'The borders, quiet in May when I first visited, were blazing: echinops, plume poppy, stately spires of delphiniums'

Anna Pavord flees the heat into a timewarp garden in Gloucestershire
Click to follow
The first time I let myself into the garden at Misarden Park, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire (honesty box at the gate), it was so still, so quiet, so enclosed in its own bubble of tranquillity, I thought I might have tripped over a time warp and was seeing the garden as it was in the golden afternoons of the Edwardian era.

You need plenty of time to wander round the garden at Misarden Park where 20th-century gardening styles have been superimposed on a layout that is little changed from the late 17th century. The house is even earlier, but has a wing on the eastern side that was designed by Lutyens, and his comfortable arched loggia gives on to a broad terrace in front of the house. This leads to lawn and a stupendous view out over the wooded valley, with an avenue of beech trees marching away from a pair of wrought-iron gates at the bottom of the lawn.

Coming in through the honesty box gate though, your first view of the house is bounded by two generous herbaceous borders, which run down either side of a long central lawn. The borders, quiet in May when I first visited, were blazing when I next saw them in high summer: echinops, plume poppy, inula, stately spires of delphinium.

Around you are the stone walls which were already marked in a skewed rectangle on the aerial view of the estate drawn up by Kip and Knyff in 1715. On the right, behind the herbaceous border, is a long pergola of roses. On the left, a wide yew hedge clipped into a series of hump- backed bumps shields a productive kitchen garden, the paths lined with old espalier apples.

Closer to the front of the house, the land falls away steeply. A pretty series of stone terraces, planted Mediterranean-style with grey artemisias and lambs' tongues, euphorbias, romneyas, iris and blue mallow, swallows up the drop in levels to bring you down to the broad stone terrace and the lawn in front of the house.

The most unresolved area of the garden lies on the far side of this lawn, where the grass slopes off at an awkward angle. But around the corner, along the narrow strip called the Butler's Walk, good design picks up again with a stone wall projecting out into bays, each one holding a mop- headed hornbeam, underplanted with mahonia and narrow-leaved laurel. A gate lets you out into the drive where huge stands of martagon lilies have seeded in the grass.

The detail is good in this garden: the turf steps that lead from one lawn to the next, the stonework of the terrace, the beautiful iron gate that lets you out from the walled garden by the big sycamore. Somebody took a lot of trouble designing that gate. The ironwork is all hand-beaten, the ends of the bars flattened out to make small leaves by which the bars are attached to the frame. Who made it?

At the turn of the century, craft communes sprouted like mushrooms in this part of Gloucestershire. The county - combed, primped and freshly painted - would no longer be the first choice of retreat for a band of idealists trying to establish a heaven on earth. But in the Twenties, a trio of architect-craftsmen moved to nearby Sapperton to design houses and make furniture inspired by local traditions and materials.

Ernest Barnsley, his brother Sidney and their friend Ernest Gimpson were romantic perfectionists, dreaming of a network of small, craft- inspired workshops where they would encourage local carpenters and blacksmiths to produce honest, decent, hand-finished work to furnish the homes of grateful labourers. At Misarden, they built some cottages in the Arts and Crafts style for Noel Wills, the owner of the grand house that is the raison d'etre of the place, and craftwork such as the iron gate.

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, 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.

Despite the din of crashing ideals, the Gloucestershire experiments continued. 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 at Whiteway, only a mile or so northwest of Miserden, a curious group of newcomers arrived in 1898 to live their lives according to Tolstoyian principles. As with other utopian groups of that time, dignity of physical labour was the over-riding principle.

In the calm, ordered frame of Misarden Park, you will find a present- day dreamer, David Robb. Nearly three years ago, he left his job as operations manager for a chemical company to set up a nursery, specialising in herbaceous perennials. Like Barnsley before him, he had a vision of reordered priorities, of producing by his own labour something that was beautiful. How had the reality matched up?

"I thought I had been quite realistic in working out what would be involved," he replied. "But everything took so much longer than I had imagined. And cost a lot more."

The deal was that he would repair and renovate the fine glasshouses in the yard in return for a reasonable rent on the property. There are seven glasshouses and two long sets of frames to look after. They were state-of-the-art when they were installed in the Edwardian era, with hefty ventilation gear from Foster Pearson.

So how had he coped, I enquired, wondering what it was he had got that Edward Barnsley had not. The answer, he said, was an understanding wife. He was on target with the renovations, but at the expense of an income. Fortunately, his wife had a job and, when she was not doing that, she helped him with the propagating.

He decided to concentrate on herbaceous perennials because he felt they were poorly catered for in garden centres. "They need working and reworking to keep them looking good in pots," he explained. "Garden centres aren't prepared to do that and by June and July their plants are looking very shabby. Mine aren't."

He grows 500-600 different kinds of perennial, following his own nose rather than fashion, though there are several fashionable families on neat display in the nursery: campanulas, foxgloves (including the refined yellow kinds, Digitalis grandiflora and D. laevigata) and elegant white crinums with arching swan necks.

Basking in two of the restored greenhouses are ranks of regal pelargoniums and deep, inky pots of streptocarpus. Some of these came home with me. It is that kind of nursery: irresistible.

The garden at Misarden Park, Miserden, near Cirencester, Gloucestershire, is open Tues, Wed and Thurs (9.30am-4.30pm) to the end of Sept.

Other gardens to escape to in August

Rodmarton Manor, near Cirencester, Gloucestershire Designed by Ernest Barnsley, this was what banker Claud Biddulph called his "cottage" in the country. Some cottage: superb design, excellent topiary, remade herbaceous borders leading to a pretty summerhouse. Open Sats to 26 August (2-5pm). Admission pounds 1.50.

Portmeirion, Penrhyndeudraeth, Gwynedd The Italianate village that Clough Williams-Ellis built at the side of a glorious estuary, Traeth Bach. The garden tumbles down between the houses, more Madeira than Wales, with spiky agaves, echiums and other unfamiliar plants. Stay a night if you can. There is no dottier place to wake up in and the garden looks its best in the early morning or evening. Open daily 9.30am-5.30pm. Admission pounds 3.

Tapeley Park, near Instow, Devon An outpost of the Christies of Glyndebourne where the garden designer, Mary Keen, has introduced new plantings to enhance the three formal terraces laid out by the architect John Belcher at the turn of the century. Ponds with waterlilies, woods with hydrangeas, Queen Anne dairy with teas. Open daily (except Mons) until end of September (10am-5pm). Admission pounds 2.50.

Cholmondeley Castle Garden, Malpas, Cheshire Fine trees in a park-like setting, sweeping round a large lake, Victorian rockery with waterfall, a temple set on an island and a battlemented castle of the 1800s. Open Wed, Thurs, Sun and Bank Holiday Mon (12 noon-5.30pm). Admission pounds 2.60.