Garden Portrait: Dartington Hall

Garden Portrait: Dartington Hall

Designer Henry Avray Tipping (1855-1933) the distinguished architectural editor of Country Life magazine gave this advice to the RHS in 1928:

“Let there be some formalism about the house to carry on the geometric lines and enclosed feeling of architecture, but let us step shortly from that into wood and wild garden”

His reputation was based on the hundreds of articles he wrote on country houses and their gardens and in his many books, but his greatest legacy are the gardens he designed for his friends, one of which is Dartington Hall in South Devon.

The medieval hall itself was built between 1388 and 1400 for John Holand, Earl of Huntingdon, half-brother to Richard II. After John was beheaded, the Crown owned the estate until it was acquired in 1559 by Sir Arthur Champernowne, Vice-Admiral of the West under Elizabeth I. The Champernowne family then lived in the Hall for 366 years until 1925.

Dartington Hall

It sits amongst the bosky lanes of south Devon and easily missed if you don’t turn into the long drive by the church. The medieval Great Hall presides over a gaggle of subsidiary buildings, where many famous artists have gathered including dancers, actors, painters, potters, musicians, philosophers and poets through the long decades of the 20th century.

But I am here to introduce you to the gardens. Restored by the homesick American heiress, Dorothy Elmhirst, who along with her English husband Leonard, bought the hall in 1925, at its heart are the impeccable lawn terraces that recall the medieval tournament ground. All around are graceful green walks across lawns, beneath magnificent trees.

Jacob’s Pillow by Peter Randall-Page (May 2005)

“a house should sit at ease with nature”

The garden, really a small park, is Dorothy Elmhirst’s creation through 40 years. When they arrived the central feature was an overgrown formal Dutch-style sunken garden which Leonard Elmhirst dubbed the ‘Tiltyard’ and had its tiered shape accentuated. Drawings from the †19C revealed that it had been a lily pond making use of the nearby spring waters.

Azalea Dell and Swan Fountain

A flagged walk on the west side of the Great Lawn leads to terraces south of the Hall.

This is the sunny border as designed by Henry Avray Tipping and in spring is full of peonies and irises.

“retain the grace and feeling of the wild, while adding eclectic beauty of the cultured”

There are woodland garden walks which were designed by Beatrix Farrand, a famous American landscape architect, who loved to ‘paint’ with colour and form. Dartington is her only example of her work outside the USA.

The paths converge at the statue of Flora (also the name of Dorothy’s mother) which was presented to the Elmhirsts in 1967 by the people of Dartington. The statue dates back to the late †17C but the artist is unknown. Flora marks the site of the couples’ ashes and the statue is often found adorned with flowers.

Working with existing landscapes and views interested English landscape architect Percy Cane, who after WWII, created the walk around the garden including the Glade with its temple, the Azalea Dell and the long flight of steps between the Glade and the Tiltyard. Except for a burst of colour around the Swan Fountain (1949 and a gift from artist Willi Soukop) in spring, most of the palette in the garden is soft blues, white and yellows.

Steps between the Swan Fountain and the Tiltyard
The Glade

At the bottom of the Glade you find one of the several sculptures in the garden, this by Henry Moore. The Reclining Figure (1945-6) was created for this location as a tribute to the Elmhirsts’ first Arts Administrator, Christopher Martin, who died in 1944.

The Reclining Figure (Henry Moore 1945-6)

Alongside the sculpture is a row of 500 year-old Spanish Chestnuts.

At the other end of the terrace a Garden Access Bridge, designed by Peter Randall-Page leads to a dappled shady area where his sculpture Jacob’s Pillow can be found. The sphere of 12 spirals is inspired by the Twelve Apostles.

By now the somewhat cloudy sky was growing darker and it was obvious that we were in for a shower so we began to walk back to the entrance past the lovely stone and timber summerhouse (listed Grade II) with a thatched conical roof built by Rex Gardner in 1929 to overlook the valley south-east of the Hall. It was formerly a temporary nursery and then a studio for Willi Soukop. It was rebuilt in 1980 after a fire.

Darkening skies

We were lucky to manage to reach a wonderful new Green Table café just outside the entrance without getting too wet and enjoyed a marvellous cup of coffee along with orange polenta cake and a delicious flapjack.

