Court in the act: How one couple transformed an empty courtyard into a designer space


The courtyard, or rather doing the courtyard, was a very generous 40th birthday present from Jonathon Ringer to his wife Vanessa. The Ringers and their three children moved into their house on the Kent/Sussex borders two years ago. Vanessa is a keen and knowledgeable gardener, but given the number of things that needed sorting out inside the house, the outside could not be a priority. Until now.

The courtyard is an important space, because the house surrounds it on three sides. It's roughly nine metres square, with the kitchen running the whole length of the eastern side. Plenty of windows look out from the house onto the courtyard, but it wasn't a view that Vanessa ever wanted to see.

"For a start, it had been paved throughout in Indian stone, and the colour was all wrong for the house," she explained. "Then it had this gopping Victorian water feature plonked in the middle of it. It was supposed to be a fountain, but it never worked. There were no beds where you could plant anything. I've had pots there, but you can't really get things to grow big enough in pots. I wanted to get the space properly joined into the house. I longed to look out of the kitchen windows and see big, billowing plants, listening in to our family life."

For a design, the Ringers went to Sarah Price, a thoughtful young designer who is now heavily involved in planting plans for the London Olympics. I first wrote about her three years ago and her present success has surprised no one who saw her first show garden at Hampton Court. But even the best designers need contractors they can depend on. Since the beginning, Sarah has worked with a two-man team, Neale Richards Ltd, and for the past 10 weeks it is they who have been responsible for interpreting the paper plan that she and Vanessa worked on for so long.

The Ringers quickly saw the advantages of working with contractors who knew their chosen designer. "Jonathon is very meticulous," explained Vanessa. "In the courtyard, he's really more interested in how things are going to work than how it's going to look." And there was plenty that needed to work: cables for the lighting, damp-proofing for the walls of the house, correct levels for the new paving and drains, drains, drains.

I turned up at the Ringers' house at the stage when the courtyard seemed mostly to be about drains. The old layout had disappeared; the new was yet to be installed. The design I was looking at was an intricate, interconnecting delta of drainpipes, carefully calibrated to take rainwater away from the courtyard and deliver it to the pond on the other side of the drive.

When you look at glossy photographs of newly designed gardens, you don't think of drains. But having looked out on them for so many weeks, the Ringers won't ever forget theirs. As David Neale explained, they were the most complicated part of this particular project. "For a start, there were a lot of downpipes coming from the gutters into the courtyard. Then we had to get the slope over to the pond just right, so the rainwater wouldn't back up."

The design is centred on a square bed, more than three metres across, which is lined up with the bay jutting out from the kitchen. Double doors open from the bay directly into the courtyard. In the bed there'll be a multi-stemmed tree.

There's been a lot of discussion about the tree itself – amelanchier? Magnolia wilsonii?– but whatever it is, it will have roots from which the drains need to be kept well away. And, again because of the tree, the ground occupied by the central bed has to be more deeply dug than other planting areas.

They are an impressive, meticulous pair, David Neale and Leigh Richards. They can do all the practical stuff that you'd expect of contractors – excavating, laying paving, installing water features – but they mind about the plants that will eventually have to live in the homes they have created for them. They want them to be happy.

Neale originally did a fine art degree and then helped his dad doing up houses. Richards worked in the motor trade until, in 2000, he was made redundant and started helping a friend who laid drives for a living. Both, though they didn't know each other then, signed on for a landscaping course at Merrist Wood College. They set up their company three years ago and have worked non-stop ever since. "We were lucky, I suppose, in that from the beginning we worked with top-level designers. We get interesting jobs," says Neale. And they continue to get them because they themselves have such high standards.

"The detail is important," says Neale. "Getting exactly the right materials. The finish. And getting stuff delivered at the right time." That seems a small point but it makes all the difference to Vanessa who has school runs to do twice a day. There's only one way into the house from the lane and she can't be boxed in by lorries.

There's a lot of stuff to get on to the site: hundreds of tons of topsoil, pallet-loads of reclaimed York paving stones, Wealden stone (it matches the house) for low retaining walls. And a monumental tank of Corten steel, more than three metres long, which is to be installed along the north-facing side of the courtyard. Corten steel made a big impact when designer Tom Stuart-Smith first used it at Chelsea. Previously used mostly for bridges and oil rigs, designers fell for it because of the way it rusted. The colour and texture work brilliantly as a backdrop for plants and the rust provides its own protection for the steel underneath.

When I saw the tank, it was quietly building up its rusty coat underneath a large tarpaulin by the garage. When it's in place, it will be fed by a wide, shallow-lipped spout coming directly out of the wall of the house. "That'll be quite a moment," I said to Vanessa, imagining the day when the water first gurgles into action and splashes into the tank. "I can't wait," said Vanessa.

Neale Richards Ltd, 01483 830429,