Gardening: Sleeping beauty is awakened: A fairytale garden, neglected for decades, has at last emerged into the light. Anna Pavord was bewitched

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Garden visiting is now a serious and competitive sport, the season opening this month and lasting to the end of October. The rules are complex and change subtly each year, but it is generally understood that you get plus points if you can tick off a garden that is open for only one afternoon in the year, and double-plus points if that garden is also opening for the first time. If the garden you visit is open for the Red Cross rather than the National Gardens Scheme, you double your existing score.

I feel, therefore, that I am kicking off to a good start this season, for I have already notched up Netherbury Court, near Bridport in Dorset, which qualifies for two of the bonuses mentioned above, though sadly not the last. I think the garden is worth extra points, however, for having absolutely nothing to do with Gertrude Jekyll, and for its perfect Thirties design.

The Thirties, though cherished and burnished as far as architecture is concerned, have not yet arrived in gardening terms. We are still hitched to the Edwardian idyll. Percy Cane, the Thirties' answer to Edwin Lutyens, has yet to find a champion to set him up in the garden designer's pantheon where he belongs.

Netherbury Court sits at the top of the village street, next to the church, its drive beckoning you on enticingly as the street itself veers sharply to the left to wind round the garden boundary. The land either side of the drive is near vertical, on one hand plunging down into a woodland garden set with groves of camellias and rhododendrons, on the other rising to something you cannot yet see, though a balustraded belvedere suggests that whatever is there is rather more formal than the woodland.

For the past 30 years or so, Netherbury Court had been quietly drowning in a sea of Leyland cypress planted by its reclusive owner. Wherever a chink of an outside view appeared, in went another phalanx of the hideous evergreens. Then Mark Culme-Seymour arrived and broke the spell. Chainsaws do not feature much in fairy stories, but that was the way he liberated the garden, working through the army of cypresses, bringing light and life back to the place.

By the time he had felled about 300 of the beasts, he began to see more clearly what he and his wife had bought: four acres of extremely well- planted garden, divided into two contrasting areas. Round the house are terraces and formal walks, an Italian water garden, a fine lime walk. Down below in the woodland is an informal collection of shrubs and trees, mostly Japanese in origin, all the sort of stuff that Collingwood 'Cherry' Ingram was bringing into the country, particularly cherries and acers.

The garden, though it started life at the turn of the century, was chiefly laid out in the Thirties by a Colonel Woodall, taking clever advantage of the steep fall in the ground to make terraces at several different levels. The design is straight off the pages of the garden design magazines of the period: The Studio, My Garden Illustrated and Garden Design, a quarterly which the designer Percy Cane owned and edited from 1930 to 1939.

The drive brings you to a gravelled square in front of the house, the central roundel mass-planted with miniature yellow Iris danfordiae. A surprising eucalyptus tree leans into the area from a wooded piece behind, the trunk as unnaturally smooth as a eunuch's chin.

Mr Culme-Seymour's reward this spring, after all the hard labour of felling, has been swift. Swaths of bulbs, naturalised under the original trees and shrubs, have re-emerged with the increased light. As you move through from the courtyard to the grassy area beyond, there are miniature crocus, dark, round-leaved winter cyclamen and sheets of blue Anemone blanda which he did not know he had.

A door from this spangled spring meadow leads through into the more formal part of the garden, with a sturdily built summerhouse on the left, all fitted out in oak, and a band of tall trees on the right underplanted with sheets and sheets of hellebores which have seeded themselves in vast quantities throughout this area. The pale pinks, whites and purples are echoed in the colours of a large bank of winter heather, old bushes of character spilling out of a long, roughly triangular bed.

A stone boundary wall runs from the summerhouse down to the house itself, with several japonica spreadeagled against it. Some still have their original square metal name-tags pushed into the ground at their feet, Cydonia 'Apple Blossom' and crimson scarlet 'Cardinalis'. Cydonia was what this shrub was called before the name police decided it should be chaenomeles. Big grassy clumps of blue Iris stylosa are still in flower along this narrow border.

If you follow this wall down to the house, you come to a stone balustrade where you can look down on to rosebeds, laid out in a formal design among wide, crazy-paved paths. The house itself is rather bare, but against the south-facing wall Mr Culme-Seymour has planted two Wisteria 'Caroline'. This is a new hybrid which has densely packed tassels of mauve flowers. As they age, they fade to white, but the scent is particularly good.

The stone paving had almost disappeared under debris but, now that it has all been cleared, clumps of the marbled foliage of Cyclamen hederifolium have come up between the stones, together with the spotted, hairy leaves of pulmonaria.

The soil is just on the acid side of neutral, which suits the azaleas and acers that Colonel Woodall introduced to the garden. There is a bed of deciduous azaleas just in front of the summerhouse, and some big bushes of the sweet-smelling yellow Azalea ponticum under the trees that follow the western boundary.

Scillas cover the ground there at the moment, swirling round clumps of primroses, some the wild pale-coloured ones, some that have crossed with polyanthus and come up in an extraordinary range of pinks and muddy purples.

Cane's theory was that 'there should be no rival claims of formal and landscape styles'. Both could coexist, the area round the house providing a suitably architectural setting for it, the wider garden taking its character from the nature of the site itself. The paved walks, walls and steps of his designs led out to carefully planned glades with wide, irregular beds of underplanted shrubs.

This is just what you will find at Netherbury Court, where wide, crazy- paved paths lead you along the top lawn into a network of informal beds with hebe, mahonia, full-grown amelanchiers, kolkwitzias and hamamelis under tall oak trees. Fat buds are already swelling on the old mop-head hydrangeas here, and Mr Culme-Seymour has added huge patches of Iris reticulata 'Joyce', with bright yellow tongues on the deep blue falls.

The path then leads you down into the most formal part of the layout, an Italianate water garden with clipped yew hedges, buttresses of yew topped with topiary balls, and a long, thin channel of water edged in stone. At each end there are semi-circular stone-paved areas with seats. The channel is all of 90ft long and about 5ft wide, with beds of variegated flag iris sunk at each end, and new rows of thin junipers planted down each side. These replace the hydrangeas that were there when Mr Culme-Seymour arrived.

There is a lot of height to be lost before you get down to the woodland garden - still being cleared and replanted - on the other side of the drive. Take the steep path down the bank, lined with 'February Gold' daffodils and blue anemones. You can see big camellias in flower in front of you, and the distinctive braceleted trunks of vast cherry trees.

Many of the shrubs here have suffered from the bullying elbows of the cypresses. Some have grown impossibly leggy. Some gave up altogether, though the metal labels give the new owner a guide as to how the woodland garden must once have looked.

He is replanting some old varieties of rhododendron, such as 'Pink Pearl', which got its first Award of Merit in 1897. It makes a strong shrub with wide, funnel-shaped flowers, deep lilac pink marked with rays of reddish-brown. 'Lord Roberts', with dark-crimson flowers, is another old hybrid he has replanted, together with the pure white 'Sappho'.

When you get to the end of the wood, you will have done a full circuit, for you find yourself back in the grassy patch with the crocus and the anemones. Make the most of it, for the garden, which is open tomorrow (2-6pm, admission pounds 1.50), will not be open again this season.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments