The garden at Felley Priory, Underwood, Nottinghamshire, enjoyed considerable fame a generation ago for its cohesive planting and plantsmanship, but Non Morris finds its greatness continues with the present owners. Photographs by Val Corbett

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View through a pair of yew peacocks up to the house. The arch is clothed in Rosa Blush Rambler and honeysuckle and gives a glimpse of the avenue of stilted hawthorn (Crataegus tanecetifolia)

The garden at Felley Priory is the ultimate lesson in the value of planting structural hedges as soon you move into a new house. Now, more than 40 years since Bobby and Maria Chaworth-Musters first moved into their Nottinghamshire home, the garden, which wraps gently around the pretty, many-chimneyed, 16th-century house, delights as a richly layered space.

Its fine borders are embraced by perfectly clipped hedges of yew and box, which provide a breathtakingly beautiful rhythm to this 2½ acres of garden, nestling in idyllic rolling farm and woodland.

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The transformation of this little-touched site (when the owners arrived in 1973, there was a single existing section of yew hedge, a high boundary wall and some pillars thought to be part of the original 12th-century priory) has ensured Mrs Chaworth-Musters a ‘place high up in the ranks of modest, untrained but gifted amateur garden makers who have made such a contribution to the creation of English country house gardens since the beginning of the 20th century,’ records George Plumptre in his recent book, The English Country House Garden.

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Mrs Chaworth-Musters set out her young hedge plants—as well as her ever-growing collection of exquisite specimen trees and shrubs—in the time-honoured way, using her children to stand in for incoming plants and move ‘two steps to the left’, recounts the current custodian, her stepson-in-law, Thomas Brudenell.

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He tells me that his late father, Edmund Brudenell (of Deene Park Northamptonshire) wondered if the hedges were planted too close to the house.

‘I don’t think they are at all,’ he adds, going on fondly to show me a champion Californian tree poppy  (Romneya coulteri) which is so happy in its sunny, west-facing position beside the conservatory that it ‘comes through the wall, into the drawing room’.

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View to the house from the pond, with pale-pink-flowered rodgersia on the far bank in front of Salix purpurea Nancy Sanders

Certainly, the proximity and sheltering quality of the hedging give each part of the garden the nurtured and intimate feel that make it such a friendly place to visit and have surely enabled the garden to move on and develop so comfortably in the past few years, following the death of its inspiring creator in 2010.

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Of course, some things have barely needed to change. There is an exemplary timelessness to the way the house itself is clothed.

Perhaps the spring-flowering Rosa banksiae Lutea has been ‘allowed to extend more broadly’ over its south-facing back wall, explains head gardener Lindsey Ellis, but it’s pruned as immaculately as ever and makes a wonderfully sculptural padded frame to window and door.

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A bay tree is tightly clipped to form a double-storey buttress in one corner and there’s a cheerful, dancing row of the deep-pink Rosa John Clare (which flowers with the ‘remarkable continuity’ promised by David Austin) under the drawing-room window.

A gorgeous mauve-flowered Abutilon x suntense Jermyns has rocketed up to the eaves, breaking any idea that this is a garden frozen in an over-polite past.

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On the terrace, an old stone trough by the garden door filled with dianthus, tiny alliums and the delicate wiry-stemmed autumn snowflake (Acis autumnalis) deepens the sense that this remains a personal and much-loved garden.

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The Left Border

Elsewhere, radical change has been non-negotiable. The walled Rose Garden was described in June 1996 as the ‘cosiest and most intimate rose garden I know’ by Tony Venison.

It was the fragrant home to an enormous collection of roses, but had become overgrown and diseased, so, in 2011, it was cleared and the soil replaced to make room for new roses in the same, sheltered space of tennis-court dimensions.

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The new scheme is more disciplined. Roses are planted in groups of two or three for impact, but this area has the same romantic, highly scented, old-fashioned ideal. Voluptuous clouds of blue-and-white Viola cornuta have replaced lavender as an edging plant, a clever and long-lasting solution, and the eight weeks of hard graft-pruning and training in January and February are repaid when a dreamy-looking visitor emerges sighing: ‘It’s heaven in there.’

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For the most part, however, the garden has evolved gently, guided by Miss Ellis’s passionate and thoughtful approach and her straightforward way of finding a happy route between ‘what Mrs Musters would have liked’ (‘more specimen-y things, properly labelled’) and the preference of Mr Brudenell and his wife, Amanda, for a fuller, more romantic atmosphere (‘we’ve underplanted things a lot more in the past few years’).

