A sea change brings unexpected treasures
George Plumptre admires the plantsmanship and style that have kept the garden at Kettle Hill in Norfolk fresh
BACK in the 1980s, there emerged a fashion in British gardening for all things small-scale, clipped and formal. Rosemary Verey was designing knot gardens, Lady Salisbury had re-created the Elizabethan garden at Hatfield House and the National Trust decided to restore the parterre at Hanbury Hall: all examples of small-scale formal detail.
It was the perfect time for The Romantic Garden Nursery, founded in Norfolk by Frances Winch and her late husband, Richard, which celebrated the structural qualities of clipped box and yew and the imaginative use of plants in containers. For successive years, their elegant displays at the Chelsea Flower Show introduced the cool symmetry of shades of green into the kaleidoscope of colour in the great marquee.
Some of this spirit lives on in Frances’s garden at her Blakeney home on the north Norfolk coast. In a county immortalised by Noël Coward for its flatness, any small eminence has exaggerated effect and the kettle Hill garden is set up on one side of the village so as to command memorable views of the famous shoreline and sea beyond.
However, the views are only one element in this elegantly designed garden, their impact heightened by the fact that their expansiveness contrasts with the enclosed intimacy of many areas in which the style of The Romantic Garden Nursery can be detected: the subtle juxtaposition of different evergreens, the balance of topiary and shaping of clipped flowering plants, smart ornamental flourishes such as benches and gates or trellis piers surmounted by eagles, designed by George Carter and the careful detailing of hard landscape, whether a circular pattern of flagstones, brick and flint cobbles or stone acorns adorning brick piers.
The Winches moved here 25 years ago from their larger home at Swannington and were helped in the original design of the kettle Hill garden by Mark Rumary, but in the past three years, the planting has been largely overhauled with the help of Tamara Bridge, injecting freshness and change into borders and beds.
As Miss Bridge explains, this kind of rejuvenation—which so many gardeners find themselves wanting to do—is entirely posi-
The whole is a masterclass in the arrangement of shades of green’
tive in the long term, but just needs thoughtful introduction. ‘You want to pare back to the garden’s framework so that you retain the established character, but refresh and update the embellishments.’ She also explains that, in some areas, the changes were made necessary by the garden’s growing maturity; for instance, the extensive shade cast by the woodland on one side, where, originally, the trees has been small saplings.
Both Tamara and Frances are knowledgeable plantswomen and, together, they planned new planting schemes in the garden’s existing borders. At the same time, the areas of the garden in which the views out towards the coast open up have been subtly enhanced to add a contemporary feel.
A low picket fence divides the sweeping open lawn from the paddocks beyond, with a path flanked by wildflower borders leading from the lawn through the paddocks. In this part of the garden, nothing detracts from the views and the sense of big-sky openness that contrasts so well with the formal areas beside the house and the walled enclosures that wait to be discovered.
Immediately in front of two sides of the house, the symmetrical rose garden and parterre perfectly complement the architecture. Hardly surprisingly for someone who founded the Romantic Garden Nursery, the roses are predominantly old-fashioned shrub varieties chosen for their scent, as well as two of Frances Winch’s particular favourites: Monet and Constance Spry.
The roses were always there, but Tamara introduced new underplanting combining salvia, alchemilla and santolina, as well as a new narrow border of tall eremurus or foxtail lilies so beloved of Edwardian gardeners. Between the rose garden and main lawn, a low wall and lavender hedge make a neat boundary without obscuring the views in either direction.
From the rose garden, steps lead up beside the house to a broad terrace that provides the ideal link between house and open garden in front. In summer, the terrace is warm and sheltered as confirmed by the luxuriantly large lemon verbena and jasmine against the house, which face out to the neat parterre in which four box-edged hearts filled with a low thyme
are divided by stone paths and enclosed by a square box hedge.
The Kettle Hill house doesn’t present a symmetrical façade to the garden and the design of the terrace to flow around the house with varied planting cleverly accommodates this. The Yorkstone paving, with domes and spirals of clipped evergreen, provides continuity and seasonal planting provides variety.
Frances’s sitting room opens onto the house-beds area of the terrace and looks along the Yorkstone path that leads away between the main lawn and the yellow-andblue border against a brick wall. In early summer, the border is a wonderful composition of domes and spires, notably Geranium Blue Cloud and Salvia Caradonna.
Later in the summer, there are clumps of agapanthus and bright-yellow rudbeckias as well as sprays of sun-catching Stipa
gigantea beckoning from the far end. Here, you move once again from neat orderliness to the more natural wildflower garden that comes up and dies down, its seasons begun and ended by carpets of spring-flowering cyclamen on one side and autumn-flowering varieties on the other.
Between the stipas, a path leads to one of the two entrances into the walled secret garden, with sets of wooden gates designed by Mr Carter. Enclosed by brick walls, the secret garden is a secluded haven overlooked from one side by a delightful Classical summer house. As in other parts of the garden, succession planting is important, a good example in one large bed being massed tierellas and chionodoxas in spring, followed by a combination of massed lupins.
In the adjoining fruit garden are many apples and apricots, but the small enclosure is also where the spirit of The Romantic Garden Nursery is most faithfully preserved. The combination of fine gravel on the ground, patterned by curves of paving bricks, and architectural evergreen plants gives the atmosphere of a modern, chic city garden that is intensified on a hot summer’s day.
Against one side is an oval wood-framed window designed by Mr Carter and the centrepiece is a large grey-green agave in a terracotta pot surrounded by French lavender and four columnar olive trees. There are other, variegated agaves in pots and a series
of dramatic flourishes, such as three adjoining arches of clipped trachelospermum; a honeysuckle arch between two Magnolia grandiflora; exquisite bright-pink-flowered Japanese apricot Prunus mume Beni-chidori in a pot; and, equally striking, pleached autumn-flowering standard sasanqua camellias in grey wooden planters against the walls on two sides.
The whole space is a masterclass in the arrangement of different plant shapes and textures, of different shades of green illuminated by occasional dazzling colour and a composition of different plant containers. They are things that The Romantic Garden Nursery pioneered nearly 40 years ago and which, today, Frances Winch has skilfully used to enhance her garden, which embodies the character of the Norfolk seaside.
Kettle Hill, Blakeney, Norfolk, will be open in aid of the NGS on Sunday, June 4. For full details, visit www.ngs.org.uk George Plumptre is Chief Executive of the NGS
A bird’s-eye view: old-fashioned shrub roses have been chosen for their scent
The walled garden’s classical summer house provides a secret haven
Low hedges and fences divide the garden’s areas without interefering with the view and the sense of big-sky openness
A wildflower border flanks the path that leads from the house to the paddocks
Topiary and clipped flowering plants create a romantic but contemporary look