Orange and purple tulips in front of a green hedge and Parrotia arbour

What a wonderful year 2019 has been as I have visited over fifty gardens from Devon to Yorkshire and from Cheshire to Kent. There were many contenders for my top five but for me, a garden has to be more than the sum of its parts; it has to have an intangible quality, the spirit of the place, which envelops you as you wander round. These five gardens, all very different from one another, had a profound effect on me – a feeling which stayed with me, long after I had left: Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire, Castle Drogo in Devon, Newby Hall in Yorkshire (which has recently been crowned winner of Historic Houses Garden of the Year), The Homewood in Surrey and Woolbeding in West Sussex.

Starting with Canons Ashby, its history is full of love, bravery and morality. It’s impossible to stand in the Green Court, and read the story of the shepherd boy and not be moved. At Castle Drogo, it’s the attraction of opposites that appealed to me: the huge monument of a house built to withstand the harsh winds of Dartmoor against the fragility of the flower garden. [The image at the top is the formal terraced garden at Castle Drogo with the arbour of trained Parrotia]. Newby Hall is a more traditional garden with its stunning double herbaceous borders, eighteenth century house and its two, exquisitely decorated garden buildings beside the River Ure. The Homewood, is somewhere I discovered by luck while visiting Claremont Landscape Garden near Esher. This is a house and garden which are inextricably linked, and which embody Patrick Gwynne’s love of the place. The abstract shapes of blue, green and mauve in the panels on the exterior of the building mirror the trees and sky making it impossible to separate their reflection from the enamel frame while the garden enters into the house through the glass windows which stretch the length of the first-floor sitting room. While finally at Woolbeding, I was continually surprised and delighted by the garden and will continue to be so as construction is underway of a ten-sided glass house which will be filled with sub-tropical flora illustrating one of the twelve zones that plants travelled on their journey along the Silk Route from China to the West.


View through trees of the flower beds on the terrace with front of Canons Ashby on the right
                                                          The Terraces in front of the house at Canons Ashby

Canons Ashby

The gardens at Canons Ashby are open for most of the year. It is owned by the National Trust.

HISTORY: After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Canons Ashby was given to Sir Francis Bryan who sold it in 1538 to Sir John Cope, a successful Banbury lawyer. His daughter Elizabeth, married John Dryden in 1551. By the end of the seventeenth century, the estate was owned by Edward and Erasmus Dryden who extensively remodelled the house and laid out the gardens. Gravel paths encircle the terraces with the parterres laid to lawn and although the layout has changed little over the years, new planting schemes have been introduced by the National Trust based on plans drawn up in the 1800s by Sir Henry Dryden.

In the Green Court, is the statue of the Shepherd Boy by Jan van Nost. During the Civil War, the boy was acting as a look out while Lady Dryden fed some of Cromwell’s army. Seeing the Cavaliers advancing, the boy blew his flute to warn the Roundheads of their approach. The troops fled to the Church and barricaded themselves in the Tower but were soon forced to surrender after the Cavaliers set it alight. Cromwell’s men were imprisoned at Banbury but the shepherd boy was killed as an example to others. The Drydens erected the statue in his memory.

When visiting the house, it’s worth popping over the road to St. Mary’s Church which incorporates the west end of the nave of the Augustinian Priory which was founded by Stephen la Leye between 1147 and 1151. Inside the Church there is a memorial to Gervase Jackson-Stops, architectural advisor to the National Trust, ‘who loved this place’.


Dramatic sky with granite building and chapel with forest floor in the foreground
                                                         The dramatic facade of Castle Drogo with the Chapel on the left

Castle Drogo

Castle Drogo is open for most of the year; the house has recently undergone extensive restoration work. It is owned by the National Trust.

HISTORY: The dramatic castle was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1911 and 1930 for Julius Drewe, founder of the Home and Colonial Stores. Sadly, Drewe only lived in the house for a year as he died in 1931. Christopher Hussey wrote how Drogo ‘does not pretend to be a castle. It is a castle, as a castle is built, of granite, on a mountain, in the twentieth century’. The formal garden is set against the borrowed landscape of the moors, and was also designed by Lutyens with the planting scheme by George Dillistone. The garden includes herbaceous borders, a sunken rose garden and a woodland walk filled with rhododendron and magnolias.


Yellow flowers in the foreground of the double herbaceous border leading to the front of the eighteenth century house
                                               The Double Herbaceous Border leading to the Hall

Newby Hall

The private gardens are open on certain days from the end of March until the end of September. It is owned by Robin Compton, a descendant of William Weddell.