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Miss Ellis has worked in the nursery and garden at Felley for more than 20 years and knew her former boss well: ‘Mrs Musters was brilliant. She would always be in the garden, every day, even at night time.  You would come round the corner in the morning and find a pile of cuttings.’

In many parts of the garden, time has led to a naturally fuller, more mature feel. Just as the notoriously slow-to-get-going, evergreen climber Pileostegia viburnoides now coats the house walls gloriously with its dark leaves and panicles of cream flowers, so a mulberry tree planted in 1980 spreads out contentedly on the upper lawn.

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The Purple Border: Stachys macrantha Superba, Allium Miami, Achillea Summer Berries, Mathiasella bupleuroides Green Dream, Veronica Pink Damask

The Shrubbery, full of wonderful magnolias, sorbus and the exquisitely scented Heptacodium miconioides (time and again in this garden, you find yourself observing that Mrs Chaworth-Musters was a lady with a fantastic eye), is now being thinned out and extended, offering the chance to select new magnolias, parrotias and witch hazels, which will soon have the same ‘swingy’ mown paths as the existing Shrubbery and offer swathes of snowdrops, fritillaries and camassia for spring.

As I take in the rounded border against the low, moss-covered wall at the bottom of the garden, which bulges with mature tree peonies, hellebores, hostas and pulmonaria, Miss Ellis gives me a whistle-stop tour of the seasons. The garden is open all year round and there’s always something to tempt visitors.

There are 60 varieties of snowdrop in this border alone; an upper orchard spectacularly underplanted with narcissus; a secluded bluebell wood over the rolling field beyond the garden; and a glamorous tulip border in which a velvety mix of purple tulips (Arabian Mystery, Negrita, Caravelle and Cum Laude) are grown among the vivid greens of Euphorbias polychroma and cornigera.

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There is a small, trellis-fenced White Garden, for which planting lists are regularly requested, and a surprise Purple Border, embraced in a sofa-like frame of yew, home to a shifting celebration of alliums and choice plants such as Lunaria annua Chedglow, with chocolate leaves and lilac flowers.

And then there are the Double Borders themselves, always with the backdrop of velvety yew. Here, the colours are soft for most of the season—pink, white and blue ‘with a little bit of apricot because I’m a great fan of the way geums make other colours sing,’ explains Miss Ellis. Her current favourite is Geum Blood Orange, which has pale yellow-orange petals, fine red veining and deep red stems.

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There are slate-blue and cobalt-blue delphiniums, which have been in the borders for decades, as has the rosebay willow herb—white on one side and a wonderful pale pink (‘we call it Italian Beauty’) on the other. It’s a brilliant mid-height plant for adding gently upright blocks of colour. There is a succession of airy umbellifers and covetable forms of certain plants such as Knautia macedonica Felley Seedling, which ‘doesn’t flop or succumb to mildew’.

If you’re lucky, pots of these will be available to buy in the Nursery alongside carefully nurtured forms of the bronze Digitalis ferruginea or Felley-propagated specimens of the opulent Hydrangea villosa, which adds such a settled feel to various parts of the garden.

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The Left Border’s exuberant planting includes Eryngium x zabelii Big Blue, Eryngium Cobalt Blue, Geum Mrs J. Bradshaw, Achillea Paprika and Campanula lactiflora Dwarf White

A jaunty pair of hand clipped yew castles stand on guard at the top of the Double Borders. To their east, an elegant avenue of stilted hawthorn (Crataegus tanecetifolium) is joined by an immaculately chiselled barrel-hedge of yew, a snaking hedge of box and further handsome pieces: peacocks, swans and cake stands.

The topiary cumulatively guarantees that the garden at Felley Priory will look as distinguished in the snow as it does at the height of summer. It’s an uplifting garden of enduring and year-round charm, which continues to be gardened carefully, knowledgeably and from the heart.

NEED TO KNOW

  • Size Two and a half acres
  • Altitude 500ft—‘we adjoin the highest point in Nottinghamshire’
  • Climate Variable rainfall. Winters often cold with snow—‘it can get absolutely arctic’. Usually temperatures don’t fall below about –5ºC, but can be colder. Late frosts can be a problem especially for the magnolias
  • Soil: Mostly excellent, neutral, well-nurtured soil. Composted bark used generously as mulch. Some pockets of clay

Felley Priory, Underwood, Nottinghamshire (01773 810230; www.felleypriory.co.uk). The garden, nursery and tearoom are open Tuesday to Friday, year round, from 9am to 4pm as well as the first and third Sunday of each month from February 1 until October 1. The annual NCCPG Rare Plant Fairs are held on the first Sundays in June and October.