Abbotswood gets mix right

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.”

Creeper adds colour to the old house

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.

Hedges and walls are kept low to preserve views

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.

The Sunken Garden is still full of colour

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.

There’s a lovely mix of the informal and formal

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.

Highnam blazes into Autumn

Salvias are on Roger Head’s mind when we meet. Tall, inky blue salvias, the sort that turn heads and promote plant envy. They are sat, pride of place, among his other purchases from the Malvern Autumn Show and he’s interested to know if they will elicit the desired response from me.

“Do you like them?” he asks and, yes, I do. Who wouldn’t?

What interests me is that they will form part of yet another new feature, this time one of a pair of herbaceous borders, one pastels, the other hot colours.

It’s always the same when I visit Highnam Court – and I have been a regular for many years – each time there’s something different to see and plans afoot.

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Tree stump sculptures are a feature of the garden

The new borders currently under construction have been influenced by another Gloucestershire garden: Bourton House at Bourton-on-the-Hill, which Roger recently visited for the first time.

“Very few gardens inspire me,” he admits, “because I look at lots of gardens but that’s given me some ideas. I just like the way they put colours together.”

He’s planning a fiery mix of oranges, yellow, purple and reds in one area, using crocosmia, lobelia and red salvias, and softer shades with penstemon, campanulas, delphiniums and those blue salvias in the other.

It will add another dimension to what is already a very varied 40-acre garden that encompasses a one-acre rose garden, listed Pulhamite water garden, lakes, shrubberies and magnificent trees.

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The one-acre rose garden is one of the highlights

Those trees are beginning to come into their own this month as the autumn display gets underway. Magnolias are showing the first signs of buttery yellow, acer foliage has hints of red and orange, and a stately Quercus rubra, near the house is becoming a rich red.

This area of the garden is also being rethought with the removal of old laurel hedges and their replacement by simple grass. It’s a project that is still ongoing but already the effects are clear.

“It’s opened up the views through,” comments Roger, who has spent 22 years transforming the garden, once owned by Thomas Gambier Parry, from a neglected wilderness.

Adding to the seasonal display are great swathes of perennials, planted in Roger’s trademark block style. The flat heads of Sedum spectabile are a dusty pink, yellow rudbeckia catch the autumn sunlight, and asters are opening in shades of pink and mauve.

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The Ladies’ Winter Walk is a mix of traditional and modern

Then there are the roses, still blooming profusely in the Indian Summer. Most are in the box-edged Rose Garden but ‘Icberg’ and ‘Generous Gardener’ also fill long beds in the Ladies’ Winter Walk where polycarbonate obelisks add a contemporary touch.

The pink ‘Generous Gardener’ is Roger’s favourite rose and he is planning to use it on the long rose walk to replace ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ – “no good because it isn’t a repeat flowerer and it had got untidy”. Already the metal supports have been stripped bare and the previous under-planting of perennials and bulbs removed in favour of grass.

And as if that isn’t enough for Roger and his team of two gardeners, he’s planning to use the winter to redesign the Wild Flower Meadow. Yet again, there will be something new to see on my next visit.

Highnam Court, near Gloucester, is having two ‘Autumn Colour’ open days in aid of The Pied Piper Appeal. The gardens will be open on Sunday October 4 and Sunday November 1 from 11am to 4pm. For more information, visit

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A Monet-style bridge spans one of the lakes