The garden at Emmetts Mill, Chobham: Bourne to run

A flat waterside site has been transformed into a garden full of drama with plenty of delightful places to stop and enjoy the view, writes Kathryn Bradley-Hole. A flat waterside site has been transformed into a garden full of drama with plenty of delightful places to stop and enjoy the view, writes Kathryn Bradley-Hole. Photographs by Eva Nemeth.

Meandering streams and rivers form an irregular web, carrying water down and away from the woods and heaths of the Surrey Hills, eventually flowing into the Thames. In days long ago, the banks of those waterways were peppered with many mills, used for a variety of local industries, such as leather dressing, paper production, fulling wool and grinding grain. Some of them even created a far more volatile substance — gunpowder — a commodity much in demand in the warring 18th and 19th centuries, although, occasionally, it had the unfortunate result of exploding the mill during the process of manufacture.

Many of the mills have perished in the past 130 years, but a few still survive, including Emmetts Mill, once used for grinding cereals and now part of an elegant home. Its current owner understands there has been milling on the site since the 1570s, with the present three-storey mill, attached to the south end of the house, having been built in 1701. It is a matter of interest that the mill’s splendid, bladed wheel is still intact, although it has long been in retirement.

The stream that powered it, known as the Mill Bourne, cuts through the land along an east/west axis, its lively flow being a wondrous addition to the garden. It also conveniently separates the 3½-acre, wedge-shaped property lengthways, into roughly two halves, like side-by-side blocks of Parmesan cheese, each with a different character. North of the Mill Bourne lies the house and its elongated stretch of designed and cultivated garden, ending in a wood; the south side consists of mixed woodland, including some naturalised rhododendrons and a water meadow, which reliably floods during extended winter rains.

Ginkgo trees on a corner of the terrace. The Mill Bourne separates the woodland backdrop from the terrace and garden. The garden at Emmetts Mill, Chobham, Surrey. Photo credit: Eva Nemeth.

Some six years ago, the owner engaged landscape designer Emily Erlam to transform what he recalls as ‘a nice garden with a small, dreary patio’ into the sort of hospitable and alluring place he felt sure it had the potential to be. ‘I love the garden, but I have the least green fingers of anyone you will ever speak to,’ he advises. Miss Erlam’s dramatic alterations beside the house and subtle interventions beyond have transformed the way the garden is enjoyed.

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Step out from the bi-folding doors of the house onto a huge, pale sandstone terrace, which immediately speaks of welcoming hospitality and numerous options for convivial gatherings. For example, straight ahead is an arrangement of comfortable armchairs around a low table. Over there is a dining table with parasol, conveniently placed not far from a spacious outdoor kitchen and bar, which are set against the northern boundary. In the other direction, near the river, a welcoming firepit is encircled by cantilevered bench seats, set into crisp curves of dry-stone walls.

Seating around the firepit. The double hedge of yew and taller Prunus lusitanica marks the north boundary and creates privacy. The garden at Emmetts Mill, Chobham, Surrey. Photo credit: Eva Nemeth.

Every zone enjoys its own secluded space and character, due to the clever insertion into the terrace of several good-sized planted beds, each one with a low wall of yew hedging as a margin, providing visual structure along one side. The remaining area of each bed is infilled with a relaxed variety of plants, bringing a succession of pretty blooms and foliages from spring to autumn. At this time of year, the highlights include low-growing geraniums, dainty, creamy-white Rosa ‘Kew Gardens’, pincushions of crimson Knautia macedonica, purple salvias, pink poppies, orange geums and one of Miss Erlam’s favourite plants, the robust bearded iris ‘Dutch Chocolate’, in coppery-mahogany shades.

Comfortable as all the seating arrangements are, you might well decide to get up to look more closely at five matching trees inserted randomly into the terrace, each one commanding its own space within the pale paving. They are all Ginkgo biloba, trained and pruned to contain their natural waywardness. Although they require some work to keep them in order, it’s an inspired choice for such a setting; their fresh-lime foliage creates a bright and uplifting contrast when seen against the backdrop of mature woodland trees across the water. ‘There’s a moment in autumn when the ginkgos all shed their leaves at the same time and you have these beautiful circles of bright yellow leaves on the paving, a very pretty moment,’ says Miss Erlam.

