The garden which draws you back has obviously something which attracts you. My first visit to Wollerton Old Hall, near Market Drayton, Shropshire, England, was an unfortunate disaster. I loved the garden but was so ill that it was a challenge to enjoy it. I went to hospital in Chester that evening and spent a week there! However, we have included it in subsequent garden visits to England and have always been delighted that we have done so.
There are many aspects of the garden which appeal to me. It has fine bones, well laid out, good design, excellent planting and good maintenance. It is a garden of rooms and on a scale where ideas can easily be imagined in the home garden. It is an attainable garden – were we so inclined and so industrious.
The rooms are divided by yew hedges and form and volume are provided throughout the garden by clipped yew and box shapes which are wonderfully impressive. This feature, especially, has caused me to pause and think of our own garden which is in a very similar situation to that at Wollerton Old Hall, on the outskirts of the town in a rural setting. We have always felt that such a level of formality would clash with our agricultural surroundings and our garden is one of soft lines and loose planting but the approach certainly works at Wollerton Old Hall. They have achieved a balance between the formality of the structural plants – hedges, clipped shapes etc – and the blousiness of the planting and it is this balance which makes it all gel together so perfectly.
Fergus Garrett, of Great Dixter Gardens, spoke recently at the Carlow Garden Festival and gave a wonderful insight into their approach to planting, the constant experimentation with plant and colour combinations and how the formality of the gardens layout, as designed by Edwin Lutyens, allowed for this almost over fulness of planting and kept it, design-wise, from simply being a chaos of plants – the plantsman run riot, so to speak.
A recent online discussion on gardens, which centred on Great Dixter, brought a variety of responses with some considering the planting had become too unwieldly; that it was difficult in places to walk the pathways because of the intrusion of the plants, that the beautiful Lutyen’s sunken garden had become overcrowded and its design obscured by the planting clutter, for example, while others accepting the boisterousness of planting and were willing to sacrifice the clarity of design for the beauty of the plants. Fergus Garrett would say that they always sail close to the wind in this balance and that a visit to the gardens will prompt one to think about and question such matters – as well, of course, as their plant and colour combinations!
In an Irish context, to consider this balance between structure and planting, we might look at the gardens of sister and brother, June and Jimi Blake’s gardens in Co. Wicklow. Both are plant enthusiasts but June displays her plants, particularly those in the area closer to the house, within a very structured and orderly framework – a strong element of design – while in Jimi’s garden all is of a looser, more informal, structure-less approach and the plants reign supreme. Gardens will range between the design extremes of rigid formality and complete freedom and the former approach will appeal to some and the latter to others. Many would consider the organisation of the space of their garden, a certain level of planning and design, an essential part of making a garden while others are happy to accommodate their collection of plants without great thought to how the space is organised.
Wollerton Old Hall had a balance between design and planting which appealed very much to me and areas within the garden which leaned either way – areas strong on design and low on plant content while others were plant-full and design less dominant. Were I to voice a disappointment with the garden it is that I felt there was a lack of openness near to the house; that the garden crowded onto the house too much and that there was no sense of air or freshness in the vicinity of the building. The immediate surrounds of the house were a little claustrophobic for me but, overall, a garden I adored.
A short selection of photographs from our visit to Wollerton Old Hall: