It’s always good on a garden visit to see something a bit different but few Cotswold gardens deliver quite the surprise of Barton House. Forget the flowing herbaceous borders typical of the area this plot has dazzling rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas with just a touch of the Orient.
In other parts of the country a spring show of these acid lovers would be nothing unusual but in the Cotswolds they are a rarity.
It is, explains owner Hamish Cathie, all down to chance. Like Westonbirt Arboretum on the other side of the county, Barton House sits on a seam of green sand, giving just the right conditions for growing lime-haters. Even neighbouring properties in the village just outside Moreton-in-Marsh have different soil and some of Hamish’s collection were gifts from others who have tried, and failed, to copy his planting.
“We’re just lucky,” he observes.
This difference in style is trumpeted from the moment you approach the six-acre garden. The circular drive wraps around a display of azaleas, which explode in shocking colour during May. There are some rhododendrons here but most have been moved as this part is too sunny for them.
Elsewhere, there is the pink-flowered R. oreodoxa, a gift from a former head gardener at Batsford Arboretum where it was ailing, and R. praecox, a favourite of Hamish’s mother, who started the garden in 1949.
“There was a big hedge of it in Edinburgh Botanic Garden and she always used to go to see it.”
R. ‘Taurus’ is, as Hamish says “as red as you can get” and R. barbatum is another with scarlet blooms.
The recent felling of a dying Japanese larch in the main lawn has enabled him to start a new rhododendron display, this time in shades of red and yellow.
“I want to get away from the pinks and whites,” he explains. “I want to have a very colourful thing here.”
When I visited, many were already in place with more, including a 9ft-wide ‘Hotei’, about to be planted.
Meanwhile, the ‘secret garden’, hidden behind tall hedges, has a growing collection of camellias, along with magnolia and Arbutus menziesii, whose striking bark splits open to show emerald green beneath; Hamish holds National Collections of both arbutus and catalpa.
Tucked away under the shade of acers is the ‘Japanese Garden’, complete with Moutan tree peonies, a pagoda, bamboo and a wisteria-covered bridge over a small rill. Replacing the bridge with another specially commissioned piece has been one of this spring’s projects.
More peonies are found in the Kitchen Garden where head gardener Kevin Line has established a cutting border of those and iris. There’s also an area of alpines, a small vineyard of red and white grapes, planted to mark the millennium, and an exotic garden with palms and olives. The glasshouse is used to propagate from the National Collections and to raise annuals for the summer display; this year a vibrant theme of blue, yellow and orange has been chosen.
Nearby, arches in the rose garden span pebble mosaics by local artist Sue Rew. They were inspired by 4th century mosaics in Motya, Sicily, where Hamish’s aunt helped excavate a Phoenician warship.
What was once a ha-ha is today a tranquil canal with a water spout at one end and a bridge made from recycled metal by the estate’s blacksmith. Hamish’s father had already repaired the ha-ha and when it started to collapse again, Hamish decided to line it with thick clay and flood it.
“I didn’t want to do what my father did and go to immense expense and build it up again only to find the same thing happening again in 10 years’ time.”
This is very much a plantsman’s garden with the components chosen primarily for their own worth rather than with an overall display in mind. As such, much of the collection is displayed not in neatly ordered borders but informally in grass or in the shade of the garden’s many trees. It makes it an easy garden to wander through and a refreshing change from the tightly clipped style so often associated with gardens of this size.
• Barton House, Barton-on-the-Heath, is open from 2-6pm on May 29 for the National Gardens Scheme. Admission is £5.