If that sounds like a vision of an ideal English country scene, it may not entirely be a coincidence. Lancelot "Capability" Brown, the 18th-century landscape designer who exerted a profound and continuing influence on the countryside and estates surrounding Britain's grandest houses, was born in these parts. Our ideal of pastoral perfection owes much to him.
Every day, as he walked to school in the village of Cambo in the 1720s, he would pass Wallington, a Jacobean pile that was soon to be transformed into the stately Georgian mansion it is today. Looking south, with his back to the house, he would take in much the same view as that enjoyed by present-day visitors. It would be surprising if his ideas on landscape were not influenced by what he saw then.
Many years later, Brown drew up a plan for a lake at Wallington. It was never built, but there is an undocumented legend in the Trevelyan family, owners of the estate for centuries, that he had the original idea for what is today its horticultural highlight, the walled garden.
Most stately homes of that period had walled gardens, used principally for growing vegetables for the kitchen and flowers for the house. They conformed to a fairly standard pattern, with the beds arranged in neat, straight lines, for ease of maintenance rather than display. They were usually on flattish land close to the house, so that the produce would not have to be transported far. They were labour-intensive and not terribly attractive - which is why today, when big houses have become tourist attractions instead of homes, many walled gardens have been converted into visitors' car parks.
In the 17th century Wallington had a walled garden of the conventional kind. It is not recorded why it was found unsuitable, but perhaps even its high walls gave insufficient shelter from the icy winter blasts; for although the estate is less than 500 feet above sea level, there is no higher ground nearby to divert the wind.
For whatever reason, in the 1760s, whether at Brown's suggestion or someone else's, it was decided to build a new and unusual walled garden - and one which is today certainly not in danger of being commandeered for parking. For one thing it is nearly half a mile from the house, and for another it is by no means flat.
In a novel way of exploiting the lie of the land, the three-and-a-half- acre garden follows the contours of a shallow valley, dipping to a stream in the middle, with the brick wall on the north side built about halfway up the slope and thus exploiting the natural features of the landscape for better protection. This results in a variety of soil and climatic conditions in which different kinds of plants do well, including some rarely grown in the cold North-east.
For those of us who do not live here, Northumberland seems the least promising part of England to make a garden. Western Britain offers mild winters and high rainfall, while the south has generally higher temperatures and an earlier spring. By contrast, gardening in the north-east must surely be a constant battle against the unfriendly elements. John Ellis, the head gardener at Wallington, admits that he had some trepidation when he came here six years ago from Packwood House, in the West Midlands, with his wife Sandra, who works with him as his deputy.
"The climate can be challenging, yes," he says. "I think the most surprising thing in a way is the short but rapid growing season. Our winters are not necessarily colder than further south but they're usually longer. This year we had a lot of snow and the cold weather went on and on, but now the weeds are probably growing as quickly as in a southern garden. It's a more concentrated growing season, all or nothing. In no time at all you can get growth of three or four feet in plants, after a very late start."
Winter temperatures do not normally fall below minus eight degrees Centigrade, but last winter minus fourteen was recorded on one bitter night. Although the walls of the garden provide protection, some parts are frost pockets where the cold lingers for much of the day.
For the first hundred years of its life the new walled garden, like the old, was used principally for growing vegetables. It was not until the end of the 19th century that Sir George Trevelyan, who inherited the property in 1886, saw the garden's decorative potential. He designed the arrangement of walks, borders, terraces and lawns that serves as the framework of the walled garden today. He also instituted the conservatory or winter garden, completed in 1908 and immensely popular with visitors, with its richly coloured fuchsias, bougainvilleas, verbenas, palms and sweetly- scented heliotrope.
By the time the National Trust acquired Wallington in 1958, the walled garden had declined. The long, broad border by the top terrace, from which visitors get their first surprising glimpse of the garden, had been dug up during the Second World War for growing vegetables as part of the "Dig for Victory" campaign. The rest was showing signs of severe neglect. Slowly, and with sensitivity, the Trust set about restoring and enhancing it. A major improvement was made in the 60s by the eminent plantsman and designer Graham Stuart Thomas, then the Trust's gardens adviser.
Focussing his attention on the stream that ran along the bottom of the valley, he used rocks and stone to create a charming riparian garden on either bank, planted with alpine plants, small conifers and shrubs such as potentillas, cytisus (broom) and hebes, some of which were lost in this last cold winter. The stream itself has been engineered to make an appealing rippling sound, and small waterfalls have been added. Flowing down from the raised pool at the east end, the stream provides a focal point for the whole garden.
The upper paths and terraces, on the northern side, are back to their immaculate best. Clematis, roses and honeysuckle climb the brick wall, while the border in front of it contains a range of perennials, many, such as catmint and irises, with greyish leaves. The emphasis is on cool pastel colours. Ferns and eryngiums grow in the bed opposite, while the fairy foxglove, Erinus alpinus, tumbles from the low stone walls beside the paths.
There are 35 inches of rain in an average year (recent years have been less than average), but the brick walls soak up some of it and the top beds can get dry. Down the slope towards the stream the soil retains more moisture. Here the beds have splashes of more vivid colour: kniphofia (red-hot poker), phloxes, fuchsias, crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) and bright orange ligularias, set off against the attractive foliage of hostas. The beds are fringed by erythronium and broad-leafed bergenias.
