As you may have read previously, I’ve just been allocated an allotment about a 15-minute drive away from our new home. I’m over the moon with this, as I haven’t had my own space to garden for several years now. I’m itching to get designing, […]
I had the pleasure of visiting the Abbeywood Estate Gardens in Cheshire twice in 2017. Both occasions were markedly different in terms of the weather and flora. The first was a warm day in early August with interesting clouds flitting overhead and a great deal […]
If you read my last post, you’ll recall I mentioned visiting the marvellous Hunte’s Gardens during our two-night stay on Barbados in November. In actuality, marvellous just doesn’t cover how awe-inspiring this sunken space is.
While the entrance fee doesn’t seem cheap – 30 Barbadian dollars to be exact – this is in fact just about £11 at the moment. It’s worth every penny, without a doubt. If you head over to Barbados, I implore you to go and see this magnificent place.
The gardens are the vision and realisation of one man, Anthony Hunte. What foresight he has. Join to this an expert understanding of tropical plants and you end up with Hunte’s Gardens.
Anthony lives up in the converted old stable block at the top of this ancient sinkhole. He ran a garden nursery for many years, explaining some of his plant knowledge. The rest of it, plus his passion for plants, was acquired from an early age, through his family.
He achieved this extraordinary feat of horticultural pizazz over just two years, assisted by just one other person.
Anthony’s family arrived in Barbados back in the 1600s and has never left. He is rooted to this place, and in the heart of the island, in what feels like the middle of nowhere, he’s created a cultivated form of rainforest paradise.
Anthony himself is hugely personable and makes a great effort to speak with visitors when possible. He wandered down to the garden just as Matt and I were about to leave. A Germanophone tour group had arrived, and they were his mission. However, he had more time for us than I could have hoped. After enjoying some rum and a beer in his home with some friendly fellow Brits, Anthony had his photo taken with us and spent 15 minutes or so chatting. I am truly thankful for the insight he gave us into his gardening.
When you first reach the gates to the property, you’d be forgiven for wondering where you’d bothered going. It’s understated. You see palm trees – plentiful around Barbados – and a vibrant sign squashed beneath heavy black power lines.
Step over the threshold and the sense of something special begins to wash over you. There are industrial-looking, forlorn barns to your right, for sure, but to your left there’s a large taiche bowl (formerly for sugar production) used as a water feature. A colonial statue stands at its side. Anthony has created a small bed in the centre of the path – half-cobbled, half-gravel by the way – in which stands a narrow palm tree adored by more exotics at its feet. Already at this point, before paying, the abundance of “foreign” foliage is striking.
You take a left turn to pay the entrance fee, and are ushered first of all, guide sheet in hand, down the steep stone steps to the sinkhole below. Forget the guide for now – take in the breathtaking view before you.
Remember those commonplace palm trees you see from outside the boundaries? Well, they’re gigantic. They’re over 100 years old and go up and up. Even looking straight out from the top of the steps, all you see is their bare trunks. You still have to look upwards to find their leaves.
One of the best bits of this garden? No, not the classical music floating down from the house, although this does bring in an even greater sense of the surreal. For me, it’s the myriad little seating spaces Anthony has selected amongst the planting. There are a couple of spots as you descend the stairs. It’s permissible to bring a book and lose yourself in it and the garden for as long as it’s open. Thinking back, I could see myself doing just that. It’s imperative you walk along to each seating area. An excellent designer – which Anthony must be, naturally – positions these spaces with great intent. They highlight a view or a focal point. A specific feature such as a stream or waterfall may lend its soft melody to the space. As a keen plantsman, like Anthony, the designer may have used the seating area to showcase a particular range of notable plants.
As with other great gardens, pathways are marked out for you, and yet there are many routes to take. The garden conceals its secrets until you’ve explored every nook and cranny.
Much of the spectacle of Hunte’s Garden derives from the dazzling and well-blended array of foliage forms. This is the greatest aspect to take away. We can achieve so much splendour before even bringing in flowers. It’s a fact tropical plants really do underline boldly. The scale varies from tremendous, variegated begonia leaves down to spreading Adiantum cuneatum (Maidenhair fern).
Nevertheless, Anthony weaves in fantastic specimens that should be admired singly. What’s even more amazing about this, for someone from cooler climes, is just what plants are growing outside all year round. There are so many reds, oranges and yellows, really heating up the exoticness of the place.
