Inspirational Gardens

Posted on: 18 November 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Gardening expert and author Pamela Westland picks her top six gardens and offers inspirational ideas for your plot.

I now know what the judges of literary competitions must feel like, having read around 100 books and then being asked to pick one winner. At least, in my case, I have been allowed to select six of the UK gardens featured in my recently-published book, Inspirational Gardens. It has not been easy. You wouldn’t expect it to be. Each of the gardens has unique qualities and is inspirational in its own way and I can empathise with them all. But I was asked to select only six, so here goes. My abject apologies to the others.

The Garden House

Buckland Monachorum, Yelverton, Devon PL20 7LQ (pictured)

I don’t suppose there is a garden in the world that ‘has everything’, but for me this captivating garden in South Devon certainly comes close.

At its heart is a two-acre walled garden created in the late 1940s by Lionel Fortescue, an avid plant collector – that’s obvious – and an Eton schoolmaster. Within the walls, the ruins of a 16th-century vicarage, reduced now to a granite tower and crumbling stone kitchen, provide a unique backdrop for cascades of wisteria, clusters of rare shrubs and species herbaceous plants in stunning colour pairings. Ramps and narrow flights of steps within the enclosure are all constructed with local stone, an important visual and environmental link with the surrounding countryside.

Beyond the walls there are equally striking colour palettes. A South African border planted by Fortescue’s chosen successor, Keith Wiley, and since replanted by Matt Bishop, the current head gardener, explodes with primary colours including red and yellow kniphofia and blue agapanthus. In a completely different mood, an acer glade spanned by an arched bridge emphasises a seemingly inexhaustible range of foliage colour. And then there is a wild flower garden, romantically, nostalgically pretty with its marriage of cream, pink, blue and mauve blooms. You can stand waist high in this luxuriant meadow and glimpse the village church, mistily, in the distance. It is breathtaking.

Inspired Idea

A ‘hot’ border like the ones in the walled garden here can be exciting in any context, especially so if it is are planted against a dark evergreen hedge or surrounded by grass. The juxtaposition of red and green is always striking. Choose from a wide range of species, dahlias, kniphofia, achillea, day lilies and salvia among them, and go for bold.


Juniper Hill, Brackley, Northants NN13 5RH

I first visited this garden when the TV series Lark Rise to Candleford was being screened, so I admit to a particular frisson because of the literary association. For it was here, in the hamlet of Juniper Hill, that Flora Thompson’s classic novel of rural life in the late 19th century was set.

Woodchippings is one of several cottages tantalisingly obscured by high hedges along a country lane. Push open the gate and one instantly puts aside any link with the bygone era portrayed. Whilst this garden clings to many horticultural traditions, it also has strong overtones of the here and now. It is ebulliently packed with uninhibited colour – roses, delphinium, poppies, eschscholzia, calendula in glorious profusion. Old roses twist, entwine and tumble around arches and fruit trees, herbs all but obscure narrow pathways, and statues form significant focal points.

It is very much a plantsman’s garden, now owned and tended by Valerie Bexley and Richard Bashford. For me, the three most memorable plant species happen to be three of Richard’s particular passions.

From late winter the garden comes alive with hellebores in every shade from primrose yellow through softest pink to dusky purple. Hybridised from seed strains he develops, they all have the cultivar name ‘Juniper Hill’. Visit the garden from spring to late summer and you discover that day lilies are another of Richard’s passions, their stately forms and vibrant colours maintaining continuing interest in flower beds as other species come and go. And in summer, walking through the orchard pathways, I find myself captivated by the yellow and orange mecanopsis flowers, like so many prisms catching and holding the sun’s rays. How I wish I could grow them as successfully!

Inspired Idea

Statues in the Woodchippings garden are positioned with such apparent informality that they seem to have settled there of their own accord. A boy piper nestles against an ivy-covered hedge; a young girl seems just to have stopped by in the woodland, and a cherub is romantically cloaked in old roses. Here is the artistry. The statues, so carefully placed, give height and form, solidity and clarity to a many-coloured floral tapestry.

Helter Skelter Garden

Junction of Sussex Gardens and Edgware Road, near Marble Arch, London W2

This is an all-year-round garden, as sparkling with raindrops and pale sunlight, frost and snow in winter as it is with dew and the golden light of summer.

Created by Tony Heywood of Conceptual Gardens in an area of former wasteland measuring only about 10m (33ft) by 8m (26ft) it exemplifies both abstract art and modern, minimalist architecture. This is not a garden with a view. The garden is the view, designed to be absorbed, lingeringly, from the pavement.

The highlight, in the literal sense, is a highly-polished, marine steel curve, a structure that captures and enhances the changing reflections, representing the constant movement of the busy streets outside.

The garden is created almost entirely with natural ‘hard’ materials, striking evergreen shrubs and decorative grasses. Sheets of slate like giant sails appear to be carried down a river of blue glass chippings; a central pool of gurgling water creates its own sounds and reflections; stone monoliths lean this way and that, and clipped yew domes and clusters of hummocky grasses provide verdant contrast.

Here, then, in Central London is a garden that evokes the rhythm of rushing water and the timelessness of rock and stone and contrasts them with the formality of shaped evergreens. It is definitely worth a look.

