Views, water and some surprises
Contradictions abound at The Manor House. Part of Blockley open gardens, it is far bigger than the cottage plots visitors expect to see in this picturesque Cotswold village. It also has a designed feel with carefully thought out vistas and focal points yet it’s the result not of careful planning but evolution.
“It just happened, one step at a time,” says Zoe Thompson, who, with her husband, George, took over the house and garden 20 years ago.
It’s an evolution that has seen significant changes. When the couple moved in, the top part of the garden had grass up to the house, a few elderly cherry and holly trees and some overgrown shrubs.
Lower down, nature had taken over – “It was like a jungle of brambles and nettles” – and what is now an orchard was criss-crossed with dead trees and almost impenetrable.
The three-acre site was originally landscaped in the 18th century, with a retaining wall used to create a level area close to the house. Today, this is the formal part of the garden with views out over the village and surrounding countryside.
At first glance, it’s easy to think this is the whole plot, as such is the drop the lower garden cannot be seen until you get close to the wall.
A generous terrace borders the back of the house, leading out into a small rose garden, edged in lavender and planted in shades of pink, with obelisks festooned with white roses and blue clematis adding height.
“A rose garden was always going to be a must,” says Zoe.
Another essential for her was a generously proportioned pergola, inspired by a picture of one in Gertrude Jeykll’s garden, with the wood running lengthways to enhance the sense of movement from one end to the other. It has been carefully sited to give a view from the orangery down to a seat.
Climbers are chosen for scent, including honeysuckle and white wisteria, and there’s a long season of interest with roses, vines and clematis. Underneath, borders are planted with perennials, such as nepeta – a replacement for lavender which didn’t thrive – perovskia, pink and white peonies, penstemon and salvias.
“They all very normal sorts of plants,” says Zoe. “I go for structure and colour.”
Tucked away behind clipped yew hedges is the white garden where tulips and osmanthus give early colour, followed by roses, choysia, astrantia, and penstemon. Nearby, more spring colour comes from hellebores massed under a prunus that was just on the verge of bursting into flower when I visited, and borders thickly planted with daffodils.
At this time of year the chance to see the bones of a garden is almost as interesting as flowers and The Manor has some interesting ideas. Wrapped around a corner of the house is an ancient pear tree, beautifully trained to follow the wall. What variety it is or how long it has been there are a mystery, although old photographs dating back around 100 years show a second tree further along the house.
A more recent addition is a double row of Catalpa ‘Nana’, pollarded to give an umbrella shape. Planting them, recalls Zoe, was a tough job thanks to the original landscaping of that area.
“It’s full of rough stone so the lawn drains beautifully but it’s difficult to dig.”
More trained trees are found on the next level of the garden where espaliered apples and pears form a screen that divides the space yet still allows views through.
Below, ‘rays’ of yew – a recent replacement for blight-hit box – radiate out from steps leading down to the lowest part of the garden and drifts of daffodils alongside the brook. Originally, the couple intended this to be the only water in this area but earth-moving to contour the ground uncovered a spring and building a pond seemed the best way forward. It is now home to fish and aquatic plants while one side has a small rockery.
Meanwhile, the once-neglected orchard has been cleared of weed and new plantings of medlar, walnut, fig, quince, Asian pear and mulberry have been used to plug gaps. With primroses studding the grass and blossom just appearing, it’s hard to believe it was once a jungle.
• Blockley open gardens will be held on April 24 when The Manor House and four other gardens will be open from 2-6pm for the National Gardens Scheme. Combined admission is £6, children’s entry is free. Homemade teas are available.
• Details of more Gloucestershire National Gardens Scheme open gardens can be found here http://www.ngs.org.uk/