- Hibicus rosa-sinensis – a red-flowered variety here which can reach up to 3 metres in height
- Justicia brandegreeana – “Shrimp plant” – here having yellowish bracts with white flowers, although the RHS says bracts should usually be ‘shrimp-pink’
- Anthurium – Anthony has hundreds, and informed us that he was awaiting a shipment of a couple of thousand more! He even grows a wonderful purple variety, found up near the house
- Guzmania musaica – a beautifully red-and-yellow bromeliad, like a beacon blazing out of dark green corners
- Dendrobium orchids can be found in lilac and pink, flitting above the beds and pots like exotic butterflies
- Nelumbo nucifera – Sacred lotus – another softly coloured flower, set in small container pools, waiting to be discovered by the roving eye
There were other species I found magnificent but have been unable to identify as yet, so won’t try sharing incorrect information!
The ancient soaring palm trees are testament to Anthony Hunte’s aesthetic eye, and the idea that we should work with what we’ve got, primarily. We could all acquire some land and, money-permitting, begin to tear down the trees and features which define the space. But that’s just it – such elements do define a place. If they don’t cause us problems, then they should be retained and cleverly incorporated into our new plans for our gardens.
The palms at Hunte’s Gardens couldn’t be replaced or replicated in any way; that’s often the case with the Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea) at the end of our driveway, or the Oak (Quercus robur) over the bottom of the garden wall.
Even the steep banking at the end of the garden is a unique feature. I’ve read books where gardeners have simply turned it into a woodland banking, or an alpine garden if rocky.
Never overlook the existing elements of your garden. Instead consider them as a source of inspiration and as historical links.
Every Friday since June 2017 I have had the honour of doing work experience at a garden design firm based at Renishaw Hall and Gardens in Derbyshire. This fine house stands just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of housing estates and main roads. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of a tour of the hall, although did see the reception room on a bake sale morning. I’m far from dismayed, as the manicured gardens behind make up for missing out on the interior.
You can visit Renishaw into November now – an extended season – Friday to Sunday between 10:30 and 16:30. Christmas open days are also planned, so check out the official website for further information. RHS members get into the gardens for free, although parking still costs £1.
On a fine day it’s possible to while away the time enjoying the grounds, and on any day you can partake of the scrumptious food and drink served in the café (found inside the Stables Courtyard).
The exterior of Renishaw Hall may be breathtaking. The house’s interior, I hear, boasts an array of artwork and antiques. Yet it’s the property’s people that spark the interest more than anything.
The hall was constructed in the 1600s by a landowner who made his fortune in colliery and ironworks, George Sitwell, High Sheriff of Derbyshire. As with most grand houses, Renishaw has been tinkered with since. The most recent structural alterations were performed under Edward Lutyens‘ direction in 1908.
Sitwell blood still possesses Renishaw, in the form of Alexandra Hayward. A baronetcy was tied in with the property until recently, having been created for Sir Sitwell Sitwell back in 1808.
The Sitwell family had its fair share of fall-outs, with disagreements over marriages and sibling solidarity. It’s said that Osbert, 5th baronet, couldn’t forgive his brother Sacheverell, later 6th baronet, for having married.
These two were part of an infamous literary trio, along with sister Dame Edith Sitwell. Their artistic flare and outlandish manner stemmed from distant and eccentric parents. Their mother fell prey to both blackmail and debt in her lifetime, and their father George purchased an Italian castle requiring much renovation… Not to mention the expulsion of around 300 peasants sheltering in its walls.
But, when considering the gorgeous gardens at Renishaw Hall, it is Sir George Sitwell that we must thank. He ordered the formation of the Italianate grounds closest to the hall, although it took Sir Reresby, father of Alexandra, to bring them from their state of disrepair.
We’re very lucky Sir Reresby did take the time to reinvigorate the gardens, and that his daughter puts so much emphasis on maintaining them. For starters, the view of the house from the rear of the property wouldn’t be anywhere near as perfect as it is.
We enter the gardens from the timber ticket office by walking alongside some magnificent Hydrangea (some the white-blooming Annabelle, others more traditional pinks and blues). The view of the whole is cleverly hidden away at this stage, tucked behind the prominent yew hedges which divide all into smaller “rooms”.
The gothick aviary/pet cemetery is over to the right of the path, as well as access to a small woodland trail with some literary wooden cut-outs to engage young visitors. Children will also be delighted to take a look at the carved drove of hares gazing up at the moon beneath the Davidia involucrata, or “handkerchief tree”.
