The great Rosemary Verey masterminded this garden in Oxfordshire which remains naturally glorious despite being geometrically-inspired. Vanessa Berridge paid a visit.
The garden at Kingham Hill House in Oxfordshire holds onto its secrets. Around every corner is a surprise, with walls, hedging, shrub borders and avenues of trees all helping to stage the drama. The setting is incomparable, too: the Cotswold stone house stands on the side of a south-facing hill, with the ground sloping away from the house and then up again to Churchill on a ridge. The village’s church tower is the garden’s focus.
Georgian in style, the house was built in the 1880s by Charles Baring Young, described by the present owner as ‘a very wonderful man and a great Victorian philanthropist’. Young set up Kingham Hill School here, aiming to educate poor children from the Midlands about food production and give them an understanding of nature. The six-acre walled garden (now entirely ornamental) is a legacy of this act of 19th-century pedagogy.
“This garden has been beautifully integrated into the Cotswold landscape by which it is surrounded”
The present owners bought the estate 25 years ago, two years after it was sold by the school (which still exists nearby). The interiors of the house had been gutted by fire in the 1930s and simply restored for institutional use. A major project was needed to re-create the original period detail and it was three years before the owners turned their attention to the garden.
Towering by the front door of the house is a copper beech, believed to be the largest and oldest in Oxfordshire and visible from all over the garden. Its lower branches, once allowed to touch the gravel, were a hiding place for the owners’ children, who delighted in a garden full of secret corners. The garden has grown up with the children and, now, more than 20 years on, its maturity makes it seem as if it has been there since the house was built.
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Its success is, in major part, due to its original designer, Rosemary Verey, who was responsible for the garden’s layout, its three main avenues and its sophisticated romanticism. Since her death in 2001, Cotswold-based designer Rupert Golby has continued to advise the owners and has introduced some contemporary touches.
Planned very much with the children’s long summer holidays in mind, the garden peaks from May onwards, yet there is interest year-round, from its framework of trees and the use of box and yew throughout. The garden is strongly geometrical, with circles being a key theme. Inspired by the stone balls on the entrance walls when the owners bought the house, they appear in the shape of the lawns, in stone circles, roundels of box and shrubs clipped into spheres.
Box is also seen in pyramids, cones and banks of clipped, waist-high hedging, which flanks the dramatic rill of the walled garden, one of the garden’s three main vistas. Centred on the church tower, this series of stepped pools was based on the Harold Peto water garden at Lord Faringdon’s Buscot Park.
They drop down from a formal, clover-leaf shaped pool to a natural pond at the bottom, framed by two avenues of maples on either side, and magnolias and strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) alternate along the red-brick wall of the garden. Pyramids and cones of yew here echo the yews along the south terrace of the house.
Above is the swimming pool, its entrance marked by two weeping myrtles clipped into mopheads and by more yew pyramids. The pool has been designed to be all but invisible from the rill (as well as from the tennis court above), but has planting coming into its own in summer, when it’s most in use.
Fragrant roses, including Little White Pet, fill beds edged with teucrium. Four circular stepped lawns, laid out in two figures of eight, form the second major panorama. Parallel to the walled garden, these lawns run down to the drive, fastigiate oaks standing like sentinels at each junction. Herbaceous and shrub planting, including hydrangeas, penstemons, cornus, deutzia, purple cotinus, acers, weigela, weeping beech and viburnum, gives a wonderful flow of colour through the seasons.
Another vista rises from the northwest-facing terrace where the family eats out in summer. Steps lead to a lawn sloping up from the house. The lawn is enclosed by yew hedging and framed by four semicircular beds of hardy and semi-hardy planting.
The palette of white, blue and soft purple lasts into late autumn, with eryngiums, Campanula lactiflora, delphininums and phlomis, and, for later, Salvia uliginosa, Salvia involucrata, Salvia turkestanica, Verbena bonariensis and Sour Grapes penstemons.
Visible through a break in the yew hedging is a circle of pleached limes, six trees each in four semicircles, mirroring the layout of the beds. This opens onto a rising avenue of beech, oak, lime and ash, which culminates in a group of limes obscuring telegraph poles beyond the ha-ha.
Elsewhere, there are more avenues of trees, with robinias within walls of yew framing a gate, fastigiate pears centred on a statue and hornbeams creating an axis that leads into the romantic heart of the garden. Mrs Verey originally planned this as a garden for all seasons, but Mr Golby has redesigned it to focus on spring and summer.
The grass paths through the garden are lined with Lavandula x intermedia Sussex, with four diagonal gravel paths radiating off through the planting beneath tunnels of white wisteria. The sightline across the centre of the garden, planned by Mrs Verey, has since been interrupted to makes this the most enclosed room of the garden.
At its heart stands a pear tree in a stone circle, surrounded almost randomly by stone balls and roundels of box.
The circle again reigns supreme, with everything here clipped into balls, including Osmanthus burkwoodii, Prunus lusitanica, phillyrea, Syringa pubescens subsp microphylla Superba and the standard viburnums by the entrances to the garden.
The colour theme is blue and white, beginning in spring with White Triumphator tulips, followed by blue Jane Phillips irises, lavender and then blue agapanthus in high summer. The garden is surrounded by shoulder-high walls with semi-circular niches along their course, each niche framing a shrub rose. Dramatic, yet understated, this garden has been beautifully integrated into the Cotswold landscape by which it is surrounded.