This is a beautiful peaceful garden with delightful views and a wonderful sense of traces of the past and the artistic and tranquil atmosphere.


Sources include Wikipedia, the Dartington Hall Gardens leaflet and Historic England website

Garden Portrait: Coleton Fishacre

Garden Portrait: Coleton Fishacre

Welcome to Coleton Fishacre in south Devon, a gorgeous Art Deco style house and a beautiful valley garden that leads you to a coastal viewpoint. The house was built in the 1920s and the country home of the D’Oyly Carte family (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). A 30 acre garden surrounds the house and the National Trust are recreating it as it once would have been with the help of photographs and planting books kept by the family.

There are many steep steps in the garden and slopes especially at the bottom, so it can be quite a challenging garden to walk around. Due to the high humidity created by the sea and the stream that runs through the valley many exotic plants thrive here under the canopy of the trees.

Paths lead from the house down the valley and on either side, with many smaller paths, slopes, steps meandering through the slopes. One minute you can be in a typical English woodland scene with bluebells and ransoms,

the next in an exotic jungle with Chilean Firetrees, Banana plants and Dracaenae.

Plants from South America, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia rub noses with English cottage garden plants; Azaleas and Rhododendrons hide behind tall stands of bamboo; Magnolias flirt with Chilean Myrtles. Someone here had fun choosing the planting, it is colourful and eclectic and lush.  You never know quite what lies ahead.

And from the delightful Gazebo, which can be reached via a lawned-path, you get a wonderful glimpse of the sea.

The gardens have a lovely courtyard tea room which serve lunches as well as cakes, a National Trust shop and an interesting range of plants for sale too. The route to the gardens is along a narrow road for the latter part, but this is only for a short distance and there are passing places. Quite often coaches arrive for lunch-time so if you want a quieter visit then choose earlier in the morning or late afternoon. Or do as we did and stay in one of the cottages so you can visit the garden at any time you like.


Garden Portrait: Trebah in winter (or A Walk to Alice’s Seat)

Garden Portrait: Trebah in winter (or A Walk to Alice’s Seat)

As the weather hasn’t been too bad recently I took the opportunity in early February to drive the 30 miles or so to the Helford river and pay a visit to Trebah gardens. Many of the Cornish gardens (and this is classed as one of the greats) are famous for their spring planting so I was interested to see what they had to show during the winter months. The colour is not always in the form of a flower – this month highlights the various tones and hues of brown, green, grey.

Starting at the Lawn Path I made my way in an anti-clockwise direction above the wooded valley before going downhill to join the Davidia Walk which leads to the beach, passing meandering streams and peaceful pools; Dinky’s Puddle, Azolla Pool and Mallard Pond, as well as the Gunnera Passage which were just stumps today, and Hydrangea Valley, the colours of summer now a faded, dusty brown.

The Lawn Path
The Lawn Path

Sub-tropical succulents still provide colour and form above the Lawn Path.

And pops of colour stand out from among the greenery.

I must remember to return to this garden in late summer and capture the four acres of blue hydrangeas in flower.

Davidia Walk
Davidia Walk

Stopping briefly at the beach to take a photo or two of the Helford River down the eastern side of the Lizard peninsula, I returned along the Beach Path taking in the clumps of pure white snowdrops planted on the banks above me.


At Radiata Path I wandered uphill again seeking out the winter-flowering Hellebores and Hamamelis mollis (Witch Hazel) with its spidery ribbon-like flowers and spicy fragrance. The air was pervaded by the heady perfume of the Sarcococca confusa (Sweet or Christmas Box) close to Alice’s Seat, its tiny starry white flowers are almost unnoticeable among the dense green foliage, but boy can you smell it!

Alice’s Seat

Fox Path and Camellia Walk took me back to the entrance/exit passing by a few Camellias that are already flowering such as the rich red ‘Macdonald’s Seedling’ with its distinctive bright golden stamens.


The café was still open and serving so I popped inside for coffee and cake and to look through the photos on my camera, before heading back home.

Take a look here if you want to see the garden in spring.


