PART 3: HIDCOTE, NORTH COTSWOLDS Continuing his series on great British gardens, Michael Leapman visits Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire, designed to exclude the surrounding Cotswold countryside behind thick hedges. Overleaf, the plants that have been coaxed to grow there. And on page 77, a small-scale neighbour's plot reveals its successes
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Hidcote Manor, one of Britain's most alluring and admired gardens, has four miles of hedging, a statistic that reveals much about its nature. The hedges - mainly yew but also box, holly, hornbeam and beech - have two functions. Mostly they divide the 10 acres into small and well-protected show gardens, intensively planted, each with a different theme: the archetype of the "garden room" design concept in vogue in the early 20th century.

The role of the hedges on the perimeter is to separate the garden from the north Cotswolds of which it was once part. For this is a very different concept from the first two gardens I discussed in this series, Bodnant in north Wales and Castle Kennedy in south-west Scotland, where elements of the landscape have been incorporated as integral parts of the design.

By contrast, Hidcote's creator Lawrence Johnston looked inwards, to invent a series of magical spaces that provide a refuge from the world outside rather than a connection with it. The contrived vistas nearly always focus on designed garden features, rather than on the surrounding countryside or even on the house.

Johnston, a lifelong bachelor, spent much of his childhood in southern France and Italy and there are strong continental influences on his garden. He came to Hidcote Manor in 1907, aged 35, with his wealthy American mother. When they moved in, Hidcote was a farm: some of the old barns and stables are now a restaurant and shop for visitors. The garden then occupied less than an acre to the west of the house, and the rest of the land provided grazing for sheep and cattle. Over the next 25 years, Johnston gradually expanded the garden to its present 10 acres. In 1948, ten years before his death, he presented it to the National Trust.

The difficulty in discussing Johnson's original vision, and the way he set about fulfilling it, is that he left no written record of his plans. What is certain is that Hidcote was not the ideal location for a dream garden, as the head gardener Paul Nicholls, who has worked in it for 24 years, explains: "It must have presented him with quite a lot of difficulties from the shelter point of view. Though there would have been a lot of field trees [including elms, now lost], the site would have been cold and exposed. The Cotswolds are quite cold, especially this north-east escarpment. A few years ago we recorded minus 18 degrees Centigrade."

The inhospitable conditions must certainly have influenced Johnston's design. The thick, mature hedges - which take hundreds of man-hours to keep in trim - shelter the plants from the worst of the wind. They also provide a splendid dark green backdrop to some of the flower beds, carefully planted in a style that owes much to the ideas of the Edwardian guru Gertrude Jekyll. "Hidcote is a designed garden set out on architectural principles," says Paul. "There are a lot of straight lines but these are softened by the planting. It's always been called a cottage garden on a grand scale, but it's a bit more than that."

The clearest example of how Johnston manipulated the environment to his own ends comes in a part of the old garden set aside for rhododendrons, heathers and other plants that need an acid soil. At Hidcote, based on limey Cotswold shale, the soil ranges from alkaline to neutral, so Johnston imported quantities of peat to provide the right conditions for the plants he wanted to grow. The beds are replenished with peat every season but, even so, Paul concedes that the plants do not thrive as they would in their natural habitat. Last year he lost the lime-hating Meconopsis sheldonii (blue Himalayan poppy) from this area.

Yet it would be an exaggeration to say that Johnston totally ignored the prevailing conditions and existing features of the landscape, for he incorporated some of them, principally trees and a stream that passes through the property. Visitors usually start the tour on the theatre lawn, a long stretch of turf with a raised mound at the end farthest from the house. Three large beeches, about 250 years old, used to grace the mound, but they have died from old age. New trees are being grown to replace them, though Paul insists that it is neither his nor the National Trust's intention to keep the garden ossified, unchanged in every detail.

"We always have to remember that Lawrence Johnston was the creator and donor of the garden but in general I don't think gardens can be preserved as museum pieces. It's not like a house, where you put in old furniture and it stays there. Gardens are open to the elements. All the weather can bring - frosts and gales - has an effect on how the garden looks."

Thus although the beeches are being replaced, another departed tree, a tall Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey cypress) that came down in a gale a few years ago, is not. Its drawback was that nothing would grow underneath it except periwinkle. Once it had been removed a much warmer and sunnier space was created, nurturing plants such as cistus, lavenders and rosemary.

From the theatre lawn, visitors proceed to the old garden. The beds are still planted much as Johnston envisaged, and show his eye for colour. One contains mainly blue and white summer flowers, including phlox, osteospermum, Chrysanthemum maximum (shasta daisy), philadelphus (mock orange) and heliotrope. Elsewhere are soft pink and purple clematis, fuchsias, weigela, salvias, diascias.

