Non Morris is blown away by Stanton Fence near Morpeth, a romantic garden set in a steeply wooded river valley where the owners brought in renowned garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd to weave some magic. Photographs by Val Corbett.
‘We heard on the morning of our wedding day in 1969 that our bid for Stanton Fence had been accepted,’ says Sir David Kelly. The house itself was a ‘clapped-out farmhouse in a very poor state of repair’, but the position, in a beautiful wooded river valley near Morpeth, seemed to be perfect.
Over the years, Sir David and his wife, Angela, have completely renovated and continued to develop the house – ‘we did it in five main stages as circumstances allowed’ – creating an utterly bespoke and comfortable family home.
It’s been a happy place for their four daughters to grow up and is now much visited by their nine grandchildren. ‘We put the tennis court in when our children were in their teens and now it’s busy again – when our grandchildren are here, they’re either in the river or on the tennis court.’
When the girls were young, ponies were ridden over the lawn and Sir David confesses to reaching for the Flymo ‘on more than one occasion’ when the borders got out of hand. As time went by, they got to work on the perimeter, tackling drainage, improving woodland and planting trees in the surrounding parkland, but it was clear that, even when the ponies had gone, it would be a particular challenge to create an exemplary garden.
‘The soil is heavy clay and the house lies in one of the coldest valleys in this cold county with a strong prevailing west wind,’ says Sir David.
They decided to get expert advice and Lady Kelly suggested that they turn to garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd. The brief they gave her was clear.
‘I wanted an old-fashioned English garden with blues and pinks,’ says Lady Kelly, but ‘we didn’t want to lose the intimate relationship between the house and the surrounding countryside’.
Working with Lady Lennox-Boyd proved to be an exacting, but thoroughly stimulating experience and the couple were thrilled with the garden that emerged.
Her insistence on removing the top 2ft of clay around the house and replacing it with a mix of topsoil and compost was a considerable undertaking, but has made a tremendous difference to the way everything has thrived and established, including yew hedging, which might have been tricky to keep alive had its feet been kept wet in the clay.
Top-quality York stone, cut and laid with enormous care, was another key element and structural planting throughout (whether clipped hedges or cleverly selected trees) reinforces her thoughtful and enduringly successful design.
The garden flows brilliantly well around the house, which has expanded organically over time. There are four principal compartments: the Entrance Courtyard, the Pergola Garden, the Sun Room Garden and the Kitchen Garden.
With the sure-footed addition of a curved drive that brings the visitor gently to the house through handsome parkland – instead of rather too swiftly straight from the road – these elements wrap around the house completely and in a particularly satisfying way.
The respected local landscaper Robert Iley undertook every aspect of building and planting the garden over a period of five years and, in 2002, Steve Grimwood was appointed as gardener.
Much of the fine planting detail is a result of a much-enjoyed collaboration between him and Lady Kelly. ‘Arabella always said that, once the garden is in place, you’ll do your own thing,’ recalls Sir David as we step under the pergola.
Everything here is exquisite: rich-green cushions of box, frothy Alchemilla mollis and stretches of white valerian form a classic base layer gorgeously animated by dozens of alliums (A. Purple Sensation and A. Globe Master) and a fine display of pink peonies (Sarah Bernhardt and Bowl of Beauty). The original plan had been for white peonies only, but the pinks have been a tremendous success.
Overhead, a series of New Dawn rambler roses flowers over a long period, but Rosa Albertine, a relatively recent arrival, has, in fact, done better. ‘New Dawn never quite got over the top,’ explains Mr Grimwood sympathetically. The season is extended by wave after wave of sky-blue Clematis Perle D’Azur. If there was ever an argument for repeating plants to create a delightful effect, this pergola is a case in point.
Around the corner, the Sun Room Garden is home to more extremely happy roses. The walls around Sir David’s study, the Sanctum, are smothered in the dainty blush-pink rose Paul’s Himalayan Musk,in front of which is a dazzling pile of the fragrant pink rose Cornelia.
There are demure mounds of Potentilla fruticosa Primrose Beauty, whose colour and contribution intensifies as the season progresses, and a single Stipa gigantea to add movement and catch the light. Looking away from the house, the Kellys commissioned their friend Robin Dower, an architect, to design a pair of wrought-iron pavilions – inspired by the cloisters at Winchester College – which flank the lawn and are now smothered in Clematis montana and R. New Dawn.
Mr Dower was also commissioned to design the cheerful gates that celebrate two of their daughters’ weddings: one leads from the Pergola Garden to the Sun Room Garden and one from the Sun Room Garden to the Kitchen Garden.
We enter the sheltered Kitchen Garden tucked away behind tall, protective hedges of yew to the east of the house. A very pretty Thomas Messenger-inspired greenhouse is full of Lady Kelly’s pelargonium collection (including my new favourite, the trailing Scarborough Fair, which has pale-pink flowers with dark markings) and presides over a wonderfully plump box parterre.
The original plan was for elegant fruit cages, but Sir David and Lady Kelly are happy with their decision to choose decorative structure rather than fruit production.
There are delights everywhere here: a row of immaculate white sweet peas, a scarlet abutilon lighting up the house wall and a new venture in the form of a pair of standard Félicité Perpétue roses that are being trained into weeping forms over specially made metal baskets with little bundles of weights at the tips of the stems.
Perhaps it’s the outer ring of planting at Stanton Fence that excites me the most. An avenue of alternating white cherry and fastigiate hornbeam forms the approach to the house. ‘I felt like a bride coming home,’ says Lady Kelly of the time she first saw the cherry trees in flower. Mown paths through long grass link a neat circular nuttery of both Kentish and Cosford cobs to a circle of Magnolia x loebneri Leonard Messel – the latter will light up this part of the garden in April with pink star-shaped flowers.
There is a curving walk of Red Sentinel crab apples and a circular wildflower meadow bracketed by silvery Sorbus aria Magnifica, which merge into stands of Prunus serrulata Longpipes, a graceful cherry tree with pink-tinged white flowers. The whitebeam and the cherry will be a magical combination in spring and a fiery combin-ation at summer’s end.
The Kellys still can’t quite believe that they’ve managed to create such an abundant garden in such a cold and windy spot.
Stanton Fence in Morpeth, Northumberland opens to the public via the National Gardens Scheme; all openings for 2018 have now finished, but see www.ngs.org.uk for more details.
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