Dream Acres week eleven: The pleasure ground

 * For more Dream Acres and to find out how to create your own Dream Acres please see our microsite which explains  how to create perfect terraces and formal gardens

If you could only do one thing in order to make your acres dreamier, what would it be? Whether your objective is to add to the enjoyment of your home, enhance its appearance or increase its value, the best option is to focus on the area immediately around the house.

During the Renaissance, this area was referred to as the pleasaunce literally, a place of pleasure and it was filled with perfumed flowers, topiary and formal beds. Then, in the 18th century, it became known as the pleasure ground, and was deemed to extend a little further, generally as far as the ha-ha.

At Dream Acres, we considered the space carefully and designed terraces, planted against the wall of the house and added three separate gardens. As a result, the occupants would be provided with a series of delightful, enticing and multi-purpose outside rooms, the view from all the windows becomes vastly improved, and the house itself sits more comfortably within the landscape. Careful planning of the terraced areas always recoups the considerable investment they demand.


‘Hard all along the Castl wall iz reared a pleazaunt Terres of a ten foot hy and a twelve brode,’ wrote the courtier Robert Laneham, describing the improvements made to Kenilworth Castle by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to impress Elizabeth I when she visited in 1575. Although Dudley failed to win the hand of the virgin queen, he did, inadvertently, begin something of a terrace craze.

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Francis Bacon advised gardeners to build ‘a tarrasse for a wandering and variable mind’, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu claimed that ‘the terrace is my place consecrated to meditation’. For more than 400 years (apart from a brief gap when Capability Brown’s naturalistic approach was in vogue), the addition of a terrace has been a sine qua non for British landowners.

It’s easy to understand why. One of the great pleasures of country living is to step straight out of the house onto a beautifully proportioned and well-laid-out terrace. The ideal arrangement, given the vagaries of our climate, is to have three, which is what Arabella Lennox-Boyd has designed for Dream Acres.

Our east terrace is relatively modest in size, overlooks the secret garden and catches the sun until lunchtime. The south terrace is large, bright and formal, with wonderful views of the park, making it the perfect place to entertain. The west terrace, which is sheltered, would also be suitable for entertaining, especially in the afternoon or evening, but is more secluded if privacy is required.

Arabella’s advice for terraces

Too small a terrace will look mean and out of proportion, and one too large will detract from the house. A good rule is to make the terrace the same size as the house’s elevation plus the borders.

My favourite terraces are made from local stone. The method is important, as the terrace should look organic. Use hard core with a weak mortar layer, incorporating lime for flexibility, so borders  drain naturally. Build the terrace so it falls away from the house for good drainage. Instead of butt-joint pavers, brush a dry mix of sand, cement and lime into the cracks, and water.

Incorporate beds and pots. Break up large areas with bricks, pebbles, tiles or shells. For a more informal look, plant thymes, helianthemums and alpines in the gaps.

In the borders around the house, try mixing roses with lavender, rosemary, lilies and spring-flowering bulbs. Add yuccas and bergenia for shape and contrast.

Early spring borders

A garden should look as enchanting and intriguing in winter as the rest of the year, so plant with the out-of-season shape in mind. The RHS Wisley Garden, Surrey, and Rosemoor, Torrington, Devon, display appropriate plants. Box and yew are an excellent way to give a winter garden structure, as are Hebe subalpina or topiaria. Consider including plants that flower early in the New Year which is what we suggest for Dream Acres.

West of the house are borders of sarcococca, hamamelis, lonicera, chimonanthus, winter-flowering jasmine, hellebores, snowdrops, trilliums, Leucojum vernum or aestivum and Rubus cockburnianus. On the lawn nearby, Cyclamen coum could be planted under the trees. A superb early flowering garden is at Cambo, St Andrews, Fife, which has more than 300 varieties of snowdrops and an impressive display of aconites and leucojums.

Planting against the house

At Dream Acres, the house seems to rise up out of the garden thanks to the clever planting against the exterior walls. Planting also adds considerably to the appearance of all three terraces. On the south terrace, we suggest planting Magnolia grandiflora, a classic evergreen with large, shiny leaves and fragrantsummer flowers, trained close against the wall of the house.

On the other terraces, we have designed more informal planting, with climbing roses, clematis and honeysuckle, which bring both colour and perfume to each space. Wall training must be carefully done to preserve the fabric of the house. Install horizontal training wires (17in apart) before you start planting.

Arabella’s advice for herbaceous borders

Do not be frightened of them they do not require much maintenance if planted simply. If the plants need staking, grow your own hazel to cut in early spring when the sap is just starting to rise.

Plant for height, season and colour. I often design in colour layers depending on season, using tracing paper.

Punctuate borders with yew buttresses, pyramid frames for climbers or statuary. Grasses link clumps and add softness.
Use shrubs such as Cotinus coggygria and Euonymus atropurpureus, standard Ceanothus x delileanus Gloire de Versailles and Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group. In large borders, I plant Pyrus salicifolia Pendula, clipping it in winter.

Try to create a rhythm and do not fear repetition if you have double borders. Do not cut too early borders can look wonderful on a frosty morning. Avoid bulbs as their leaves can look untidy except Allium sphaerocephalon.

Sundial gardens

When we wanted to add a sundial garden to Dream Acres, we naturally turned to Arabella’s husband, Mark Lennox-Boyd, who has been creating sundials for many years, and is the author of Sundials: History, Art, People, Science. He designed a pillar-dial sundial for us like the one shown in  this week’s Recommended Accessories, page 58 with four light-grey slate dials positioned to ensure that you can always tell the time during the hours of sunlight.

It’s farther away from the house than one might expect, in an area completely free of trees so that it always gets the sun.

A sundial provides local time, which was all that mattered until the spread of the railways meant that time had to be synchronised. For every degree you move to the west of Greenwich, subtract four minutes, and for every degree you move to the east, add four minutes. Bristol, for instance, is actually 10 minutes behind GMT.

What would you put on your terrace? Email countrylife_letters@ipcmedia.com