The garden is not being kept frozen. John and Sandra Ellis have been developing new areas. To mark the National Trust's centenary two years ago they established a bed for plants that give colour in winter, such as hamamelis (witch-hazel), hellebores, cornus (dogwood), willow and corylopsis. The only heathers that will grow well are varieties of Erica carnea, which do not require an acid soil. Nearby is a new border planted to provide cut flowers for the house: a traditional function of the walled garden.
Apart from the planted beds, there is much else of interest. An unusual nut orchard, bounded by a yew hedge, contains several varieties of nut tree laid out in rows, an arrangement more often associated with apples or plums. Wallington holds the national collection of sambucus (elder): some of the specimen trees are here in the walled garden, others in the woods outside.
The east wood is on the direct route to the walled garden. Along with the west wood on the other side of the house, this was established when Wallington was rebuilt in the 1730s. Although beech trees predominate in both woods, there is a difference between the two. While the west wood is kept as a natural forest area, the east wood was designed as a "pleasure ground", with shady walks and a lake with artificial islands and an ersatz Chinese pagoda. (The lake is still there but the islands and pagoda are gone.) Over the years, though, the east wood had become poorly maintained and overgrown.
"When we came here there wasn't much difference between the east and the west woods," says John. "We've tried to get the east wood back to what it was." This involved cutting down quantities of bramble and clearing space for paths. Older trees - including some sambucus - have been cut down and replaced with younger ones. "But we don't want to make it too immaculate and pretty-pretty," Sandra insists. "We still want wild flowers and wildlife. We have visiting goosanders and tufted ducks." They also get red squirrels - one of the few parts of England where they have not been squeezed out by their grey cousins.
While the walled garden is a magnificently contrived showpiece that builds on the existing features of the landscape, here in the wood the Ellises are after something different: to preserve an essentially natural environment but to control and tame it for human pleasure. Capability Brown would have understood exactly.
Wallington, Cambo, Morpeth (01670 774283). Grounds open all year during daylight; house open daily except Tuesday, 1.00 - 5.30, until 31 October. pounds 2.30 entry, plus an extra pounds 2.30 for house. National Trust members free. The garden is featured in 'Gardens of the National Trust' by Stephen Lacey (National Trust, pounds 29.99), published last month.
A PROFILE OF WALLINGTON
LOCATION: 12 miles west of Morpeth (B6343), six miles north-west of Belsay (A696). Height above sea level: 500ft.
CLIMATE: Moderate to cold - winter temperatures usually drop to around minus eight degrees Centigrade, though the walled garden affords some protection from the cold. Can be extremely windy. Rainfall: around 33- 35 inches per year.
SOIL: Neutral, or acid/medium loam.
IDEAL FOR: Old English-style favourites such as clematis, rose and honeysuckle. Woodland, both formal and wild, which attracts wild birds and red squirrels. Kniphofia, phlox, fuchsias, ligularias and hostas appreciate the moister areas by the stream.
ANNUAL VISITORS: 100,000
This popular climber does best where its roots can be in shade but its flowers in sun. Many (such as Clematis montana) can be left untouched to ramble where they will, but most of the larger-flowered varieties will grow and flower more vigorously if pruned.
Grown chiefly for their impressive foliage, hostas are hardy, though cut back by frost. They feature in mixed borders in all parts of Britain. They thrive in most soil conditions, but some varieties prefer a situation that is in light shade rather than full sun.
A most varied and popular perennial, there are irises for every garden colour scheme, from brilliant yellow to discreet cream and violet. Tall bearded irises, flowering in early summer, are best known, though there are also small varieties. Does best in sunny positions.
The elder is a common field tree not always thought of as a garden plant, but some varieties are grown as tall shrubs for their attractive leaves, creamy flower heads and red or black berries. Wallington is the garden that holds the national collection.
Another popular garden shrub, widely grown in gardens throughout Britain. lower growing than philadelphus (see below) but with a longer flowering season. It carries plenty of white, yellow or red flowers all though the summer. Needs a position with plenty of sun.
ADIANTUM (MAIDENHAIR FERN)
Ferns are tough and decorative, thriving in most soil conditions and tolerant of shade. There are many species, with fronds of intriguing shapes, which last into early winter before dying back.
Their distinctive bell-shaped flowers are seen in cottage gardens throughout the country. They are not fussy about soil conditions or weather, do well in shade, and seed themselves prolifically.
The fairy foxglove is a low-growing Alpine with pink or lilac flowers in early summer. At Wallington they make a fine show tumbling down the low walls of the walled garden's top walk.
This tree is grown not just for its nuts but also for its yellow catkins that brighten Wallington's walled garden in late winter. The common varieties seldom grow higher than 10 feet.
PHILADELPHUS (MOCK ORANGE)
This shrub, growing up to six feet high, is useful in many garden situations. It carries white or cream flowers in June and July with a delightful orange fragrance. Needs sun or light shade.
WALLINGTON IS ONE OF THE 130 HISTORIC GARDENS FEATURED IN 'GARDENS OF THE NATIONAL TRUST' BY STEPHEN LACEY, PUBLISHED LAST MONTH AT pounds 29.99Reuse content