The Gardens at The Manor, Priors Marston: A house bought on a same-day impulse that became a 20-year labour of love

The inspiration for the garden of The Manor, Priors Marston, Warwickshire, was to create a landscape to meander through, with talking points along the way. Tiffany Daneff took a closer look; photographs by Clive Nichols.

‘We wanted a landscape garden, something that framed the house and would, in that old-fashioned phrase, create a series of rooms through which one could walk for five or 10 or 20 or 30 minutes.’ Mark Cecil is describing the vision he and his wife, Katie, had for Priors Marston. They had never intended to move to Warwickshire, but the late-Georgian manor seemed to have them in its sights.

In 2001, a year after Mrs Cecil first spotted it in the pages of this magazine (and rejected it for being too far from London), the agents wrote to say it was still on the market. That time, they decided to drive up to have a look for themselves — and bought it that same day.

There was no garden to speak of then, other than a 12ft-wide concrete rill that ran from the front of the house down to the lake. The 1810 house was surrounded by mature leylandii and the original 1,100-acre estate had long since been broken up, leaving 11 acres of land, which included the lake, then full of weeds and silted up. Leylandii obscured the principal view from the drawing room to the water and the hill that rises beyond it; the old walled garden was being used as a donkey paddock. The two small cottages in the grounds were derelict, the outdoor pool was poorly sited, as was the tennis court, and the house itself was in much need of help.

A 12ft-wide concrete rill was removed and overgrown leylandii cleared to reveal the main view to the 1810 manor house. The Gardens at The Manor, Priors Marston, Warwickshire. Photograph: Clive Nichols

The village of Priors Marston contains several substantial houses, having profited from being a staging post on the Welsh Road, the old drovers’ route from Wales to Northampton, but the manor is the foremost, standing back from the road at the main village junction.

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Realising the garden would take years to establish, the Cecils determined to start work here first and immediately set about demolishing the rill, which was quite out of scale with the house. Given the size of the project, and because he had never embarked on anything like this before, Dr Cecil asked his friend Charles Gilchrist, who ran a London-based design practice, to help him draw up the plans.

‘I didn’t want a formal garden or lots of borders, but paths that one could instinctively follow, without getting lost, with areas of interest and talking points along the way.’

A driftwood horse by Heather Jansch in the Tennis Garden. The Gardens at The Manor, Priors Marston, Warwickshire. Photograph: Clive Nichols

Work began next on the walled garden, the one area where intensive planting would be allowed. It took three years to dig out the trees before the Cecils could start rebuilding the walls. New paths and beds had to be made, the plan being to revive the area’s former use growing produce and cut flowers for the house. Work was hard as the soil is thin brash over clay, which is sticky when wet and dries rock hard. After that, the lake was cleared and enlarged and the walk through the woodland to reach it was stripped of further leylandii.

The whole process has been one of organic growth, with each new project leading to the next. Removing the swimming pool led to the making of the Sunken Garden, which has been tweaked over the years and is now centred around an elegant William Pye fountain, with a simple underplanting of lavender below standards of white wisteria. A new wing for the swimming pool determined the space for the Rose Garden and building the chicken run led to the creation of a bigger composting yard.

A bird house by Heytesbury Pavilions, with sculpted rabbits from William Yeoward. The Gardens at The Manor, Priors Marston, Warwickshire. Photograph: Clive Nichols

About 10 years ago, as part of his desire to recoup some of the original estate, Dr Cecil bought a paddock from a local farmer. Over the years, it had been blighted by fly-tipping and there was so much rusting metal and such an agglomeration of discarded fridges that there was no way to dig it all out. Instead, the Cecils covered the ground with 2ft of topsoil, into which were planted British native trees. These obligingly romped away and were quickly absorbed into the woodland walk.

The transformation is almost complete. In May, mown grass paths wander through the umbellifers past the wooden boathouse and through stands of young birches, the lower limbs of which have been cleared by Matt Johnson, the new gardener, thus allowing through more light. In an echo of an 18th-century wilderness garden, the path arrives without warning at a small circular clearing, a Contemplation Space, marked with a carved green oak obelisk made by Isabel and Julian Bannerman. This is nicely judged, a low-key marker that more surprises are to come, although the observant viewer will have already spotted the giant chair on the hill, one of a set of three made by Henry Bruce. (Another is at Gunton Park in Norfolk.)

Houses in Priors Marston are built from local ironstone. Here, examples of this fossil-rich stone are arranged as sculptural waymarkers. The Gardens at The Manor, Priors Marston, Warwickshire. Photograph: Clive Nichols

Moments later, the path brings one out on the far side of the lake next to an early-18th-century sundial seat, which may have come from Easton Neston in Northamptonshire, where a matching one stands. From here, one can walk alongside the stream that feeds the lake or over one of the wooden bridges that criss-cross its iris-filled banks and over the fields to a newly planted copse. In spring, there are yellow flag and buttercups that turn the meadow gold.

Hidden deeper in the woods are two life-size bronze stags, so well sited that you almost do a double take. Placing art is something that is done extremely well here, not least because the pieces are not merely an afterthought. The Tennis Garden, to give one example, was built around a driftwood horse by Heather Jansch, a piece that Dr Cecil had first seen exhibited at London Zoo and had wanted for a long time.

As more land has been acquired, bringing the total to 160 acres, many trees have been planted, including in a 15-acre woodland on a mound created from 100 tons of spoil. To everyone’s surprise, this took longer to mature than the copse planted on the rusted refrigerators. Several gallops have been created, too, of which the newest consists of an avenue of limes underplanted with white lilac. The living-deer population is such a nuisance that the lilacs have had to be penned in for now.

A weeping willow reflected in the lake. The Gardens at The Manor, Priors Marston, Warwickshire. Photograph: Clive Nichols

To make the garden feel more natural, there are no bright-red or orange flowers, only whites and pale colours. Close to the house, the rule is relaxed with colourful pots and a magnificent purple wisteria on the back wall. In the Tennis Garden, two plats are seeded with wildflowers. Greens are dominant at the entrance to the house, with glossy laurel hedges contrasting with wavy box hedges and domes and with hydrangeas. Ivy spills over the bed under the yew by the entrance gate.

It is this careful planting and the thoughtful placing of art so that it works with, rather than shouting out from, the landscape that defines this garden. Much has already been brilliantly achieved, but the defining piece will surely be Dr Cecil’s folly. This was inspired by the magnificent Oval Pavilion, built in the 1740s at Farnborough Manor in Warwickshire.

The lake was enlarged around the existing temple, a platform for summer swimming. The Gardens at The Manor, Priors Marston, Warwickshire. Photograph: Clive Nichols

Drawings have been made for a two-storey building with an open loggia supported on Ionic columns and a carved-stone staircase to a small prospect room. When built, one will be able to stand in the drawing room and look out from the house, across the lake to the top of the hill, where, in place of the giant chair, will stand the folly. From the top of this, in turn, you will be able to see the chair, perfectly re-sited on The Mount with views of the new woodland.