Crafty business: The Arts and Crafts movement married house and garden in a beautiful union

Anna pays tribute to the finest remaining examples.

Gardens made in the Arts and Crafts style have never lost their appeal, though many are now more than a hundred years old. Part of the charm lies in their strong, cogent structure. The architect who designed the house was often responsible for laying out the garden as well (a rare thing now), so the two became knitted together in a very satisfying way.

Topiary is an enduring feature too, as fashionable now as it ever was. And perhaps, still, in these gardens we can feel something of the idealism that underlay their utopian dream of the good life.

The seductive villages of the Cotswolds would no longer be the first choice of retreat for a band of penniless idealists trying to establish a heaven on earth. Primped and freshly painted, they've now put themselves financially out of reach of modern-day dreamers. But in the first decades of the last century, Arts and Crafts architects and gardeners settled there in droves, united in a desire to romanticise the rural idyll.

Inspired by John Ruskin and William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement involved painters, architects, gardeners and craftsmen of all kinds. Its gardeners raised to cult status the image of the old-fashioned cottage garden, filled with the flowers of Shakespeare's plays and bulging with artless topiary. There was no uniform style. Arts and Craftiness depended on a particular atmosphere: buildings of natural materials enclosing small planted courtyards, clipped peacocks, hedges, pleached limes, orchards, lilies, old roses, scent and romance.

That was the dream. Reality was tougher. At Chipping Campden, a band of craftsmen under Charles Ashbee founded a Guild of Handicraft whose members built model cottages and cultivated model allotments, but after only five years, it collapsed and the faithful – 150 of them, including women and children – trooped back to London.

But there remain in Gloucestershire some wonderful monuments to the Arts and Crafts ideals. Rodmarton Manor, near Cirencester, is one, Upper Dorvel House, Sapperton, another, both designed (houses and gardens together) by Ernest Barnsley.

Barnsley was one of a trio of architect-craftsmen which included his brother Sidney and their friend Ernest Gimson, who set up a workshop at Sapperton. They were romantic perfectionists, dreaming of a network of small, craft-inspired workshops where they would encourage local carpenters and blacksmiths to produce hand-finished work to furnish the homes of grateful labourers.

Like other utopias before and since, the community foundered. Mrs Ernest Barnsley, from the beginning a reluctant convert to the delights of communal living, quarrelled with Mrs Ernest Gimson and the two women, though living side by side for years, never spoke to each other again. And the founding three were never able to resolve an irritating problem: only the filthy-rich could afford their labour-intensive services.

William Morris had set high standards for subsequent Arts and Crafters with his pioneering first home, the Red House at Bexleyheath in Kent, which Edward Burne-Jones called "the beautifullest place on earth". Only 25 when he commissioned it, the garden was laid out at the same time as the house was being built.

Morris filled the garden with his favourite flowers, but stayed there for less than six years before moving to Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade in Gloucestershire. For 25 years, between 1871 and his death in 1896, this was his summer retreat.

After Morris's death in 1896, the Arts and Crafts tradition was carried on in a subtly different way by two people who, perhaps more than any other, encapsulate our present ideas and images of the movement. Edwin Lutyens met Gertrude Jekyll "at a tea table, the silver kettle and the conversation reflecting rhododendrons". The rhodies belonged to a Surrey neighbour who was helping the redoubtable Jekyll look for an architect to build a house in the garden she had already made at Munstead Wood, Surrey.

Though she thought of herself as an artist, posterity has decided that gardening was Miss Jekyll's most important contribution to our culture. In fact, little evidence remains of either skill. Plans of some important gardens in which she was involved are held in the Reef Point collection at the University of California, Berkeley, but the gardens themselves, Hestercombe in Somerset, the Deanery garden at Sonning, Folly Farm in Berkshire, are recreations, new clothes on old bones.

The influence she has had rests mostly on theory, particularly ideas about colour, worked out in books such as Colour in the Flower Garden, that she wrote between 1899 and 1912. Like Morris, she extolled the spirit of place, but her planting plans were often done without a site visit. Her plant repertoire was limited, the same combinations reappearing in wildly differing locations.

Topiary was an important part of all Arts and Crafts gardens and at Earlshall in Fife, Robert Lorimer, the architect responsible for laying out the garden as well as the house, found some mature topiary pieces in a derelict garden in Edinburgh and negotiated to buy them. Earshall's head gardener was offered a bonus of £5 for every one of the 36 trees that took successfully in the new garden. He didn't lose a single one.

At its worst, the Arts and Crafts movement degenerated into a kind of dirndl folksiness, a Surrey nookiness far removed from the honesty and restraint of the founding fathers. But it was an inspiration too, the stimulus for the leafy streets of Letchworth and the Hampstead Garden Suburb. At its best it produced some of the finest gardens – Hidcote in Gloucestershire, Great Dixter in Sussex – to have been made this century. The utopians did not dream in vain.

Arts and Crafts gardens to visit

In Chipping Campden, go to the Court Barn Museum, Church St, Chipping Campden GL55 6JE (courtbarn.org.uk), to see a collection of artefacts from the Arts and Crafts period. They have a particularly lovely butter dish by Charles Ashbee. The museum is open Tues-Sun (10am-4pm), admission £4.

The superb house and garden at Rodmarton Manor, Cirencester GL7 6PF (rodmarton-manor.co.uk) are open on Easter Mon (2-5pm), admission house and garden £8, garden only £5.

Ernest Barnsley's home, Upper Dorval House, Church Lane, Sapperton GL7 6LQ is not open, but survives in a reasonably unaltered condition. His brother, Sidney's house and Ernest Gimson's are also in the village.

William Morris's Red House, Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, Kent DA6 8JF (redhouse@nationaltrust.org.uk) is open Wed-Sun (11am-5pm), admission house and garden £8, garden only £2.20. Special Easter trails with Easter eggs as prizes.

Kelmscott Manor, Kelmscott GL7 3HJ (kelmscottmanor.co.uk) is now owned by the Society of Antiquaries. It opens on 3 April and is then open every Wed and Sat (11am-5pm) until end Oct, admission house and garden £9, garden only £2.50.

Hestercombe, Cheddon Fitzpaine, Somerset TA2 8LG (hestercombe.com) is open daily (10-5.30pm), admission £9.70. The fine garden at Earlshall Castle, Leuchars, Fife KY16 0DP is open on Sun 2 June and Sun 4 Aug (2-5pm), admission £5.

Hidcote, Hidcote Bartrim, nr Chipping Campden, Glos GL55 6LR is open Sat-Wed (10am-6pm), admission £10.50.

The late Christopher Lloyd's garden at Great Dixter, Northiam, Rye, Sussex TN31 6PH (greatdixter.co.uk) is open Tues-Sun and also Easter Mon, house and garden (2-5pm), admission £9.50, garden (11am-5pm), admission £7.50

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