Passing the huge cedar of Lebanon you reach the more formal white garden, its four corner beds separated by a cross-shaped path and decorated with topiary. The plants here include the very pale pink floribunda rose Gruss an Aachen and several silver-leaved perennials, such as anaphalis and lamiums.

"Colour-wise, Hidcote is a quiet garden," Paul observes. "It doesn't have great bursts of colour: if you want to see a big bedding display, go to a public park." For a more assertive colour scheme you have to wait until, leaving the old garden area and passing through other more formal garden rooms, you reach the red borders. These are not beds of screaming scarlet, but in high summer they provide the best example of Johnston's eye for planting, with red dahlias, salvias, geraniums, begonias, sweet peas and poppies placed subtly among purple foliage plants such as cordylines and cannas.

Hidcote's most distinctive feature, the stilt garden, is linked to the red borders by a flight of steps between two Italianate summer houses - among the relatively few built features that Johnston allowed himself. The stilts are the bare trunks of parallel avenues of hornbeams pruned into a severely rectangular shape, giving the effect of leafy cubes raised from the ground on poles. It has a French feel.

Not everything at Hidcote is as formal. On either side of the stream, running down towards the house from the north-west, there are more natural plantings of ground cover plants that like damp conditions. West of the stream, stretching up towards the top of the hill, is Westonbirt, the "wilderness" area of trees and shrubs named after the well-known arboretum. Traces of an ancient field system are a reminder that this was once farmland.

Alongside Westonbirt is the Long Walk, a broad grassy avenue between hedges, leading up to a pair of ornamental iron gates that can be seen as a symbol of Johnston's vision. The gates, flanked by two evergreen oaks, look like a formal garden entrance but in fact they have never led anywhere. Beyond them today is a field of blackcurrant bushes, and beyond that the wider landscape.

From the gates you look down for a panoramic view of this extraordinary garden, with the Italian summer houses in the centre of the composition. You have your back to the outside world and you can see before you only what Johnston created. You can grasp his intention precisely: this is a territorial garden, its function to exclude the landscape rather than reach out towards it.

! Hidcote Manor Garden, Hidcote Bartrim, Nr Chipping Camden, Glos (01386 438333). Open 11am-7pm, except Tuesdays and Fridays, to end September (Tuesday openings June/July only). Admission pounds 5.20. National Trust members free. A PROFILE OF HIDCOTE LOCATION: The gardens and houses cover 10 acres four miles north-east of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, one mile east of the B4632. Height above sea level: 600ft. CLIMATE: This escarpment to the north-east of the Cotswolds is inhospitably exposed and suffers damaging windy conditions. Winter temperatures can be as low as -18C with frosts and occasional gales. Rainfall: 25 inches per year. SOIL: Based on limey Cotswold shale, the soil ranges from the predominant alkaline to neutral. IDEAL FOR: Hypericum, lavender and other hardy varieties which can tolerate a variety of soil and weather conditions. Taxus (yew) is widely grown as hedging material, largely to aid shelter. VISITORS: Around 140,000 per year. THE HIDCOTE COLLECTION Hidcote Manor and its creator Lawrence Johnston have given their names to a number of varieties of favourite garden plants. Here is a list of some of them, along with other familiar flowers that thrive in the heart of England PENSTEMON 'HIDCOTE PINK' This low-growing perennial looks good at the front of mixed borders, and this variety's restrained colour reflects Johnston's taste. Needs sun and moisture, and protection through the winter. ROSA 'LAWRENCE JOHNSTON' This widely grown rose is a vigorous climber with attractive pale yellow flowers. It can clamber up as high as 30 feet. There is also a Hidcote Gold variety of rose, which is a deep yellow shrub. LAVANDULA 'HIDCOTE' This lavender is the best known of all the plant varieties that bears Hidcote's name. It is popular for its compact growth and the exquisite violet of its flowers. Does best in full sun or light shade. PAEONIA (PEONY) This much grown perennial has showy flowers that appear fairly fleetingly in early summer, but the foliage is attractive until it dies back in autumn. It needs a rich soil and resents disturbance. FUCHSIA 'HIDCOTE BEAUTY' One of some 8,000 varieties available in Britain, this has a white sepal and orangey-red petals beneath. It is not hardy - especially not at chilly Hidcote - so has to be taken inside in winter. HYDRANGEA The pink, white and lilac blooms of the hydrangea fit in well with Lawrence Johnston's subdued colour schemes. Several varieties are grown at Hidcote. It needs some sun, but prefers partial shade. HYPERICUM 'HIDCOTE' A useful plant with yellow flowers that last for most of the summer, it will tolerate a variety of soil and weather conditions. This vigorous variety can reach six feet in height and bears many flowers. CAMPANULA 'HIDCOTE AMETHYST' This pleasing purple variety of a popular perennial has spreading roots and thus makes good ground cover, with a longish summer flowering season. It needs well-drained soil and plenty of sun.