As I turn into Abbotswood it’s obvious why there was a change of heart about opening the garden. The October sunshine dances off trees that are sporting shades of butter yellow, scarlet and fiery orange, while the old house is cloaked in crimson creeper. Grass is splashed with small pools of pale mauve, courtesy of autumn crocus, and there’s the gentle sound of running water. This is a garden taking autumn in its stride.
Abbotswood, near Stow-on-the-Wold, has long been a stalwart of the National Gardens Scheme, one of the original founding members in 1927 and a regular on the garden-visiting circuit ever since. However, with the house up for sale, head gardener Martin Fox had planned not to open this year, until he saw the autumn display.
“I decided to open for the colour,” he says. “There should be plenty to see.”
Plenty is almost an understatement as the seasonal tints of trees and shrubs are just one element of what makes it worth visiting this Grade II listed garden, parts of which were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for businessman Mark Fenwick in the early 1900s. Late performers, such as candy pink nerines and mauve asters are keeping the central garden beds alive, there are hydrangeas and roses still in bloom, heathers just breaking into colour and hot borders that are arguably at their best with a mix of red and purple salvias, nicotiana, fuchsias and Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant.
It’s this variety that has always made Abbotswood a favourite. Parts of the garden are strictly formal: the lily pool with its simple pots of hydrangeas, the terraces with a summerhouse that pins one corner of the Sunken Garden and provides a focal point. There’s an intricate box knot garden, sharply geometric borders in the central terrace and classic beds of roses hemmed by lavender.
In contrast, the Stream Garden is a relaxed area of trees, shrubs and tumbling water, a place to meander along crisply mown paths. It was designed using natural streams by the Pulham family, pioneers of Victorian rock gardens, who invented an artificial form of rock made from clinker and cement, and the garden has a watercourse that includes many levels and small falls.
Meanwhile, there are rhododendrons and azaleas, unusual in the Cotswolds, which are surviving thanks to the incorporation of tons of acid soil when the garden was first designed, coupled with the addition of lots of leaf mould now.
“There’s a large range of plants here,” comments Martin, who has been at Abbotswood for 20 years. “We’ve got a bit of most things.”
One of the garden’s strengths is its use of setting. The ground falls away from the house at the back and this has been terraced with walls and hedges kept low to allow uninterrupted views of the parkland beyond. In addition, the style moves outwards from formal to informal with the Stream Garden and woodland providing an almost seamless transition into the surrounding countryside.
This blending of garden and landscape has been improved with the removal of a large shrub and conifer border on what had originally been a tennis court. Now replaced with a few specimen shrubs and trees, including Euonymus alatus and Stewartia rostrata, it has opened up views of the nearby summerhouse from other parts of the garden.
It’s just one of many changes Martin and his team have been making; what had been laughingly known at ‘the poor relations beds’ have been replanted with a mix of heathers and small conifers, and old bamboo clumps along the stream have been replaced by azaleas, rhododendrons and new bamboo.
And yet he believes there are still things that could be done: “I hope that whoever buys it realises what’s here and that it could be pushed on a bit more.”
• Abbotswood, on the B4077 west of Stow-on-the-Wold, is open from 12-4pm for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday October 25. Admission is £5.