Inspired Idea

The drifts, curves and swathes created in the Helter Skelter garden give a feeling of urgency and activity, an allegory it seems for the busy urban life beyond its boundaries. And yet, with the restrained use of colour – mainly blue, green and neutrals – there is also tranquillity. In a small backyard or restricted front garden either approach would prove to be a talking point.

Bayleaf - Weald & Downland Open Air MuseumBayleaf Farmstead

Singleton, Chichester, West Sussex, PO 18 0EU

There’s history and practicality every step of the way in the Bayleaf garden, and inspiration in spades. I love the carefree, higgledy-piggledy way roots and shoots, fruit and flowers intermingle, with no apparent blueprint to determine colour co-ordination or space allocation; at least, if there is, no-one told the marigolds.

The garden wraps casually around a half-timbered 15th-century Kentish house, rescued from demolition and re-erected in West Sussex as part of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. It is an authentic look back in time to cottage gardens over four centuries ago, when every plant had a purpose and there was no place for the purely decorative.

Brush your sleeve against a clump of teasels and you are reminded that the spiky heads were used to comb (tease) wool. Crush aromatic thyme underfoot and recall that herbal tisanes were offered to ease coughs and colds. Be dazzled by those orange and yellow marigolds and wonder why we don’t use them more today, as medieval cooks did, to flavour, colour and prettily garnish food.

As I wander round this charming and oh-so-painterly garden I wonder why I ever grew any plants in soldierly rows. I don’t, now.

Inspired Idea

In a patch of your own garden, see how effective it is to further blur the distinction between edible and decorative plants. Grow scarlet-stemmed Swiss chard and ornamental cabbage amongst autumn-flowering perennials, for example or allow vibrant, peppery-tasting nasturtiums free rein to wander beneath rose bushes.

Pureland Japanese Garden

North Clifton, near Newark, Notts NG23 7AT

There is a tranquillity about this garden that instantly enfolds you, wraps around the visitor like a protective cloak against an ill wind. There is structure and form, light and shade; the sound of bubbling water and leaping fish; pavilions that afford shape and shelter, and out-of-the-way seats designed to encourage meditation.

For this is, truly, a meditative garden. It was conceived and built, almost single-handedly, by Buddha Maitreya, a Japanese monk who came to Britain in the 1970s to study, and who made this two-acre, once-brownfield site his home.
His aim was to evoke the varied scenery – the mounds and mountains, rivers and pools – of his homeland and, in so doing, to create a garden with deep religious significance.

Curving paths link separate but related outdoor rooms, each symbolic in its own way and each a tranquil haven; some paths are circular, to confuse bad spirits. Planting is lush and luxurious, a symphony of cool greens with little contrasting colour. Trees and shrubs are shaped, pruned, trimmed and clipped to become living sculptures. Tall tree trunks form natural pillars; some are stripped of their bark, others selected for the beauty of it.

After a visit to Pureland one cannot help seeing things in a new light, whether it be the living, growing forms of Nature all around, or something more profound. It is a refreshing experience.

Inspired Idea

To give a Japanese ‘feel’ to a corner of the patio or a secluded area of the garden, use natural materials for hardscaping – pebbles, stones, gravel or log slices – and create curving paths, not straight ones with corners and hard edges. Use green plants such as ferns, bamboo, evergreens and water plants lavishly and other colours sparingly. A small pool or water feature is a must, as much for the sound as for the reflections. And of course you will want to put a seat beside it.


Lower Wardington, Banbury, Oxfordshire OX17 1RU

I enjoy everything about this garden, its lack of conformity, its total individuality, its occasionally astonishing use of colour, its unique blend of would-be formal features – clipped evergreens – with wayward plants that are allowed to cloak their more restrained neighbours.

The garden slopes down away from the house, a delightful 17th-century farmhouse. There is a ground plan of moss-covered brick paths, dry stone walls and clipped box hedges, but the outlines are blurred by the soft pinks and lime greens of encroaching plants.

There are parterres enclosing clipped, flat-topped cones and clusters of stubby spheres almost lost to view behind, variously, shrub roses, dahlias, agapanthus and nicotiana, species that – so carefully planned – appear beyond control. And there is a cutting garden with the romantic appeal of an old-fashioned cottage garden, with sweet peas clambering up a wigwam row and poppies in profusion.

The Hon Mrs James Price, who has developed the garden over 15 years, chooses perennials for their good leaf shape or long flowering season and, as the garden is evolving still, is gradually replacing poor performers with golden, red and green grasses; superb value amongst, for example, Michaelmas daisies and achillea. Gina attributes much of her adventurous sense of colour to her many trips to India, using exciting combinations of primary colours, bronze and purple dappled, usually, with white.

After so many bursts of colour, suddenly the scene becomes almost monochromatic.  A wide, curving path cut through tough grass leads through a ‘gateway’ of evergreen sentinels and on, merging with the hedges, meadows and copses of the Oxfordshire countryside beyond. It is as if, at this point, the environment has claimed the garden as its own.

Inspired Idea

It was Rudyard Kipling who said (as I quote elsewhere in the book) ‘Gardens are not made by saying, ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.’ But, just occasionally, why ever not? Gina Price has positioned seats and benches not close to, but amongst the colourful beds and borders at Pettifers. What could possibly be more delightful?

Pamela Westland

Inspirational GardensYou can purchase Inspirational Gardens by Pamela Westland, published by AA and costing £25, at all good bookshops or online from Amazon for £16.25.

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