WESTWARD HO!

Michael Leapman visits five very different north Devon gardens. Taken together, he finds, they amount to a glorious sampler of English horticulture
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The Independent Culture
I FIRST visited Marwood Hill Gardens by accident. Driving some years ago in north Devon, I saw a signpost and turned off to find a garden of extraordinary interest, the product of one man's obsessive vision. It occurred to me then that many more garden-lovers would go there if only they knew of it.

North Devon's problem is that it is slightly off the main tourist track, north of the direct route to Cornwall. This has prompted Marwood Hill, a few miles from Barnstaple, to combine with four other gardens in the area - including the Royal Horticultural Society's showpiece at Rosemoor - in a joint campaign to promote their charms.

The aim is to persuade visitors that it is well worth the detour to spend a few days exploring north Devon's green attractions. By a happy chance, these five gardens possess contrasting qualities that, taken together, amount to a sampler of English horticulture.

Jimmy Smart, a retired doctor now in his eighties, moved to Marwood Hill in 1949. He bought an adjoining field and began to develop the astounding 20-acre garden that is still evolving. Through the field ran a stream that he dammed to make three serene lakes. On steep slopes on either side of the valley he has planted an array of trees, shrubs and perennials, maturing year by year to form an ever-changing vista.

It is essentially a collector's garden. Still an inveterate traveller, Dr Smart regularly journeys overseas to find unfamiliar varieties of his particular enthusiasms, which include magnolias, rhododendrons, camellias, eucalyptus, tree ferns and much else besides. Devon's mild climate means that he can grow varieties that are not hardy in most parts of Britain.

But Dr Smart has not devoted the entire garden to trees and large shrubs. He holds the national collection of astilbes, many planted on one side of the stream, facing a colourful bed of candelabra primulas on the other side. The flat-topped Japanese Iris ensata also makes a proud display in an array of exotic colours.

Soon after entering Marwood Hill Gardens, visitors pass through a newly created pergola draped with several varieties of wisteria and climbing roses, magnificent in late spring. The old walled garden is partly devoted to selling plants from the nursery. Groups of hebes, peonies, alpines, dwarf conifers and a delightful herbaceous border are among other highlights.

Dr Smart takes a refreshingly relaxed approach to visitors. The garden is open from dawn to dusk and he relies on people's honesty to put the pounds 2 admission fee in the box by the entrance gate.

Tapeley Park, at Instow a few miles south-west, is more formal in every sense of the word. The imposing house with its William-and-Mary facade overlooking Bideford and the estuary of the River Torridge, is the ancestral home of the Christie family, which owns Glyndebourne opera house in Sussex. Three terraces lead to a classic Italian garden with statues, fountains, palm trees, a semi-circular lily pond and a summer-house flanked by stately yews.

The borders in this garden, and in some of the upper terraces, are set out to plans drawn up by my colleague Mary Keen, who also designed the gardens at Glyndebourne. Here, in the Italian garden, she has concentrated on rich colours which range from dark pink to maroon. By the pond stands a dramatic set of dark red tree peonies.

There are contrasting borders on the other terraces, one dominated by blue and yellow flowers. A former rockery is planted with spring bulbs, followed in summer by dieramas (angel's fishing rods), which seed themselves in what head gardener Tom Roberts- Arnold calls "a happy riot". A border by the house has been designed by nurserywoman Carol Klein of Channel 4's Wild about the Garden.

Familiar cottage garden plants are used to soften the formal layouts. Foxgloves pop up all over the place and so do fuchsias, which grow wild in Devon's hedgerows.

For contrast there is neatly-clipped topiary and a long tree tunnel formed from two closely-planted rows of evergreen holm oaks, their top branches meeting in the centre. Mr Roberts-Arnold is justly proud of his giant echiums, which reach up to 10ft high from the bank behind the top lawn and amply repay the labour of wrapping them for protection in winter.

The RHS Garden at Rosemoor is the best known of the five. It was given to the society in 1988 by its owner, Lady Anne Berry, when she emigrated. Since then it has become a garden of two distinct halves. My favourite is Lady Anne's old garden, close to the house, developed over the last 30 years with an enviable collection of rare trees and shrubs, which the RHS has preserved and enhanced.

Over the last decade, the Society has created a series of display gardens from what used to be fields beyond a country road. From the entrance buildings there, visitors walk straight into the new rose garden - something of a triumph over adversity, because the damp air of the West Country is notoriously unfriendly to roses, encouraging mildew and black spot.

