts out wherever it pleases in this witty garden. When he made his will Robert Heber-Percy knew exactly what he was doing.

The gardens of Faringdon House, Faringdon, Oxfordshire, are next open to the public on Sunday 5 September (2-5pm). They are also open every Easter Sunday, when the spring bulbs are at their best. See National Gardens Scheme guidebook for details.

(Photographs omitted)