Iris sibirica ‘Silver Edge’ and Knautia macedonica. The garden at Emmetts Mill, Chobham, Surrey. Photo credit: Eva Nemeth.

Within the extensive lawned area beyond, the garden designer created a formal pattern of six rectangular island beds, cut into the lawn and planted to echo each other, using the same plant selections, albeit not necessarily in the same sequence. Stitched in among well-behaved molinia grasses, you will find azure Siberian irises, wands of the pale-pink foxtail lily Eremurus robustus, claret sanguisorba, cranesbill geraniums, maroon pincushions of Knautia macedonica and the pale-blue star flowers of Amsonia tabernaemontana, all creating a relaxed ambience as they weave among each other.

‘The site is very flat, with beautiful mature trees at the far end, so the structure has been made to create a journey down the garden,’ says Miss Erlam. ‘Rhododendron grows very well round here, so we introduced some clipped domes of pink-flowered rhododendron, at evenly spaced intervals between the planted beds. I intend them to get to double their present height or slightly more; I was inspired by a garden I visited in Belgium made by Jacques Wirtz — he used rhododendrons a lot to divide spaces.’

Geranium sanguineum ‘Tiny Monster’, Centran-thus ruber and Molinia ‘Edith Dudszus’. The garden at Emmetts Mill, Chobham, Surrey. Photo credit: Eva Nemeth.

A circular, reflective pond terminates the formal garden, beyond which the trees and taller grasses of a seasonal meadow take over. This lovely piece of woodland has been subtly planted with spring bulbs that enhance the area before the leaf canopy closes over. They are mainly the elegant white-flowered daffodil Narcissus ‘Thalia’, joined by snake’s-head fritillaries and some species tulips.

The rest of the woodland is reached via a simple, flat bridge over the river to the south bank, which seasonally floods. This area has not been tackled so far, says Miss Erlam. The woodland gets on with itself, for the moment, but there is an enormous old mulberry tree that thrives from periodic soakings. ‘It gets covered in fruit,’ reveals the owner, ‘but how does it survive, when for three months of the year it is genuinely submerged in water?’

The herbaceous-border mixture, including foxtail lilies, cranesbills and amsonia, to be followed by white rosebay willowherb. The garden at Emmetts Mill, Chobham, Surrey. Photo credit: Eva Nemeth.

The mulberry is near another crossing point, leading back to the house, close to the mill wheel and sluice gate. The dried-out former channel feeding the mill wheel is now a slender, sunken bed, which Miss Erlam has filled with a ‘stream’ of blue and violet forms of Iris sibirica. ‘The irises suggest a nice memory of the water, but also they don’t mind the ground being rather wet,’ she says.

‘The river has a wonderful solitude to it,’ says the owner. ‘For eight months of the year, it’s an idling little stream. Then there may be a couple of times in winter when it turns into a raging torrent. The whole garden is a massive joy to me, it changes all the time. Emily takes incredible care, as do the wonderful gardeners who look after it.

What to plant? Three heroes that Emily Erlam recommends

Euphorbia seguieriana subsp. niciciana

Soft looking, but quite structural, it doesn’t flop over. The acid-yellow flowers go well with everything, bringing out the colours of its neighbours, such as salvias

Molinia ‘Edith Dudszus’

We started off with some Deschampsia grasses in the lawn beds, but they tended to rot, so we switched over to Molinia ‘Edith Dudszus’, which is quite airy and see-through, but copes better with dampness in the soil

Prunus lusitanica

At the start, the garden view was unfocused and uncontained, drawing the eye northwards over a neighbour’s flat pastures. We planted a double evergreen hedge along the open boundary, to refocus the sight line into the garden. The outer hedge is Prunus lusitanica, with a shorter, yew hedge along the inside. It made a huge, positive difference to the feel of the garden and its privacy