HISTORY: Sir Edward Blackett, MP for Ripon, bought the estate in 1689 and laid out the gardens and built the house c1695-1705 possibly to designs by Christopher Wren. On her travels through England, Celia Fiennes visited the Hall in 1697 and described it as ‘the finest house I saw in Yorkshire’. The property was sold to William Weddell in 1748 who commissioned John Carr and William Belwood to extend the house on the east side and Robert Adam to design the interiors. After Weddell died without children in 1792, the house passed to his cousin Thomas Philip Robinson, 3rd Lord Grantham. Grantham later became the first President of the Royal Institute of British Architects and in 1833 also inherited Wrest Park from his Aunt. Further alterations were made to the house at the end of the nineteenth century and in 1921 Major Edward Compton was given the estate by his mother, Mary. Compton wrote ‘I found I had inherited an exceptionally beautiful home but no garden to speak of – a lovely picture but no frame – I was determined to rectify this.’ Compton was influenced by Lawrence Johnston’s garden at Hidcote and the garden has continued to be maintained and developed within the existing framework by his grandson, Robin Compton and his wife, Lucinda. The gardens include the Tropical Garden, Sylvia’s Garden, Autumn Garden, Rhododendron Walk, Statue Walk, the Orchard Garden, Rock Garden and the Rose Garden.


View through trees of the facade of The Homewood
                                                         The facade of The Homewood with the enamel panels on the left

The Homewood

The Homewood is open on alternate Fridays and Saturday between April and October and tickets must be pre-booked. Visits to the site are only by minibus which leaves from nearby Claremont Landscape Park. The property is owned by the National Trust and let out to a tenant.

HISTORY: The house was designed in the Modernist style by the architect Patrick Gwynne for his family and was finished in May 1938. Described by his father, Commander Alban Gwynne, as ‘A Temple of Costly Experience’, Gwynne was influenced by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House. Tragically the family only lived together at The Homewood for fifteen months as both Gwynne’s parents were killed during the Second World War. After his sister married and moved away, Gwynne remained at the house, continually adding and remodelling it until his death in 2003. The Homewood was, according to his life-long friend and colleague Sir Denys Lasdun, the ‘great love’ of his life. Gwynne gave the property to the National Trust in 1994 along with a ‘Green Book’ which contains over one hundred pages of Gwynne’s ‘notes, designs and practical tips’ for the garden.


At the top of the waterfall is the gothic folly with doors open
                                                                       The Gothic Pavilion at Woolbeding designed by Philip Jebb


Although the property is owned by the National Trust it has been leased to Stewart Grimshaw and his late partner Simon Sainsbury since 1973. The gardens are open on several days between April and September, but visits must be pre-booked through the National Trust website.

HISTORY: Little remains of the Elizabethan house which was rebuilt between 1711 and 1760 by Sir Richard Mill. In 1791, the house was sold to Lord Robert Spencer, third son of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, who made several changes to the house and redesigned the gardens. After his death in 1831, Woolbeding passed through several hands until 1958 when it was given to the National Trust. Simon Sainsbury and his partner Stewart Grimshaw began redeveloping the garden, firstly by commissioning Lanning Roper to create a series of garden rooms with a Gothic pavilion and summer house designed by Philip Jebb. In 2000, Isabel and Julian Bannerman were invited to Woolbeding. With their usual theatrical flair, they developed the area around the lake into a mystical kingdom of a river god along with a grotto, stumpery and hermit’s hut. Other parts of the garden include Mary’s Garden, the Fountain Garden, Summer House, Long Walk, Chinese Bridge, pergola, herbaceous borders, kitchen garden and herb garden.  

But this garden is always looking to the future. A new Glasshouse and Gardens are being created which will offer visitors an opportunity to learn about the plants that were originally brought back along the Silk Route from Asia to Europe. Funded by the Woolbeding Charity (the residuary charity for the work of The Monument Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts), the Glasshouse is being designed by Heatherwick Studio. The building will have ten sides and will be ‘a crowning achievement in a new tradition of contemporary design to recover life, beauty and pleasure for visitors’ – Mark Woodruff, The Woolbeding Charity. The Silk Route Gardens and Heatherwick Glasshouse will open in Spring 2021.

Next year, I’m off to Northumberland and the Lake District – I cannot wait!


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