A host of golden daffodils is a sight to warm any heart oppressed by winter’s chills. See them at Kent’s Mere House
Renowned for its spring-flowering trees and bulbs, elegant Mere House has enjoyed a succession of keen gardeners to drive it forward, finds George Plumptre
Gardening has been deeply embedded at Mere House in Kent ever since it was built in the late 18th century as a rectory, as successive clergymen and their wives proudly created and tended the garden.
andrew Wells, the present owner, is descended from William Wells, who, at the turn of the 19th century, created a renowned garden at redleaf Park in west Kent. redleaf is long gone, but, in its time, it was celebrated.
Wells was a successful Thames shipbuilder, patron of the arts and founding member of the RHS and the garden he created was eulogised by his famous gardening contemporary, John Loudon. in one article, in The Gardener’s Magazine (which Loudon founded in 1826), he wrote in awe of the redleaf rock garden. its ‘most singular feature… totally different from anything else of the kind in england’ was the rock garden on the ‘rocky lawn’ south of the house, comprising stacks of rock, ‘not little pigmy imitations… but large blocks… measured by the cubic yard’.
Mere House was built as the rectory for Mereworth village by its celebrated patron, Sir Francis dashwood, Lord Le despencer, renowned for his Hellfire Club, which met at Medmenham abbey close to his Buckinghamshire home, West Wycombe. He had inherited the Mereworth estate from his maternal uncle, John Fane, earl of Westmorland, who built the present castle as a domed Palladian villa and rebuilt Mereworth church in the english Palladian style, its tower and spire modelled on elements of different London churches, such as St Martin-in-the-fields.
With such a spectacular church in the village, it was hardly surprising that the rectory was rebuilt in the style of a small country house and that successive rectors of Mereworth were all connected with the Le despencer family. However after an interlude in the mid 20th century, including a period of occupation by the military during
the Second World War, Mere House was purchased by John Wells, whose wife was descended from the Fane family.
In 1959, Wells became the local MP and was later knighted, but, over a period of some 30 years, he and his wife created the present garden, carefully incorporating the finer trees—such as the copper beech and cedar—planted by their clergyman predecessors.
The Wellses planned their garden to fill the area sloping gently away from the house, down towards the long, narrow lake that itself dates from the 18th-century landscaping. They created a series of beds that now makes a gentle progression and they were especially interested in planting trees and shrubs for varied foliage effect. Today, well-established evidence of their work includes a weeping ash and a holm oak (the latter grown from an acorn planted in 1953), as well as a fine group of
Viburnum plicatum tomentosum.
The Wellses’ masterstroke was to make the main feature at Mere House a spring garden and to devote the main sloping area to increasingly broad drifts of daffodils. Their numbers, having increased from one year to the next, now have the appearance of a floral sea, with waves of integrated shades of yellow-and-white flowers.
Beyond the lake, Mr Wells responded to extensive road-building projects around the village of Mereworth in opportunist style, acquiring spoil from the construction sites to build a long embankment, on which he planted trees. Now that the trees have grown to maturity, they have the combined effect of deadening noise from the new roads and creating a tree-lined boundary, seen across the lake, which have been immensely successful.
A possibly even greater challenge was presented within the garden by
‘The Wellses’ masterstroke was to make the main feature at Mere a spring garden’
the great storm of 1987, when many trees fell and great damage was wrought. Despite the immediate destruction, Mr Wells confirms that the long-term effect has been positive, with new vistas opened up and an extensive programme of tree-planting undertaken for the benefit of future generations.
After taking over the garden from his parents, Mr Wells and his wife, Tessa, took up the challenge of carefully and subtly continuing their work, adding a second embankment, which stretches at right angles to the first. Following long-term silting up of the lake, the field beyond had deteriorated into semi-marshland, but, with the lake restored, it is now properly integrated once more into the garden.
One of the best views looks from the front of the house across swathes of daffodils and between different trees to a Classical urn, positioned at the head of the lake, its pattern reflected in the water. Beyond it, the grassy bank of the field stretches away to the young perimeter trees.
The present owners have also added quantities of snowdrops, both in the main garden and through the wood that leads from the old kitchen garden, and planted numerous autumn-tinting trees, such as Liquidambar styraciflua, Nyssa sylvatica and a spreading Parrotia persica. Now, it appears that the family’s gardening enthusiasm, stretching back for so many generations, has been passed on to the next one. In 2012, Mr and Mrs Wells’s daughter, Augusta, designed the planting for a new bed close to the house and, with her husband, Robert, she has established a wholesale nursery, Arvensis Perennials, in Wiltshire, and supplied to her parents’ garden perhaps the favourite plants of my visit: two exquisite miniature tulips growing on a raised bed: pink-striped Tulipa
clusiana Lady Jane and dark-pink, scented Tulipa hageri Little Beauty.
There are early indications that the enthusiasm and discerning plant choices of two generations at Mere will continue for a third.
Mere House, Mereworth, Kent. The garden is open on a number of days in spring and for groups by appointment. For full details, visit www.mere-house.co.uk George Plumptre is Chief Executive of the NGS
Above: Glimpsed beyond the flowering boughs of one of the mature magnolias, a fine old cedar lends a sense of enclosure.
Facing page: The former rectory stands proud on its eminence, now enhanced by seas of mixed daffodils each spring
The lake has been dredged and restored to its tranquil, watery state, with an urn placed as a focal point
A vision of the English spring: chalices of Magnolia soulangeana open above a sweep of daffodils. Tree planting on the boundaries and the creation of long banks have given the garden greater seclusion