With mechanical and human help, the garden has been partially tamed, but there is a section in front of the house that I have left, mainly because of lack of inspiration.
The main problem with this part of the garden is soil depth. The house was built on natural rock and, in parts, it is impossible to dig holes to plant shrubs etc. This section of the garden was formerly paved with a raised central bed. A lot of the old broken paving is on or just under the surface and I have toyed with the idea of having gravel interspersed with some beds, but am not at all sure it would look right.
The other section of the front garden is now crazy paving and raised beds and looks good, so perhaps it would be better to continue this theme. However, I find crazy paving very difficult to sweep clean. The side and back gardens are lawn and flower beds, with a vegetable garden beyond.
Chris and Liz Carnac's farm is at Llanvetherine, just outside Abergavenny. This is the patch where I was born and brought up, where uncles and cousins farmed a landscape of hills, red earth and castle ruins. In this border country, castles are two a penny. But there was another good reason to go there at this time of year. The road leads past one of the most spectacular magnolias in the country.
It sits, bizarrely, in the forecourt of the small Elf garage by the boundary of the Chepstow racecourse. I'd guess it was originally part of the garden at St Arvan's Lodge behind, planted perhaps when the house was built. It looks like Magnolia x soulangiana which was raised by M Soulange-Bodin at Fromont near Paris early in the 19th century. That date would fit the house, by the look of it.
The Carnacs' farmhouse, which Liz Carnac inherited from her aunt, is much more ancient. With a grant from CADW (the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage) they have slowly been reinstating oak mullioned windows, repointing the massively thick rubble walls, uncovering the original fireplaces which have vast overmantels, probably dragged here from the ruins of White Castle nearby.
The problem patch is a long, thin triangle of ground, on the right hand side as you approach the house. One long side of the triangle is bounded by the new drive, which is dressed with crushed stone. Its short side butts straight on to the right of the front door. The other long side of the triangle rises steeply to the lane in a rough bank, impenetrably thick with blackthorn, bramble and elder. It's a tongue of ground that is unconnected visually to any other part of the garden, but important as a foreground to the fascinating and imposing building behind.
Because the Carnacs are selling the barns that lie just the other side of the drive (they will be converted into two houses), and have plenty of sheltered ground to sit into the side and back of the house, it did not seem to me that this odd patch will ever be much used. And, like most farmers, the Carnacs have plenty else to look after besides the garden. They are not looking for more things to do.
So the patch had to be fairly trouble-free, while providing an appropriate setting for the house. It should meld with the wilderness of blackthorn at its back, and be planted with something that can cope with only a thin skim of earth over bedrock. More crazy paving or gravel might be too harsh here, given the gravel drive, the stone walls all around and the cliff-like stone facade of the house itself.
I rarely think a flowery mead the perfect answer. They are too often made on rich ground where the flowers quickly get choked out by weeds. But here, the circumstances were ideal. And a little wild flower meadow would make an entirely appropriate foreground for this ancient house, grass thick with milkmaids, cowslips and wild blue cranesbills, lady's bedstraw, ox-eye daisies and scabious. Buttercups might be a mistake, but agrimony, trefoil, bugle, ragged robin, vetch and yarrow would all be worth including. Clover, the modern kind, anyway, is too aggressive for most flowery meads.
Only one more element would be needed: a big, old pear tree. This was unashamedly nostalgic. The farms I knew round those parts used to have orchards close to the house, the spring view from kitchens, parlours and bedrooms, with their dipping eaves, always containing the tall, graceful outline of a pear dressed overall in piercingly white blossom.
The pear would have to be planted as a standard or a half-standard, with a tall, straight trunk of at least 4-6ft before any branches broke from it. And it would have to be grafted (as pear standards usually are) on to wild pear stock rather than the more common quince. Wild pear stock can cope with poor ground. Quince can't.
If no opening revealed itself in the bedrock where a hole could be dug to plant it, I recommended the Carnacs should adopt the 18th-century technique and mound plant a pear tree next autumn. That means breaking up the surface of the ground, spreading the roots out carefully and then mounding up soil on top of the roots, so that it makes a shallow-sided hill. You need to water well through the first summer. Gradually the roots will work their way down through cracks in the rock.
The site needs clearing and grading slightly before it is seeded, but it shouldn't look lawn-smooth. The ground is compacted as a result of the building work on the house. But a small three-ton JCB could pick out the loose stone lying around on the surface and then the patch could be gently rotavated and raked ready for the seed to be be broadcast in late summer or early autumn.
The soil is neutral, so the grasses in the seed mix (which are usually 80 per cent grasses, 20 per cent wild flowers) could include sheep's fescue, small-leaved timothy and smooth meadow grass, with flowers such as bird's- foot trefoil, black knapweed, campanula, cowslip, self-heal and wild carrot as well as the ones I mentioned above. You need about three grams of seed to cover a square metre.
The elements of a seed mixture can be changed to fit any situation. On this particular site, I'd be inclined to ask for a higher proportion of flowers to grass, although it would make the mix a bit more expensive. A standard blend costs around pounds 30 a kilo. Or the Carnacs could buy seed of the wild flowers they particularly liked and mix their own meadow. White campion costs about pounds 2 for 10grams. Purple loosestrife is pounds 5 for 10 grams.
The meadow should not be cut until August, when seed of the wild flowers will have been shed. Then, depending on how tidy they want it to look, the Carnacs could give the turf one or two more cuts through the autumn, so that in spring the first wild flowers emerge spangled against tight- cropped turf. The final touch would be a low wall, built with the stone from off the patch, to mark the line between mead and drive and match the existing wall which runs along the front of the house to the left of the front door.
Wild flower seed: Flower Farms, Carvers Hill Farm, Shalbourne, Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 3PS (01672 870782). They offer a consultancy service (01635 247666) and workshops on planting wild flower meadows, eg on 10 and 19 June (2pm-5pm), fee pounds 25. Pear trees grafted on to wild pear stock: Scotts Nurseries, Merriott, Somerset TA16 5PL (01460 72306).Reuse content