George Plumptre enjoys the grounds of a Tudor farmhouse that was the former home of Lord Baden-Powell. Photographs by Clive Nichols.
The most celebrated occupant of Little Mynthurst Farm, Surrey, was Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement. He moved there during the First World War and, although his only record of the place appears to have been a charming watercolour showing a typically Edwardian family garden scene, his wife, Olave, described their arrival in her memoir, Window On My Heart. ‘We looked at a number of properties during the next few months and eventually settled on Little Mynthurst Farm near Horley, a dear quaint fifteenth-century place… We took it on a short lease and moved there in September of 1917 – with three children, the staff, three dogs, two doves, pigeons, rabbits, ducks, chickens and goldfish!’
Without doubt, the most distinguished contribution to the garden, elevating it from the rambling setting for the old house that had evolved over centuries, came 60 years later in 1976, when the garden designer Russell Page was commissioned by the then owners, Mr and Mrs Stone. There have been alterations to Page’s designs and plantings in the ensuring years, but his contribution pulled the 12-acre garden together with a structure that flowed around the house and gave it the character of a mid-20th-century English country garden, examples of which are relatively scarce in his oeuvre.
Page has usually been regarded as the most elegant of mid-20th-century English garden designers, largely because his reputation was built on his work for a chic international clientele – especially in France – and on his admired memoir, The Education of a Gardener. However, as the title suggests, he considered himself a gardener first and designer second – he would always join in the actual planting in the gardens that he designed – and this is perhaps most obvious in his English gardens.
His most significant addition to the garden at Little Mynthurst was a walled garden to the west of the house that was built from scratch and which he designed and planted.
Much of his work remains here (with alterations to the planting detail). Its features include a generously deep, double herbaceous border on either side of the main path that leads in from the iron gateway opposite the house and a pattern of square beds planted with a variety of roses and, in particular, an immaculate group of hornbeams, clipped into distinctive cones.
Like the work of all good designers, many of Page’s special touches in the walled garden are not immediately obvious, such as the delightful shaded walk in one corner, where shrubs, including philadelphus and deutzias, spread over both sides of the path beneath rows of crab apples. His discerning plantsmanship is demonstrated by a luxuriantly large specimen of the superb midsummer-flowering clematis, C. x triternata Rubromarginata. Planted against the wall to one side of the iron gateway, it now covers both sides of the wall with its distinctive purple-edged, small, star-shaped flowers.
On the other side of the house, Page used the long, low façade of the building to plan his most characteristic addition to the garden: a smart formal area in the foreground with a spacious view stretching away across sloping lawn to a lake, shaded by an ancient oak tree. The formal area was originally a rose garden; more recently, it has been simplified into an elegant parterre – still framed by Page’s original yew hedges – but with two squares of simple box patterns on either side of immaculate lawn.
On the sloping grass beyond and around the lake, a selection of now maturing ornamental trees were almost certainly suggested by Page, including a fine Pterocarpus as well as Liquidambar, Nothofagus, a pair of Metasequoias and the unusual golden-leaved fastigiate beech, Fagus sylvatica Dawyck Gold.
The iron gateway at this end of the terrace leads into the walled kitchen garden, which has recently been cleverly redesigned to create a series of square and triangular beds carefully planned to give easy access and to be filled with a single crop. The immaculate beds are filled with a variety that includes potatoes, beans, artichokes and salads and the rows of soft fruit confirm how rewarding a well-designed garden for fruit and vegetables can be, especially when the network of paths allows you to get in among the pattern of beds.
As well as the mouthwatering beds of produce and others filled with annuals for cutting, the kitchen garden has the luxury of an impressive variety of glasshouses, with contents that are both tender and exotic. At one end, a new building is divided into five areas kept at different temperatures for tomatoes, vines, peaches, nectarines and apricots and orchids.
Elsewhere, the hothouse has most of the real exotica, in particular, Stephanotis jasminoides, the luxuriant Madagascar jasmine, which is trained up one wall and twined along the roof beams.
Mark Dobell, head gardener at Little Mynthurst for nearly 25 years, confirmed that, since Page’s time, changing ownership had occasionally led to ups and downs in the garden’s fortunes, but, since the present owner took over in 2011, there has been visible rejuvenation. In some cases, there has been replanting, as in the long Rose Walk, where alternating Adélaïde d’Orléans and Madame Alfred Carrière trained over metal arches are underplanted with David Austin shrub roses.
The Rose Walk leads to the gate out to the Secret Garden, a peaceful dell with banks of deciduous azaleas and hostas with pools of sunlight between the shade cast by mature trees.
Most prominent, however, has been the addition of some impressive formal bedding, in particular, the single-colour displays of petunias and fibrous-rooted begonias beneath the pergola, along the main house terrace and in the parterre. Another new display – my favourite – was a long L-shaped bed in front of one glasshouse, planted with specimen dahlias in a coordinated pattern: 50 plants in all, meticulously repeating the same pattern from each end to the middle.
For someone with a reputation for restrained smartness, it is perhaps surprising that Page was an enthusiast for carefully chosen summer bedding. In The Education of a Gardener, he wrote of his own imaginary garden, in beds planted in spring with tulips, forget-me-nots and bachelor’s buttons: ‘In summer I shall plant these beds with thick patches of half-hardy annuals.’ One feels that, today, he would look fondly over the garden on which he had worked 40 years ago and applaud the way in which its new ebullience has enhanced, not obscured, the long-established rural peace that so attracted the Baden-Powells a century ago.
A gardener’s garden.
Charles Quest-Ritson talks about dahlias, once so unloved, and how they enjoying a surge of popularity.
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