Tim Longville discovers how successive owners and artists have made their mark on the grounds of an ancient streamside property. Photographs by Val Corbett.

As a house, Chisenbury Priory, tucked away in a network of tiny lanes and villages on the edge of Salisbury Plain and close to the River Avon, was developed over several centuries and is at once extremely handsome and engagingly quirky. Nowadays, it’s accompanied and enriched by an equally handsome but quirky five-acre garden, however, one that’s been developed over decades rather than centuries.

Despite the medieval ecclesiastical origins of building here, the present house began life as a mid-17th-century, rubble-and-stone, L-shaped affair, just two storeys high. At the end of that century, additions to its north side produced an odd and unexpected, open-sided courtyard. Finally, in the middle of the following century, the south side was given a fashionably elegant three-storey brick façade, with stone dressings.

Chisenbury Priory

Fine old walls, fine old roses and a fine selection of herbaceous perennials

Where the house led, in the process of ‘layering over time’, the garden has enthusiastically followed. Sir Richard and Lady Harvey began its transformation in 1964, widening the leat from the River Avon, which winds beguilingly through the garden, and giving it stone walls and appropriate stream-side planting. Then, Mary-Anne Robb (now gardening at Cothay Manor) added more and more plants during her time there, in her characteristically exuberant style. And finally, since 1993, John and Tessa Manser have put their own stamp on its five acres, adding new areas, redesigning old ones and introducing some striking sculptures.

The garden begins with the controlled symmetry of the walled south garden – in effect, an entrance court. Here, two late-season borders, designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, are full of thalictrums, aconitums, dieramas, sedums, kniphofias and Eremurus (one of Mr Manser’s favourite plants). Facing each other across a gravelled drive and a grass plat, the composition makes an ideal setting for the 18th-century south front of the house.

Chisenbury Priory

The handsome, 18th-century brick-and-stone front of the house needs only the simplest of settings

Pass through a modest doorway to the east of the house, however, and you are, all at once, in a very different world; one of richly romantic planting, the design of whose many different areas often includes elements both of fantasy and of humour. As Mr Manser himself says: ‘This is not a garden with a prescribed route. It’s one to wander around, exploring its various nooks and crannies.’ And, he adds firmly: ‘Gardens should have a sense of humour. Even a bit of whimsy doesn’t go amiss.’

Evidence of this is strikingly demonstrated once you enter the main walled north garden and are confronted by a long, winding, twisting structure: part pergola, part skele-tal prehistoric monster. Designed by the sculptor Diane Maclean and constructed by Paul Elliott, it ‘rhymes with’ the twists and turns of the leat in the distance and blocks of yew between each of its ‘legs’ help anchor it to mundane reality and pink and white roses and Clematis viticella varieties provide its seasonal ‘flesh.’

Chisenbury Priory

The alliums that had dominated the south borders give way to Gladiolus communis subsp byzantinus and roses, then eremurus

Beyond, the main lawn slopes gently away to the west, where a pair of quinces and a Cornus kousa Chinensis signal the point at which the leat disappears through the wall to make its way from the Avon. Along both sides of the leat are beds densely planted with a discriminating selection of moisture-lovers (including Gunnera manicata, rodgersias, hostas, Rheum palmatum, ligularias, Iris sibirica, persicaria and bistort).

The organisation of these beds is by contrasts of shape rather than by colour and that’s equally true in the shrub border on the far side of the leat. It runs southward along the boundary wall and leads to a long narrow grassed area known as the Bowling Alley that’s defined on one side by a row of ancient espaliered apples and on the other by a bed of every possible colour-form of Geranium phaeum. Its focal point is a striking lifesize female nude by the late Gerald Laing.

Chisenbury Priory

Diane Maclean and Paul Elliott’s dramatic sculptural pergola that twists and turns in harmony with the leat. Pink and white roses and Clematis viticella provide ‘seasonal flesh’ and box between each of its legs anchors it

Another, smaller Laing nude, of a girl washing her hair, is positioned in the middle of the leat, where large trees add to the air of watery romance. One of those trees has a fine stone seat surrounding it, with a dedication to Esau, a much-loved and missed dog, complete with an inscription in ‘pre-canine’ (the lettering was carved by Emma Lavender).

Indeed, dogs feature quite as largely here as naked ladies. Another, Flora, is one of the stars of a suitably seasonal frieze covering the walls of the summer dining room.

Chisenbury Priory

Here, where the leat passes through the southern wall of the north garden, is a cluster of smaller gardens, including a sunny sheltered Secret Garden and a ‘Stone Garden’, the circular pool in which is surrounded by a tapestry of varied foliage, the flowers mostly in shades of  yellow, white and blue and the whole is guarded by two redundant lions from the House of Lords.

There is a rare nod to colour-theming in the shape of a White Garden (its curving borders are full of white alliums, violas, foxgloves, thalictrums, Geranium phaeum Album and Nepeta racemosa Snow Queen), with the striking centrepiece of an abstract sculpture by Johannes von Stumm. The box-hedged beds of the Parterre Garden, with a central rose arbour by Paul Elliott, are both sculptural and practical.

Chisenbury Priory

A bridge by the same craftsman leads over the leat into the wild west garden. Here, the only formal bed is along the outside of the north garden’s southern wall, which is devoted to what Mr Manser describes as ‘a paean to Phlomis russeliana’, although its massed whorled yellow flowers are enriched by a scattering of self-seeded mauve and purple alliums.

Indeed, throughout the garden, Mr Manser is happy to tolerate and sometimes even encourage self-seeders, as they give the garden the relaxed atmosphere he prefers. Mostly, however, ‘I do try to keep the wild garden properly wild,’ simply allowing fritillaries, pyramidal orchids and cowslips to occupy the expanses of long grass, through which occasional paths are mown.

Chisenbury Priory

Even here, he can’t resist either the shock of contrast or the sheer fun of a visual joke. As for the first: beyond the duck pond in the garden’s westernmost corner, the generally ‘natural’ mood is suddenly broken by a planting of vividly red acers.

As for the second: not only do the ducks have in the middle of their pond an elaborately oriental duck house, but, emerging out of the pondside planting, is a sculptural monster (‘by a Canadian lady living in Provence; I can’t remember her name’).

Mr Manser’s own characteristic summary is that ‘sometimes, gardening is just an exercise in frustration’, but it’s equally clear that, at other times, it’s a source of enormous enjoyment and satisfaction.

Chisenbury Priory

John Manser’s gardening lore

  • My favourite plants are geraniums, because they come in so many different heights, forms and colours; campanulas, for much the same reasons; and viburnums, because they’re long-flowering, hardy, obliging, many are scented and they come in many different forms
  • Gardens are sculptures in themselves and, like sculptures, they depend on contrasts of form and texture. Those are far more important and long-lasting than flowers
  • A garden should flow. It’s something to walk around, to explore, so I don’t like gardens of ‘rooms’, which cut off one section from the next. Instead, I think in terms of areas, one leading naturally into the next
  • I approve of self-seeders such as poppies and alliums, because they help a garden to look healthy and relaxed. On the other hand, there’s a world of difference between looking relaxed and being out of control. Pruning is important. Always walk round your garden with your secateurs in your hand

NEED TO KNOW

  • Size: Five acres
  • Soil: Chalk
  • Height: 200ft
  • Climatic problems: ‘We’re on the edge of Salisbury Plain, so this is a cold garden’

The garden at Chisenbury Priory, East Chisenbury, Wiltshire, opens most years for the NGS – visit www.ngs.org.uk