Blackdykes, in North Berwick, is on a plot barely a mile from the sea that took a huge amount of thought and planning from its beginnings 25 years ago. That effort is now paying off, explains Non Morris – with photographs by Val Corbett.
In 1992, Hew Dalrymple returned to his native East Lothian with his wife, Janey, and their young children, with a plan to transform an unmodernised, early-19th-century farmhouse, about a mile from the coast, into a handsome family home. ‘It was a plain house in a sea of arable farmland,’ recounts Janey, with a charming grin.
We’re sitting in a scented corner of the formal Top Garden, looking out over the elongated fingers of shadow cast by an avenue of fine Irish yews that lead out from the house between glamorously colourful borders.
‘The house was completely exposed to excoriating east winds,’ she adds.
‘There was a section of beech hedge on the drive, but there was nothing else, not even a wall.’
As the house was elegantly expanded and unified with gentle off-white and moorland- green paintwork, Janey got to work on the garden.
Visits to Hadspen, Kiftsgate, Barnsley House and the gardens of Julian and Isabel Bannerman were subtly absorbed for their structure, the comfortable division of a family garden into a series of sheltered rooms and their celebratory approach to plants.
A two-pronged approach was adopted. The south-facing Top Garden, next to the house, was laid out to be enjoyed as soon as possible, with ‘titchy’ Irish yews, skinny yew hedging and the creation of East and West herbaceous borders. This was quickly followed by a handsome stone wall and steps down to the Rose Parterre.
At the same time, the Dalrymples began to tackle the issue of shelter, planting hundreds of tree plugs – oaks, beech, alder – in the outer part of the garden and, the following year, adding windbreak fencing to tackle the buffeting effect of the bitter, prevailing wind.
‘It took forever – 12, 15 years, perhaps – for things to take off and for the garden to grow into something meaningful,’ explains Janey, but, despite the slow progress (with additional challenges from deer and demanding pockets of sticky clay), planting continued to create the bones of the wonderful garden that eventually emerged.
Hedges of box and beech were added – including a fine curved beech hedge that frames the parking area at the north side of the house – and two allées, one of stilted hornbeam and one of yew, which lead outwards to layered views of fields and the coast beyond.
For Janey, the creation of the formal areas at Blackdykes felt straightforward and intuitive, but she has found the wilder area beyond to be a constant challenge. Almost as soon as the shelter belt had begun to make its effect felt, the trees began to need careful thinning and editing: ‘I mull over trees all the time. I’m in a constant dilemma about which ones to cut down.’
Now, the hard thinking and hard work – she’s helped for two days a week by gardener Mike Reid – plus, of course, an innate sense of style, are paying off.
There is now a mown path through a sheltered, relaxed woodland walk, with a seat nestled against a mature hawthorn, arching stems of her favourite pale-pink species rose Rosa setipoda and some choice young ornamental trees, such as the grey-green-leaved Sorbus hupehensis Pink Pagoda, with pink-tinged, white berries, and Cercidiphyllum japonicum for its wonderful autumn colour and scent of caramelised sugar.
There are even some magnolias – ‘third time lucky’ – which are finally surviving in their specially drained and sheltered home.
As you head back towards the house, the Informal West Garden has a gentle, orchard-like atmosphere, with crab apples underplanted with pheasant’s-eye narcissus. Against the wall, half-hidden among claret-leaved cotinus and thriving agapanthus, is a bench to catch the late-afternoon sun – seats in just the right place are, as ever, the sign of a much-loved and much-used garden.
At the end of the garden, beyond the crab apples, is a spring border with snowdrops, cyclamens, hellebores and the delicate, early-flowering narcissus Elke. ‘It’s the first thing I look at in the spring. In February, I’m up and down, wearing a path to it, then never go back again,’ explains Janey with smiling brutality – a useful quality for someone with an ambitious garden in modern times.
Nearer the house, next to the pretty, paved dining area with its surrounding walls swathed in the voluptuous stormy pink rose Albertine, there is the Pebble Mosaic Garden. Here, around a mosaic depicting the Bass Rock – which is owned by the Dalrymples – are four crisply sculpted box compartments, each filled with a standard Prunus lusitanica and Iris pallida subsp pallida, the whole surrounded by a clipped beech hedge.
On the east side of the house is a handsome mound, with views across to the Lammermuir Hills. It was created from subsoil excavated when the kitchen garden was installed.
The focus of this wonderfully sheltered area is a group of four square beds and four L-shaped outer beds all edged in luxuriant green box, which create a tone of layered softness and plenty.
The beds are filled with dahlias, sweet peas, strawberries, raspberries and beans and, against the outer hedge, the crimson-and-apricot-flushed flowers of R. mutabilis and the bright-pink peony Sarah Bernhardt glows brightly against green.
Finally, the visitor is introduced to the stars of the show at Blackdykes: the Rose Parterre and the Top Garden. The former is an inspiring, ordered space, with eight box-edged beds filled with Janey’s favourite roses.
These are chosen for their colour – they range from pale pink to velvety claret – and their excellent scent. There is Charles de Mills (her number-one choice), Fantin Latour, Tuscany Superb, Belle de Crécy, Duchesse de Montebello, Königin von Dänemark, Ispahan and Maiden’s Blush.
They’re partnered by Allium christophii and the floaty, pale-lilac geranium Mrs Kendall Clark. Majestic four-limbed arches of Sorbus aria on one side and Prunus lusitanica on the other mark the entrances and a double row of 12 beautifully shaped Crataegus x lavalleei Carrierei underplanted with Geranium macrorrhizum Ingwersen’s Variety form a smart upper tier.
The hawthorns all lean, just slightly, as a result of the ever-challenging wind, but this slight chink in the perfection adds to the overall charm – something that’s underpinned by the depth of thoughtful detail.
There are steps lined with columns of prostrate rosemary and laced with self-seeded wild strawberry and there is another perfectly placed bench – with a view to the Top Garden – flanked by the lovely green-white-flowered umbellifer, Cenolophium denudatum, which rises above beds of Viola labradorica and ferns.
The Top Garden is a triumph. The restrained combination of velvety Irish yew, lime-green Alchemilla mollis and a pair of topiary green-and-white hollies (Silver Queen) against the white and grey-green paintwork of the house has a surprising energy and the colours and towering quality of the borders in high summer are an uplifting delight. ‘When I first planted them, 20 years ago, it was rigidly blues and yellows on one side and soft pinks on the other,’ Janey recalls.
These days, there is something more subtle going on at Blackdykes: the almost dirty yellow of Thalictrum flavum ssp glaucum, dancing clouds of Crambe cordifolia, the low-level slate-purple foliage of Cerinthe major Purpurascens and pools of claret and scarlet snapdragons make an exhilarating foil to the dazzling electric blues of the delphiniums.
There are more roses, often in in-between shades, such as the apricot yellow of Buff Beauty or Phyllis Bide, which is yellow flushed with salmon pink.
In spring, the celebration begins again with tulips in elusive shot-silk colours such as Bleu Aimable and Malaika balanced by the freshness of Spring Green and the dark accents of Havran.
It’s a garden laid out so that there’s always somewhere to sit and always a view through a gently painted doorway clothed in a ridiculously floriferous rose to lure you through to the room beyond.
At the beginning of my visit, Janey suggests that the garden is perhaps rather old-fashioned. I think it possibly is – but old-fashioned in the most romantic, uplifting, comfortable way, gardened intuitively by someone who’s constantly in the garden looking, moving a plant or trying something new.
Blackdykes, North Berwick, East Lothian. Garden groups welcome by appointment – call 01620 894019 or email firstname.lastname@example.org