Country houses for sale

Sandy Mitchell: Landscaping the grounds

Watching the restoration of our house over many months has been a bit like seeing a beetle climb a sticky plank. You can hardly tell it is inching ahead, however closely you look at it and however hard the poor bug works. If only the messy job of landscaping the grounds were as predictable and steady.

By the time we arrived at our house for the children’s half-term holiday last weekend, we were expecting to find a new ha-ha, as well as a rectangle of lawn replacing the ugly turning circle of pitted old tarmac outside the front door. The havoc in the back garden caused by a year’s heavy building work was also supposed to have been neatly smoothed over.

Were we rash to imagine we could spend the holiday in the country? Whatever the landscapers did, an ocean of freshly turned earth was going be waiting outside the doors ready to swallow up our two small giggling gremlins in their Boden overalls, and spit them back at us covered with muck.

The newly laid pale oak floorboards would be trembling in wait inside the house for the children. But the landscapers reckoned the job would be finished in time. If we seeded the grass straight away, we stood a chance of having a growing lawn by the start of winter. And when I drove down to the house on the Tuesday before the start of half term to inspect the project, it was looking dandy.

The four diggers and dumper trucks had turned up on time the previous day, and all the tarmac in front of the house had already been ripped up and replaced with a foot of clean new subsoil specially trucked to the site.

When I patted the foreman on the back, he let slip a story he really shouldn’t have. ‘It’s not always as quick as this,’ he admitted. ‘Sometimes you want to let people think you are working at their house while you go and work on something else. Once, I drove up to this place in my van on the first day of the job, got out of the vehicle, went off and left it running all day. The fellow in the house could hear the engine and he thought there was someone working there. He was happy.’

I only began to worry on Wednesday. During our restoration project, I have learnt to look at weather forecasts as often as a compulsive gambler checks the Racing Post, and a red warning of monsoon rains due on Thursday was flashing on my screen. (My favourite service,, allows you to type in your postcode to get a localised and astonishingly accurate view.) Sure enough, I got a call on the wet Thursday morning to say the head landscaper was sitting on the ground with his head in his hands, and by Friday, his crew had given up all remaining hope of finishing the job that week and gone.

So the children had to be banned on arrival in the country from venturing into the garden to play, on pain of the sort of penalty normally handed out to whisky vendors in Saudi Arabia. The entire half-term week was spent gazing from the windows over Wiltshire fields transformed by further downpours into a trackless waste of thick ooze. Lucky old Noah, at least he had a nice clean ocean to stare at.