Gardening: Wollerton revisited

When Lesley Jenkins got the chance to buy the house where she spent her childhood, her first thought was how to remake the garden. Anna Pavord tells the story of an evolution of horticultural style - from Sissinghur st, through Hidcote, to Lesley's own design

Lesley Jenkins grew up at Wollerton Old Hall, the remnant of a much bigger hall house of the 17th century, set under the huge skies of north Shropshire. She adored the romance of the place and its once elegant Edwardian garden, which had become overgrown and blowzy. She loved the roses and honeysuckles and delphiniums her mother grew. In the remains of the formal garden, she jumped her pony over the three clipped yew blobs that they called "the boys". So she and her brothers gave her parents hell when, in the Sixties, they decided to sell up and move somewhere smaller.

Twenty years on, Lesley Jenkins, by now married with two sons, was still in Shropshire, happily settled at Market Drayton. She'd caught the gardening bug and had made several gardens. She'd been through her Adrian Bloom conifer and heather mode and was now deeply into the Hidcote manner: fine herbaceous perennials planted in a series of sheltering outside rooms.

And then one day, caught behind a lumbering milk lorry, thinking as always about her garden, she took a short cut. It happened to take her through Wollerton and past the Old Hall, where a huge estate agent's board announced its imminent sale. Her saintly husband put in a bid for the place, sight unseen, which is why she's now back among "the boys" of her childhood.

It's probably just as well, she says, that there was an interval in between her going and coming back, when the garden changed a great deal. "Otherwise I'd have found it so difficult to replan it. Impossible to undo the work that my mother had done, pull out plants that I remembered so well." Now, Wollerton has been reborn once more.

The design, formal for the most part, is astonishingly complicated, filling a long, generous rectangle that stretches away from the east side of the house. A high, mellow brick wall forms the long boundary on one side; hedge protects the garden from the flat, windy field spaces on the other.

At the bottom of the formal area, you emerge into a much more informal planting of shrubs and trees, a semicircular path sweeping round under huge maples and leading through eventually to the croft. Once, it might have been an orchard. Now it houses John Jenkins's collection of favourite trees.

Down the middle of the garden, a vista drives from the east front of the house over an immaculate box parterre, jumps a rectangular pool and continues between an avenue of pleached limes. They make a hedge on stilts standing forward of a beech hedge. Under them are carpets of purple-leaved Viola labradorica and, at the moment, hundreds of ravishing black 'Queen of the Night' tulips. It is a staggeringly bold conception.

At the end of the lime allee (eight trees each side), your eye bumps into a tall beech hedge, but you can squeeze a view through a narrow slit in the middle to catch the sexy borders beyond. Llanhydrock, this bit is called, in homage to the Cornish garden that the Jenkinses love. It's planted with hot colours: bright red 'Beauty of Livermere' poppies, orange and yellow day lilies, red-hot pokers, yellow achillea, brilliant double 'Hermine Grashoff' nasturtiums. Elegant bronze cordylines spray out of pots balanced on columns.

On either side of that long, central backbone, other parallel lines are drawn down the length of the garden. To the south lie the daisy borders, the maple garden and the rose garden. To the north are the new well garden, the font garden and the main herbaceous border, which has just had a wall fall down on top of it. You'd never know. The white wisteria, laid down flat on a frame on the ground while the wall was being rebuilt, is going to flower this year better than it ever has before.

Joining these long parallel lines are a series of cross vistas joining summerhouse to lime allee, a new planting of hornbeams to the rectangular Arts and Crafts pool. It's not a chequerboard. It's a much more complicated design than that, more of a patchwork of interlocking rectangles, hidden from each other by screens, arbours and beautifully clipped hedges.

Moving through the garden, you play a game of hide and seek with the house, which vanishes and reappears through peepholes and at the end of avenues. Looking back from the lime allee, the east front is perfectly framed at the end of the vista. It looks like the backdrop to a a Hansel and Gretel tale, wonky, half-timbered, with a crazy, tall chimney balancing like a juggler's pole on the right-hand side. The tall, 18th-century sash windows on this side give one of the few glimpses of the garden from the house: a bird's-eye view from the bedroom on to the parterre woven from plain and variegated box below.

Lesley and her husband John have been working at the garden for 14 years, but it's still evolving. "I'm at a crossroads," she announced. "Which crossroads?" I enquired anxiously. Given the design of the garden, it could be any one of 19, and I wanted to be sure I was on the right track.

"I can see things clearer now," she said. "I can peel away all the extraneous stuff and look at the garden afresh. I feel confident enough to clear out things I did earlier, look at space and how it works. The garden was getting too designed." So when a neighbour's yew tree helpfully fell on to the Jenkins's romantic pergola, Lesley decided not to replace it. Or the roses.

The Sissinghurst-inspired white garden has gone, too, supplanted by a simpler, subtler design, the billows of white crambe joined now by plantings of cream and soft yellows. The central gazebo covered with 'Sanders White' climbing roses has been replaced by an old stone wellhead, but in five years' time, Lesley hopes, it will be completely smothered in the ivy that has just poked an exploratory tendril over the side.

Her tastes have become simpler, but more complicated too. She likes green: box, yew, ivy. Busy little beds of cottage garden plants have been uprooted in favour of sheets of box, to be clipped flat, with perhaps a pyramid of yew rising from the middle of it. That may seem simple, but in fact is much more difficult to get right. You need to have just the right mass of green to counter just the right amount of emptiness. "Come back in five years' time," she said.

I'll be back sooner than that. I want to see the place in its August eruption. At the moment, it's just hissing quietly, with 'Marjolein' tulips in orange and red against the fiery bracts of Euphorbia griffithii. I want to sit in the Jenkinses' blue-green gazebo with roses dripping into my ears - and in their summerhouse with its view across the grass roundel to the long herbaceous border on the far wall. Perhaps I'd better buy a season ticket.

The garden at Wollerton Old Hall, Wollerton, Market Drayton, Shropshire TF9 3NA is open every Friday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday (12pm-5pm) until the end of August. You can get home-made lunch and tea there, and Lesley Jenkins has unusual plants for sale. Admission pounds 2.50.

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