For sheer romance and, given its coastal location, a surprising amount of shelter, it would be hard to beat this luxuriantly planted and colourful Scottish garden. By Non Morris, with photographs by Val Corbett.
In summer, driving seawards along the narrow road that leads to the 17th-century Scots tower house, you might well be distracted by the ordered, yellowing fields stretched out on either side and by an arc of clear blue sea with slightly paler blue sky above, luring you on through a thin screen of trees. Wormistoune, a deliciously narrow, turreted house situated just north of Crail, at the eastern tip of Fife and surrounded on two sides by sea, has been adapted and improved upon over the centuries and has been home to Baron and Lady Wormistoune and their children since 1993.
Both house and garden have been painstakingly restored over the past 20 or so years and the warm-ochre lime wash of the lime-harled main house and different outbuildings add a layer of welcome to the arriving visitor.
Head Gardener Katherine Taylor is standing in the middle of a saltire-shaped box parterre next to the pretty stable block when I meet her. The parterre beds are planted loosely with blues, purples and whites: graciously collapsing catmint, silvery cardoons and softly towering grasses. The colours and textures are confident yet gentle against the chalky apricot of the wall behind. ‘For spring, there are brunneras, hellebores, scillas and snowflakes,’ she explains.
Trained at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and inspired by her experience of naturalistic planting at nearby Cambo, Katherine is a thoughtful and gently experi-mental gardener who is relishing every new opportunity offered by the garden at Wormistoune and enjoying a happy and collaborative relationship with its enthusiastic owners.
We walk towards the seaward wall, against which a stretch of immaculately lattice-trained crab apples mark the good-looking beginnings of an elegant Belgian fence. At the centre of the wall, set in chunky stone (the garden walls were rebuilt using stone recycled from demolished Victorian additions to the main house), is a moon gate that frames the double herbaceous borders in the Walled Garden.
The sight of those borders is dazzling and ridiculously uplifting, due to the intensity of clashing electric greens and pinks, from Alchemilla mollis and Geranium psilostemon, their colours further enriched by the deep blue of G. x magnificum and vivid yellow highlights of Lysimachia punctata.
Once you’re inside the Walled Garden, the extended sweep of colour ahead is dizzyingly delightful to walk through. It’s almost a relief to discover from Katherine that the plants are grown through netting, which explains the almost impossible upright perfection of even the airy, 6ft-high, deep-pink sidalcea and the equally tall (often irritatingly wayward) Thalictrum flavum subsp. glaucum.
In winter, the beds are cut right down to the ground and thickly mulched with composted bark. The borders are unashamedly at their best in midsummer, but must look wonderful in late spring, too, planted with masses of yellow tulips, when the elegant, canary-yellow Mrs John T. Scheepers and the richer-yellow Golden Apeldoorn rise up from the fresh-green foliage of the perennials.
The second surprise of the day is that, as soon as you step through the Moon Gate and emerge from the abundant bower of Rosa banksiae Lutea that’s draped above it, you are stopped in your tracks by a satisfying sense of order and balance. Tucked into the wall on each side is a handsome, ogee-roofed pavilion, designed for the garden by the Edinburgh-based conservation architect Simpson & Brown. The company collaborated closely with the family during the restoration of both house and garden, the aim being a comfortable mix of traditional formality and a more contemporary softness.
The pavilions are modelled on similar ones at Melville House near Cupar, which date from 1697. Here at Wormistoune, a slim rill running between broad flagstones links a pair of rectangular ponds at the foot of each pavilion. The sound of running water is inviting and the ponds are planted simply and effectively with architectural plants: waterlilies, flag irises and spiky-leaved water soldiers (Stratiotes aloides).
There are subtle differences between the pavilions to mark each out as male or female: a gilded hen weather vane for one and a cockerel shaped one for the other; curvy or sharp-edged leadwork on the respective roofs and differences in the decorative terracing at the base of each pavilion. The ‘female’ one has a paved area of concentric semi-circles of cobbles, where self-seeding thymes help to create a timeless, settled feel. The ‘male’ pavilion has ‘sun rays’ made of tightly packed, locally sourced pantiles, a nod perhaps to the nests of terracotta pots Lutyens sunk into the terraces at Hestercombe to create circular decorations.
A very sheltered feeling within the Walled Garden is enhanced by the fine yew hedges that flank the central herbaceous borders and give structure and protection throughout the garden. ‘It can be a howling gale out there, but quite calm inside,’ explains Katherine as she leads me from the central border through to Bella’s Garden, a comfortable garden room with generous borders around a circular lawn. It’s named after Bella Gardiner-Hill, a previous owner of the house, who began the renovation of the garden.
The plant palette is delicate and romantic with Rosa The Generous Gardener and the cowslip-scented Clematis rehderiana trained against the stone walls and some particularly lovely combinations: the pale, scented peony Sarah Bernhardt nestles among elegant stems of Salvia pratensis Pink Delight and upright structure is provided by the neat, steel-coloured heads of Eryngium x zabelii Jos Eijking and Nectaroscordum siculum with its pretty bell-shaped flowers.
At the threshold of Bella’s Garden, I step over a tight slate mosaic of a serpent’s tail in the lawn, its mouth being found in the form of a waterspout in the Griselinia Shade Garden on the opposite side of the central path. It’s a whimsical play on the idea that the ‘worm’ of Wormistoune might perhaps have been an ancient serpent-dragon.
The Griselinia Garden is the perfect pausing place on a hot day. It’s not known why a quartet of the fast-growing seaside shrub Griselinia littoralis was planted here during the 1940s, but the shrubs have become substantial, spreading trees. With careful three-yearly pruning, they now fill an entire garden room and offer a surprising and rather magical area of dappled shade.
From the Griselinia Garden, you step into the Kitchen Garden, Lady Wormistoune’s favourite part of all. Here, the sides of the yew hedges have been softly sculpted into rounded niches and a self-seeded Echium pininana towers louchely, lending a dash of Mediterranean energy and a playful contrast to the cone-shaped bay trees. The neat, box-edged beds are full of potatoes, herbs and flowers for cutting. There are inviting chairs and tables to sit at and the ground is carpeted with crushed seashells, which crunch lightly underfoot, confirming the connection with the sea and giving the place a gentle, ethereal quality.
On the opposite side of the central border is the Fairy Garden, a gentle wildflower meadow, knee-high with ox-eye daisies and Dachtylorhiza orchids around old apple, damson and medlar trees, into which Katherine is training roses such as Paul’s Himalayan Musk. There are two living willow ‘thrones’ set in the long grass and, behind them, is the experimental Theatre Border. Here, richly coloured dahlias and Antirrhinum Liberty Classic Crimson are grown with the long-lasting, lime-green Euphorbia oblongata, against the dark leaves of Corylus maxima Purpurea and the even darker-leaved elder Sambucus nigra Black Lace.
In spring, this garden is carpeted with snake’s-head fritillaries, cowslips and primroses. Against the garden wall, a further Fire Border is filled with asters, crocosmias, achillea and the wonderful rust-coloured foxglove Digitalis ferruginea to extend the season into late summer.
Beyond the walled garden, there has been considerable work recently to renovate the lochan – a small lake – and to develop and improve the woodland and wildflower meadows that surround it.
Baron Wormistoune’s favourite place to sit is on a bench at the far side of the lochan. On a still day, the charming, ochre-coloured house is reflected in the water. He’s a lucky man.
The garden at Wormistoune House in Crail, Fife, is open by prior arrangement, with all proceeds from garden visits going to charity via Scotland’s Gardens. Telephone Katherine Taylor on 07905 938449 or email her at email@example.com.