Riding to the rescue – how the gardens at Dowdeswell Court have been brought to life

With only lawns and shrubberies remaining of the original gardens, their rejuvenation has taken a huge amount of thought and work, but the results are spectacular says James Alexander-Sinclair.

Ah… the Cotswolds. Shoals of perfect villages with stone the colour of a Californian suntan, rolling fields and fat cattle. Roads that pass between magnificently arched mature beech trees with their newly born, lettuce-coloured leaves. Almost unbearably picturesque pubs crouch welcomingly on corners as we wander down narrow paths into deep wooded valleys and up again into the light of ridges and escarpments. In the distance, the Malvern Hills glint in the sunshine and feathery clouds flit over flocks of happy sheep.

You get the picture? Bucolic bliss at its best. In the middle of all this sits a remarkable house and garden: Dowdeswell Court, which hovers on the side of a steep hill and has been the site of much activity over the centuries. The same family lived here from about 1580 until 1900 and built the current house in the 1830s.

In 1920, a new owner removed the top floor and, soon afterwards, the estate was requisitioned by the air ministry during the Second World War. Subsequently, echoing the fate of many similar properties, there was a gentle decline as the grandeur faded and the gardens were overlooked and simplified.

Dowdeswell Court, built in the 1830s. Only lawns and shrubberies remained of the original extensive gardens. Credit: Clive Nichols

What houses such as this need are gallant knights with passion and resources galloping to the rescue and none better than Julian Dunkerton (the brain behind the clothes brand Superdry). He bought the house in 2011 and embarked on a five-year renovation programme before he and his wife, Jade Holland Cooper (founder of the eponymous clothing brand)moved into the house in 2016. Alongside extensive building work, during which pretty much every room was upended, shuffled and reassembled, they also began to get their teeth into the gardens. There was not a lot left: where once there had been kitchen gardens, rose gardens, pleasure gardens and parkland, there remained a simple layout of lawns and shrubberies — albeit with the invaluable advantage of some magnificent mature trees across the estate.

Recommended videos for you

Mr Dunkerton engaged the help of West Country designers Adam Hunt and Lulu Urquhart — known for having upset a couple of apple carts at the 2022 RHS Chelsea Flower Show by building a re-wilding garden — to help transform the grounds. At Dowdeswell, the brief was to create something exquisitely beautiful that worked with the history of the house, but was also informal and contemporary. They envisaged meadows of bulbs and spring flowers, borders, shrubberies, sweeping lawns and all manner of grasses and perennials. ‘I was hoping,’ says Mrs Dunkerton, for a garden that was both organically managed and spectacular yet somewhere that the whole family could enjoy. And it needed to perfectly marry the plants to the landscape.’

Then followed a great deal of turmoil, with diggers buzzing around creating a new approach to the house, wider terraces, a substantial oak pergola, new greenhouses and what was (and may still be) the largest private swimming pool in the country. All that is engineering, but what makes this garden special are the cleverly nuanced layers of shrub and perennial planting that settle the whole place perfectly into its surroundings.

Steps lead the eye into the distance. Credit: Clive Nichols

The approach to the house has the strong bones of a series of multi-stemmed osmanthus overlooking a beautiful selection of naturalistic planting that cascades down towards the lawns and distant lakes. To make it even more of a challenge, everything was done with not only careful attention to the history of the site, but also by adhering to strict organic principles — there were no sprays or chemical shortcuts. Sustainability and the thoughtful nurturing of plants and wildlife are central.

The Dunkertons moved into the completed house seven years ago, but the development of the garden never stops. To celebrate their wedding in 2018, the couple asked each guest to give them a lime tree and these have been planted in a long and elegantly curving avenue that, at this time of year, is carpeted with thousands upon thousands of Narcissus ‘Thalia’. It is a record of the day that will improve even more for at least the next couple of centuries — a better wedding present than an air fryer.

The continued progress of the garden is now overseen by Mrs Dunkerton’s mother, Miranda Holland Cooper. She began her working life as a fashion designer in the 1970s and changed career a couple of decades ago to become a garden designer specialising in large country gardens. ‘Bodies are boring,’ she exclaims. ‘Gardens are much more fun.’ Mrs Holland Cooper has a distinctive way of designing: not for her the conventional drawing board or computer. Instead, she lays out all her gardens using canes and many balls of white wool.

Forming a magnificent viewing platform from the house over a wisteria-draped pergola is a formal terrace, with olive and lemon trees to give a Mediterranean feel. From there runs a well-trodden path down stone steps that runs past deep borders, which, at this time of year, throb with promise beneath gloriously flowering amelanchiers and through a nascent fernery to the pool (Mr Dunkerton swims every day, come snow, rain or hurricane).

The lime avenue, planted with lime trees as wedding presents, is underplanted with thousands of Narcissus ‘Thalia’. Credit: Clive Nichols

Turn left and you follow the commute to work — both the Dunkertons’ offices are in the garden — passing the old Bath House, which has been rejuvenated and forms one of the most desirable-looking guest rooms in Gloucestershire. Go the other way and you will soon find a new family garden set around an elegant oval pond, with a charming area designed to amuse the children and a flock of handsome hens.

This has one of the best views of all and is where three generations of gardening women (the third being Mrs Dunkerton’s three-year-old daughter Saphaïa) come together to plant bulbs and watch the weather over distant hills. Mrs Holland Cooper came to gardening by ‘watching snowdrop shoots pushing their way through fallen leaves’ and, at Dowdeswell, the family has planted well nigh a quarter of a million of them, with no sign of their slowing down any time soon.

As one would expect, this project is constantly moving on and there are great plans afoot: Mrs Holland Cooper is plotting an Italianate garden with cascades and rills tumbling down the main lawn to connect the domestic gardens with the surrounding landscape. A boathouse is proposed for one of the lakes, a walled garden is due to become a cutting garden and a series of intimately planted spaces where you can hide away or entertain is being created. ‘Our garden never stops evolving,’ says Mrs Dunkerton, who is thrilled with what they have achieved so far.

This is a thoroughly modern garden in style and feeling designed around the venerable and respectable centre point of Dowdeswell Court. Sometimes this sort of remodelling can go terribly wrong — like putting a baseball cap backwards on a bishop — and a building looks out of place. Not here: the vision of Mr Dunkerton, the enthusiasm of his wife, the plant wrangling of Ms Urquhart and Mr Hunt and Mrs Holland Cooper’s ongoing vigilance have combined to make a special garden around a spectacular house.