A place in time
JUSTIN AND FRANCES SPINK’S STUNNING NEW CONTEMPORARY GARDEN BLENDS INTO THE BEAUTIFUL BERKSHIRE DOWNS, HOME TO THE PREHISTORIC CHALK FIGURE THE UFFINGTON WHITE HORSE »
the view that makes this place special. Any new garden should be influenced by the setting and sit comfortably within the landscape,’ says Justin, a garden designer, referring to the garden at his home, Woolstone Mill House, Faringdon, where he lives with his wife, Frances, and their young family.
It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic place for children, with lawns surrounded by lavish planting. There are trees to climb, secret corners for hideaways, a shaded summerhouse, and an ankle-deep chalk stream frequented by kingfishers. ‘Children invent endless games around moving water,’ says Justin.
And he should know. He was born and brought up here, roaming nearby Dragon Hill and the Ridgeway, hailed as
Britain’s oldest road. The garden that he and Frances took over in 2014 was charming, with beautiful borders created by his parents, so making major changes to a place with such emotional resonance could have been daunting. ‘Not at all,’ he says. ‘My parents’ garden was never the same for any consecutive years – no garden remains static, and no two days are ever the same.’
Frances grew up at Tresco Abbey in the Isles of Scilly, famed for its tropical gardens. ‘I focus on the kitchen garden’ she says, ‘growing vegetables that the children are interested in eating – they love cucumbers, and digging up new potatoes.’
However, arriving at a definitive design for the garden did not happen overnight. ‘I procrastinated for months,’ says Justin,
‘but once I finally sat down at the drawing board, I came up with a scheme within 20 minutes that felt just right.’ He felt the original herbaceous borders had become dated, favouring a more
contemporary style of planting – a meandering perennial meadow that replaces the traditional, straight-edged borders. ‘The informal geometry and loose horizontals reflect the Downs’ undulations, and are softened by abundant planting,’ he says.
This style of border planting reveals influences from other contemporary designers – Arne Maynard’s romanticism, and the naturalism of Piet Oudolf’s prairie planting. Clumps of perennials merge in an ebb and flow of colour and texture: soft blue agastache spikes by rounded coneflowers, golden rudbeckias beside dry whorled phlomis seedheads, or fleshy ice plants leaning into prickly sea hollies. ‘I like gardens to appear seamless,’ says Justin. Clumps of ornamental grass Deschampsia cespitosa
‘Goldtau’ run throughout, filling gaps and creating a continuous flow, while the tallest perennials – eupatoriums, helianthus and
Selinum wallichianum – are kept to the periphery.
A grassy path wends its way through a broad expanse of lower planting, opening up different vistas. ‘Gardeners should be bold, and give over more of their gardens to plants,’ says Justin. The path leads through a gate to the meadow beyond. Here there is a ha-ha with two sheep, clipped from box. ‘They were planted by my parents to reflect the Jacob sheep that once grazed the field,’ he says. A wooden swing-seat is cloistered within clipped yew hedging, which has long provided the ‘bones’ of the garden. Hedges have been lowered to allow views towards the hills.
‘We are also encouraging the yew to form billowing shapes, with ‘rolled’ edges in place of square-clipped ones,’ says Justin.
The garden is blessed with much fertile greensand, enriched » over the last 40 years with liberal organic mulches. Its aspects
range from full sun in the rear, damp places beside the stream, to partial shade to the west around a former barn (now Justin’s design studio), enabling a wide variety of plants to be grown.
The back terrace faces south, where a geometric box parterre struggled for years before succumbing to blight. Justin removed all but eight waist-high box domes, now interspersed with Verbena
bonariensis that seeds at will between the flagstones. In place of the parterre, there is a mixed thyme and camomile lawn.
Overlooking the terrace is a summerhouse built by Justin’s parents. ‘We’ve slightly enlarged it so we can fit in family and friends.’ Perfectly placed to catch the last of the evening sun, it is one of Justin and Frances’ favourite spots to sit.
Each season has its highlights. Autumn brings colour to a swamp cypress and medlar, at its foot a sculpture, Granite Leaf by Will Spankie, on an oak plinth in a bed of perovskia and fleabane. Spring brings cherry blossom, tulips and camassias, while in June white handkerchief-like flowers open on Davidia involucrata, followed by the pink-flushed panicles of an Indian horse chestnut.
Growing up in such lovely surroundings has undoubtedly honed Justin’s eye, but a love of design runs in the blood.
‘My great-grandfather was Thomas Mawson, a noted Edwardian landscape architect who founded the Landscape Institute, so it was a natural choice for me to work in architecture and garden design,’ he says. To share his childhood home with Frances and the children is a wonderful thing, keeping alive the ‘spirit of place’ that permeates this ancient site. ‘It comes from the landscape, especially from the White Horse, who forever gallops across the hill!’ says Justin. »
A swing seat is flanked by clipped yew hedging.
Ornamental grasses appear throughout the garden, giving a sense of flow.
Topiary sheep graze beyond the yew hedging and mixed perennial beds.
A favourite spot for the family to sit, the summerhouse catches the last of the evening sun.