At Rosemoor, several varieties have been selected for their resistance to these scourges but it has still been a process of trial and error - about a third of the roses have been replaced since the garden was started in 1990. "Some of them have struggled," admits Helen Round, the senior gardener who supervises this section.

Beyond it lies a cottage garden, a herb garden and a decorative vegetable garden or potager - one of the most popular parts of the garden, according to Ms Round: "People relate to vegetables." A larger vegetable plot is at the northern end of the complex, beyond a pleasant lake and stream.

Two more formal gardens demonstrate a striking use of colour - one is devoted to hot reds and yellows, the other to cool pinks and lilacs.

This well-ordered Mecca for the green-fingered is in complete contrast to Hartland Abbey, perched on Devon's north-western tip. Here the formidable Lady Stucley and her gardener battle to control the rambling estate - and succeed in providing what is in some ways the most charming of all these gardens.

An abbey has stood on this site since the 12th century. The present building dates from the 18th century and is well set off by a row of neatly clipped 100-year-old bay trees along its frontage, and two magnificent magnolias on the lawn beyond.

The bays are almost the only formal element left in the garden. The house itself stands in a shallow valley exposed to coastal gales (many 250- year-old oaks were lost in a ferocious storm last January), and the garden consists of two extensive shrubberies partly protected by the valley slopes to the north and south of the house.

The south shrubbery, carpeted with bulbs in spring, contains magnificent rhododendrons, azaleas and hydrangeas, mostly planted a century ago. It had become overgrown until Lady Stucley took it in hand and some order is now returning, although the rampaging Japanese knotweed is proving hard to contain.

Across the valley is an area called the Baronet's Bog Garden where the meandering paths were landscaped by the formidable Edwardian Gertrude Jekyll. Outstanding plants here include the massive gunnera (giant rhubarb), skunk cabbage and a spectacular white Magnolia hypoleuca. The remains of a Victorian fernery are detectable, and tall foxgloves give the area a cottagey feel.

A few hundred yards farther from the house, the walled garden are also being rescued from years of neglect. Sheltered from the wind, giant echiums seed themselves in the crowded herbaceous border. Some roses thrive in the harsh conditions. Soft fruits are trained against south-facing walls, and tall artichokes dominate the vegetable patch.

The true vegetable enthusiast will delight in the last of these five gard- ens, at Clovelly, a few miles from Hartland. Clovelly Court stands above the famously picturesque fishing village whose main street is too steep for cars.

The house, like the entire village, is owned by John Rous. With his gard- ener, Sarah Conibear, he is restoring the Victorian flower garden and creating a woodland walk, but for the time being the vegetable plot is the star attraction.

Extensive 19th-century greenhouses have been restored and are planted with produce favoured by the Victorian gentry: melons, peaches, apricots, grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Outside, the walled garden is a century older and the stone wall is a listed structure. For those whose eyes love to feast on rows of succulent vegetables, this should not be missed.

Clovelly village itself, quiet and charming, is a good place to stay when touring these north Devon gardens - none is more than an hour's drive away. There are two hotels, both owned by Mr Rous: the Red Lion, at the bottom of the cliff, is accessible by car. The New Inn, half way up the slope, is the more adventurous choice, involving a steep walk down from the upper car-park and a stiff climb back, so getting the muscles in trim for an enchanting few days of tramping between north Devon's beds and borders. !

THE NORTH DEVON GARDENS

Marwood Hill Gardens, near Barnstaple (01271 342 528), are open all year round, from dawn until dusk; admission costs pounds 2.

Tapeley Park Gardens, Instow, near Bideford (01271 342 371), are open from Easter to October, 10am-6pm (but closed Saturdays); admission is pounds 2.80.

RHS Rosemoor Garden, Great Torrington (01805 624 067), is open all year round, 10am-5pm (closes at 6pm in summer); admission costs pounds 4.

Hartland Abbey Gardens, near Hartland (01237 441 264), are open from May until September, 2-5.30pm (but not every day, so phone to check); admission is pounds 2.

Clovelly Court Gardens, Clovelly (01237 431 781), are open from April to September, 10am-4pm; admission costs pounds 1.

Accommodation: the Red Lion, (01237 431 237) and the New Inn (01237 431 303), are both in Clovelly. Further information about the area can be obtained from the North Devon Marketing Bureau on 01271 323 030, or on the Internet at www.northdevon.co.uk.

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