Beyond these you’ll come across the Agave house, a former orangery. This doesn’t quite float my boat as I’m not an Agave fan. Don’t let that put you off exploring every corner of these gardens though. One of my favourite pieces of Renishaw artwork relaxes down by the Agave house: a wooden lion. He isn’t especially majestic. I feel a sort of sadness for him, that he isn’t going to endure as long as stone, nor is he probably as meaningful as other pieces. Perhaps we all feel like that as humans from time to time.
Lee Bestall’s Silver-Gilt award garden from RHS Chatsworth Flower Show is now just behind the Yucca House. Inspired by the landscape and fine gardens of Derbyshire, this is its perfect permanent home. Its clipped yew cones harken to the high hedges of Renishaw. The eroded classical statue in the centre of the courtyard fits in alongside other sculpture. The pastel shades within each quadrangle, demarcated by box, echo the floral tones employed by Arne Maynard elsewhere here.
The Italianate terraces absolutely steal the show. Its sturdy walls are cloaked in vegetation for much of the year, softening the structure. You still feel the strength of the site beneath it all though. Tantalising glimpses into other garden rooms are offered up on the terraces. You’d be forgiven for not looking that far, however, as you focus on the plants arranged around you. There is variety for every season. Wisteria blooms earlier on, as do rows of vibrant and welcome tulips. Further into the year vines, Phlox paniculata, roses and buddleias come alive, just some of the plants soaking the senses.
There are strong architectural elements provided by foliage variety in the Italianate area too, as photos well reveal.
Potted cerulean Agapanthus watch over the lower paths from on high:
The herbaceous borders go on flowering for months, in their pastel shades of blue. These are the borders designed by Arne Maynard, and the coolness is a theme running through much of the garden. It contrasts effectively with the Italianate terraces’ hotter hues.
That said, the garden does employ vivid pinks around the fountain, in towering Oriental lilies. I don’t use lilies enough in my own planting; they always bowl me over.
The white garden hides just beyond the herbaceous borders. I say it hides, although it’s more that I never noticed it until this summer. I stumbled upon it by chance, it seemed, while eating a wrap. Classy. A large white Astilbe catches the eye at the right time of year. Actaea matsumurae “White Pearl” – I believe – holds its own alongside this, and small white dahlias glint in the recesses. Roses, this time their petals blanched, again play their part, adding scent to the foam.
If you hear the “call of the wild”, then there is a woodland walk with paths winding their way down to two lakes. The waterpower here once fuelled a sawmill, now fenced off. I’m pretty sure myself and my friend Fiona ventured into this building on our first visit years ago.
Enough of the wild though; that doesn’t do much for me at Renishaw, even if it does serve as a pleasant palate cleanser between garden rooms.
The first and simplest inspiration granted by Renishaw Hall is the use of lighter plastic containers to house plants. The gardeners here keep the Agapanthus in plastic tubs, but these are sat within decorative stone pots on the Italianate terraces when summer comes. This allows us to change our displays much more quickly and less messily.
On a larger scale, the greatest point to take away from Renishaw, for me, is lining up your views. We should ponder carefully where windows and doors are in the house, and what we want to look at across from that. Something should always draw the eye instantly, but then the edges should also come into focus. It’s not by chance that Renishaw’s fountain is lined up with the rough centre of the hall, the wide steps from the herbaceous borders, the yew hedge portals and the semicircular bastion overlooking the fields beyond.
A limited colour theme is another aspect of Renishaw to keep in mind. If you’re a plantaholic like me, it’s all too easy to throw a menagerie of lovely plants together. This is often regardless of colour, unless you really despise a certain shade. I hear orange has its enemies… There is a real power to restricting palette. It makes the garden cohesive, like it has all been carefully considered beforehand. It turns passionate abandon into refined artistry.
Colour limitation also avoids confusion. It can be overwhelming walking into a garden of riotous, rebellious colour. Nothing in particular is noticeable, therefore we can leave said space feeling empty. Unsatisfied.
Align these two elements – strong lines of sight and limited colours – and our gardens can be strong statement pieces worthy of quiet contemplation. Until the prosecco starts flowing…
Which other gardens can you visit and find yourself walking leisurely from one country to another? Biddulph Grange is that garden. Of course, all gardens in modern times are a journey across continents. Even our most pedestrian suburban plots probably have several international guests. Rudbeckia […]
How can we add more hours to the day? A question I keep posing to myself regularly at the moment – the answer, of course, impossible.