Garden Portrait: Bourton House

Garden Portrait: Bourton House

Bourton House Garden is one of the best kept secrets of the Cotswolds. The most famous garden in this region is Hidcote which attracts coach loads of visitors from London so can often be a little overcrowded. No problems here. This 3 acre garden surrounding an 18C Manor House is much quieter. Located only a short distance out of Moreton-in-Marsh it is also close to the Batsford Arboretum and Sezincote and a very decent pub.

bourton house
Manor House

The entrance to the gardens is through a magnificent Grade I listed 16C Tithe Barn where you will find merchandise for the home and garden and a pretty decent tea-room.

tithe barn

My visit to this garden was in early June in a year when spring was late in arriving, so there were lots of spring flowers in bloom. It is a plantsman’s garden with unusual, rare and exotic delights. Deep herbaceous borders highlight textures and colour combinations and there are terraces and topiary to provide interest. The Topiary Walk leads into the White Garden, attractively designed around a shallow square pond.

garden view 2
The White Garden
Deep herbaceous borders

Pathways  lead you through to the lawn behind the early 18th century house facing the beautiful raised walk which in turn provides panoramic vistas over the Cotswold countryside. Deep herbaceous borders surround the lawn area.

cottage garden border
18th Century Raised Walk
apple blossom

From here you wander past a Shade House and splendid Knot Garden complete with 19th century statues.

knot garden
The Knot Garden

In the centre of the Knot Garden is a pretty basket-weave pond from the 1851 Great Exhibition, complete with two more elegant herons by Michael Lythgoe. A pretty Fountain Garden brings you to the front of the house and a parterre.

topiary at the front of the house
Parterre with Gazebo by Richard Overs

With lots of interesting plants and features to explore your visit can be much longer than you might expect for a small garden. And in addition to the gardens themselves there is a small glasshouse containing succulents and a Brewhouse with containers and more topiary outside.

Late summer is supposed to be a good time to visit as the garden flourishes when many have run their course, but spring certainly has its own beauties to enjoy.

More lovely walks can be found over at my friend Jo’s place.

Garden Portrait: Knightshayes Court

Garden Portrait: Knightshayes Court

Driving back from West Penwith to Shropshire takes around 5 hours. It’s a long journey and we usually stop after a couple of hours to stretch the legs and grab a coffee. Gilly the Lucid Gypsy who  lives in Exeter once suggested that we might like to stop at Knightshayes Court, a house and garden run by the National Trust which is about 5 miles off the M5 near Tiverton in north Devon. So far during our forays south the car has been full of ‘stuff‘ and on the return journey the weather has not been conducive to more than a quick pit-stop.

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However, last Sunday the weather was perfect albeit very hazy. I love the drive through Cornwall and Devon – Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor (which two weeks ago was dusted in snow) rolling countryside and glimpses of the coast. Time to visit Knightshayes. Arriving there we were surprised to find that they serve a Sunday carvery (between 12 noon and 2:30 pm) so of course we ordered one and devoured it with pleasure. Then time to walk down to the house and have a quick look at the gardens close to the house. Two hours later we returned to the car to continue our journey home(?) – at the moment neither house feels quite like home, more like impersonal hotels without the luxuries and with the hazards of falling over boxes!

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Apologies for the quality of these photos. For once I didn’t have my camera with me, but I did have a new phone and one that has a camera (My daughter is so pleased that I have finally got a ‘proper’ mobile phone and is already instructing me about ‘apps’) so I attempted to capture some of the delights of this place. The views in the distance over Exmoor, I imagine, were hazy but beautiful.

The house is beautiful with honey-coloured stonework around the pretty leaded-windows and the bright red doors and gates make quite a bold statement.

Spring flowers were out – purple crocuses, snake’s-head fritillary, blankets of pretty blue scilla verna and dancing daffodils of course.

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The light was clear in the woodland garden and backlit the hellebores perfectly. One or two magnolias were in flower too, though it is still early in the season for them.

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And the most fascinating aspect was the abundance of quirky animals in the garden

OK. I admit to breaking my own rules, but blame it on the restless one who challenged me 🙂

Thanks Gilly. A perfect stopping spot ❤

And more lovely walks can be enjoyed over at my friend Jo’s place.