Visits with interesting plants

Athelhampton House and Garden, Dorset, March 2020.

I love the spring and normally try to go away for a week in March, often aiming for the end of the month. As luck had it this year, various plans and events meant the only time available was first week of March instead. This meant setting of for a week in Dorset at a time when jokes about stockpiling toilet paper still seemed funny, and coronavirus appeared to be about as serious as a bad dose of flu for the majority of people. We were soon to learn how wrong that impression was. Every day during that week the situation seemed less funny and more threatening. When you’re away from home, though, you tend to feel cushioned from reality to a surprising extent, so despite the increasingly ominous and unpleasant news, it turned out to be a very enjoyable week and, as it turned out, the last opportunity to go away for quite some time.

Staying near Weymouth, I realised that we were very close to Athelhampton House and Garden which I’d heard of and was pretty sure I’d seen pictures of on Instagram. The pyramids of yew are very distinctive! So, after dropping my husband off at Bovington Tank Museum for the day (each to their own!), I set off for the garden.

Map of Athelhampton Garden

Although the house is Tudor, I understand the formal part of the garden was laid out near the end of the 19th Century by Inigo Thomas, when the house was owned by Alfred Cart de Lafontaine. This formal part of the garden is listed Grade II*.

The house and garden were apparently in new ownership, having been sold in 2019, and the new owner seemed to be making some changes. Although there weren’t many visitors this early in the year the gardens were very busy with gardeners getting ready for the new season. There was also a fair amount of work going on in the house. That meant not everything in the house that’s normally open could be seen, but on the plus side one of the gardens that I think is normally closed (it’s labelled The Private Garden on the map) was open so I was able to see that instead.

The garden as a whole is divided up into a series of courts, several of them walled which is always a huge plus point in my book. What gardener doesn’t love a walled garden? Following the suggested route on the map the first court I went into was the pyramid garden. These pyramids are made of yew and are arranged around a large lawn with a central fountain. The best view of them was probably from the terrace, a raised walkway to the side, because the trees themselves were so tall and broad (they’re generally described as ‘monumental’ and I can see why) it was difficult to get an overall impression of the garden from ground level. It is an impressive sight, although yew is very dark and solid, especially when cut into such large and blocky shapes, and the dull, damp weather didn’t do anything to alleviate the impression that it was all a bit overpowering. I’ve seen a picture, I think an old painting, of this garden when the yews were much smaller and I couldn’t help thinking that had looked better. Just when I was mulling all this over, though, I caught sight of the first of many views through a gate from one court to the next, and I began to see how the garden works.

Moving on along the suggested route took me into what seems to be called the Corona (not the best word in the circumstances). Some online research tells me that this Corona was the centre and focal point of the garden scheme designed by Inigo Thomas. The first part of this was quite small and enclosed, with the feel of a sunken garden surrounded by tall and rather gothically shaped walls. The planting was dark: purple phormiums, purple pittosporum, purple hyacinths and some dark-leaved heuchera, lightened by the lime of euphorbia and the green shoots of allium leaves amongst other things starting to come through. There were also more of intriguing views through gates in all four walls.

The next courtyard was a complete contrast. Altogether lighter, planted with tender (or tender-looking) exotics: Tetrapanax papyrifer just coming into leaf, light green and variegated phormiums, variegated yucca, more euphorbia and eucalyptus, all planted through pale gravel. Light and shade in adjoining gardens.

Going through the next gate on the route took me out into the Queen Victoria garden and probably my favourite feature of the whole garden, The Lime Walk. What a fabulous creation. Mossy at the bottom, an eerie tangle of pale branches forming the roof of a tunnel overhead, it was clever and atmospheric. I’m sure it also looks good when trees are in leaf, but I couldn’t help feeling that the starkness of the structure made this feature more memorable than any leafy bower would be.

The Lime Walk looking mossy and ethereal

Very close to the lime walk was the canal. That seemed a bit of a grand title for what was essentially a long, narrow pond, but on such a still day this placid water feature looked elegant and sophisticated. Beyond it was the walled vegetable garden. There was a lot of activity in here with gardeners hard at work mulching, though at the start of March the beds were almost bare except for some colourful chard, which a visiting dog kept eating. I must have been distracted by that and by the bare beds, because I don’t seem to have taken any photos!

Crossing back over from the veg garden I found my way into the private garden, another walled courtyard with a sunken pond at its centre and an interesting side view of the house. The planting here was quite varied, with hellebores and camellia blooming and magnolia just coming into flower. Also there were more enticing views.

I’ve never thought of Dorset being as damp as Wales or Devon can be, but the next feature, the cloister garden, made me wonder, as here the entangled branches of the pleached limes were festooned with moss. These branches form the roof of the ‘walls’ of the cloister, planted out in an octagonal shape. The Japanese really know what they’re doing when they use moss in their gardens. It suggests age (though I think these trees probably are quite old) and adds character and charm to a feature that in this case already had it by the bucketload. Once again, I thought there were distinct advantages to visiting before the leaves had started to emerge. At the centre of the cloister there’s a stone edged octagonal pond with a wonky fountain at its centre. I hope the new owner doesn’t set it straight!

From one lovely feature to another, more natural one, as I walked on to discover that the river Piddle runs through the garden. Shallow at this point but quite fast flowing, the banks were just springing into life and the weeds in the water created dark green streaks under the surface.

The board walk on the other side of the river was closed (probably far too slippery for safety after all the winter rain), so I turned into the white garden, which I think is an addition made in the 1960s and 70s, with advice from Sir Harold HIllier. Here I was greeted by Stachyrus praecox opening the first flowers on its long racemes, more magnolia and white hellebores. In the rose garden the plants looked like they’d not long been pruned, but with the new shoots on some of them coloured bright scarlet, there was already some vivid colour.

Visiting so early in the year it was a bit difficult to image what the gardens would look like in later seasons with more greenery and a full compliment of flowers. One of my favourite features was the bare bones of the pleached trees which would be hidden under the leaves later in the year, of course. But then I also loved the layout, the views through beautiful gates from one courtyard garden to the next, the variety of styles and the planting. As I mentioned, I believe advice on planting was given by Sir Harold Hillier when the garden was being restored in the 1960s, and I’m sure this explains what appears to be a very interesting mix of shrubs and trees, many of which would be looking their best later in the year.

A good garden is always worth seeing in different seasons, anyway, and this is clearly a good garden, with layers of charm and quirky features, planted and gardened in a relaxed way that allows moss to gather and age to be an advantage. Although the garden in its current state seems to have been laid out in the Victorian period, with the exception of some of the gothic touches it doesn’t reflect that age to my mind and is a good compliment to the Tudor period house. I’ve always thought the Tudors had a style that’s very easy to relate to today. There’s a homeliness about it, it’s not too grand, not too obviously a boast of wealth, the scale is human and it’s not as austere and ambitious as you’d expect from the Victorian era.

I would have hoped to re-visit in the summer, and I’m sure I will, but it might have to be next year rather than this one.

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