The reason for this pondering: I’ve found a new lease on life and there’s just so much out there to be enjoyed! I guess I could just as easily ask “how to add more money to my life to do these things” too. However, then one risks losing even more time, by living to work and not vice versa.
I stole 20 minutes or so on Friday while doing work experience to wander round a Renishaw Hall’s gardens. Of course, not much had altered since my visit the previous Sunday, except for a lack of visitors in comparison. I always love having somewhere more to myself on day trips. Selfish of me, I know. I managed to stumble into Renishaw’s small white garden: simple but satisfying, with its paired arbours and slightly different sundials.
Renishaw’s gardeners were employing that useful tactic – which I never manage – of growing plants in lightweight containers, and then dropping them into less mobile pots around the garden to eye catching effect. Take for example the Agapanthus:
Open gardens are becoming a teeny bit of an addiction for Matt and me currently. There were a couple of delights to be had by legitimately snooping around others’ gardens this weekend.
The first visit was on early Saturday afternoon, at Laskey Farm in Thelwall. It’s an odd place to turn up to. You feel you’re driving into a farm, in that it seems to be a working site, which it is. But it doesn’t have tractors and pigs everywhere. Instead its smaller outbuildings are offices and workspaces.
The garden belongs with the main property – the owners of the whole place. One of the owners is an ex-teacher who retrained in garden design and who now works with a friend as the Secateurs Sisters. The garden is on the whole very attractive. I particularly liked the Mediterranean courtyard when you first walk through the gate, and the small prairie garden is pleasing too.
There is a koi pond which struck a chord with me for two reasons. The first was that it was cleverly fed by water undulating down from a terrapin pit, through a bog garden, before entering the pure fish pool. Secondly, and more straightforwardly, is that my dad built a koi pond at the house I spent my primary years in. I loved those fish. Soothing to watch, and beautiful.
I did find the clear glass and chrome finish barrier around the koi pond a shame, though. I got it from a safety point-of-view, but in my eyes, it clashed with the traditional materials and informality elsewhere, and detracted from the scenery. It was a shock to the senses.
All was followed up with Campari, prosecco, cake baking (Nigella’s lemon polenta and a giant Jaffa cake) and Moulin Rouge at Matt’s, taking us through to more-or-less midnight.
On to open garden number two: the eight manicured and 37 wilder acres of Abbeywood Estate. This felt more like stepping back into the 20s or 50s, with the style of the stunning house and the woodlands dotted about. It’s the prairie garden and the outdoor exotic garden which brings one back to modernity.
It’s hard to know where to start when describing the highlights of Abbeywood. It has to be my favourite garden visited so far in life. For a couple of years now that title has been held by East Ruston Old Vicarage in Norfolk. They’re neck-and-neck, but Abbeywood has clinched it by the sheer exuberance of its tropical garden. This is what smacks you in the face when you walk out of the cafe doors. It’s stunning in its own right, but even more importantly, it’s a brashly embroidered curtain over the rest of the land beyond its borders.
We walked around to the hen coops and veg-cum-cutting garden (they run a cut flower shop). Wow. A sea of dahlias, herbs, and cottage garden plants. The polytunnel houses some fantastic and inviting tomatoes, and short coppiced eucalyptus with arrow- and saucer-shaped leaves.
The prairie garden, overlooking some lovely hills beyond, is artfully shaped and stuffed full of grasses big and small. These support the varied flowering perennials like rudbeckia, helenium, echinacea and verbena. Brilliant.
The pool garden is serene and stately. Nothing over-the-top. It was a marvellous melange of Edwardian herbaceous beds and Moorish water and symmetry. One other point to note: their pots were planted up fantastically! I had container envy…
We topped off our Sunday by dashing over to Offerton for the “after party” of Teddy’s christening (the little boy of Matt’s friends, Becky and Dave). The cakes I’d baked seemed to go down nicely, and I’ll readily confess that the buffet food and glasses of prosecco went down well with me!
Here’s a quick question for you all: which aspect of the two gardens shown above do you most admire? Exotic, prairie, or pool garden? How about Renishaw’s Italianate style, or Laskey Farm’s Mediterranean courtyard?