Still going at a good clip

There is more exuberance, style and good design at Haseley Court than you'll see in a whole summer of garden visits, says Anna Pavord
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Shabby chic is where we are all supposed to be now, style-wise. A friend, surrounded by her crew of superbly high-spirited children moaned piteously as she looked at the latest crop of pictures in The World of Interiors. "No problem with the shabby bit," she said. "But how do you ever get on to the chic?" Her hound, lounging elegantly but muddily in an armchair looked at her with an expression that said "Don't bother" several times over.

This balancing act between the grand and the domestic, the tattered and the modish was the essence of the American, Nancy Lancaster's style. She died last summer, aged 97, after a lifetime of decorating (she was an early partner in the firm of Colefax & Fowler), entertaining, rescuing crumbling houses and garden making.

Her last home was Haseley Court in Oxfordshire which she saved from ruin in the early Fifties. It had been used as a POW camp and a Canadian field hospital and the early 18th-century house was on its last legs. So was the garden, although the topiary chess set, laid out in a sunken garden on the east side of the house, had miraculously survived thanks to an old man who bicycled over from the neighbouring village each year to clip what he called "his kings and queens".

Over the next 30 years, Mrs Lancaster remade the lines of what became a superb 10-acre garden. She planted long tunnels of hornbeam, and she brought in new clipped spirals and cones of box to make what she called a "topiary parlour" of a shady courtyard on the north side of the house, brightening up the sombre evergreen shapes with bright skirts of variegated ivy.

She made a nut walk leading down a gentle bank towards the remnants of a moat, which she re-invented as a long canal garden. The nut trees are underplanted with carpets of hellebores and bluebells. She took in a hay meadow and, dividing it into four, created elaborate parterres and potagers, rose walks and herbaceous borders.

For almost the last 20 years of her life, Nancy Lancaster lived in the converted stables at Haseley, keeping the garden that she had conjured from the hay field for herself while the rest was sold with the main house. Now, under the sympathetic hands of Desmond and Fiona Heyward, who moved into Haseley Court in 1982, the whole property is reunited again.

As Mrs Heyward had for some time been such a close neighbour of Mrs Lancaster's, she absorbed many of her most strongly held principles. Balancing seemingly opposing forces was second nature to Mrs Lancaster and restoring the right kind of equilibrium to the garden has been Mrs Heyward's chief concern. The long yew alley leading down one side of the garden had become very overgrown and wobbly. Mrs Heyward saw that this was one of the lines that needed to be kept very clean and straight, tall dark evergreen walls that pull you down their narrow confines, an urn at the end to reward you for the journey.

But the stone grotto at one end of a hornbeam tunnel, home to a slightly wistful cherub, needs no straightening up. Mrs Heyward feels that the balance there is about right, wild polypody ferns seeded into the roof of the grotto, wisteria tendrils escaping from a nearby wall to coil over the symmetrically placed corner urns.

Plants are still allowed to seed themselves about in the Lancaster way. The hornbeam tunnels have rivers of scillas running along their feet which wander now and then in an exploratory way towards the centre of the path. There are lightly-built narcissus there, too, quite unlike the more recent inventions with frilly snubbed noses that look as though they have been head-butting a brick wall.

A cross tunnel is made of laburnum which used to be lined with tawny orange, red and yellow wallflowers. "She was not afraid of colour," says Mrs Heyward. Provided there was plenty of green to act as a buffer, she delighted in hot colours.

Her design messages were not always so clear. "Paint it the colour of elephant's breath" she once instructed a bemused decorator. Perhaps she meant the colours of santolina and lavender, rue and rosemary, the soft restrained tones that she used in one of the four quarters of her own walled garden, the one she made from the hayfield.

The Heywards have had some difficult decisions to make. Storms wrecked a good deal of the great chestnut avenue that led away from the south forecourt over the field to the distant horizon. After taking advice, they decided to fell the few remaining chestnuts and replant a double avenue of lime, a generous gift to the future.

Honey fungus claimed the umbrella-shaped Portugal laurels which, with flat-topped, clipped Irish yew, guard the boundaries of the topiary garden. The Heywards replanted new Portugal laurels which have been growing steadily as round, mop-headed, unclipped trees. Now their long-term future must be decided. Umbrellas as before, or balls?

There is more exuberance, style and good design in this one garden than you might gather in a whole season of garden visiting. See it now, while the trees are still bare and you can pick out the lines of the garden in hornbeam and yew, box and Rosa mundi, hazel and laburnum. See it again in summer when roses sprawl over the octagon and tobacco plants scent the parterre.

A few years after Haseley Court was built, the estate at Buckland, near Faringdon, south-west of Oxford, was also being developed. Richard Woods, the landscape designer, was brought in by the owners to rearrange the surroundings. His chief task was to make it look as though the River Thames was flowing through the shallow valley below the house.

Since he had only a minuscule stream to work with, this was a tall order, but he brought it off. He created a string of lakes which sit in the hollows of the land as though geography had never intended anything different. Where the little stream rises, Woods built a classically pedimented grotto, arranged so that the spring water splashes over stones as it falls. From this modest start, the lake swells gently and then narrows again at a waterfall which connects it to the next stretch of water. Here there is a pretty boathouse in the rustic style and a summerhouse, both thatched.

At some stage in the 1950s, the garden designer Lanning Roper developed a garden around the lakes for the Wellesleys who owned the estate. His flowerbeds have disappeared now and the shrubs he planted have grown big and wild. It did not seem a loss. The lakeside walk, through yews and box trees, with moorhens skittering across the water, does not need prettiness of that sort.

Halfway down the path that leads to the lake you pass a thatched ice house, the interior bricked into a perfect egg shape. Double wooden doors provide insulation at the entrance and you can read about the last time the ice house was filled: 6 April 1913. Six men barrowed ice hacked from the lake to fill the domed structure and Mr Gough, the head gardener, provided hot beer, bread and cheese for the workers. It seems as long ago as a dream.

Buckland, near Faringdon, Oxfordshire is open tomorrow (2-7pm), admission £1. Haseley Court, Little Haseley, Oxfordshire is open next Sunday, 9 April (2-6pm), admission £2.