Many hands make light work

Tim Longville dis­cov­ers how suc­ces­sive own­ers and artists have made their mark on the grounds of an an­cient stream­side prop­erty

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­tographs by Val Cor­bett

Tim Longville dis­cov­ers how suc­ces­sive own­ers and artists have made their mark on the grounds of Chisen­bury Pri­ory, an an­cient stream­side prop­erty in Wilt­shire

AS a house, Chisen­bury Pri­ory, tucked away in a net­work of tiny lanes and vil­lages on the edge of Sal­is­bury Plain and close to the River Avon, was de­vel­oped over sev­eral cen­turies and is at once ex­tremely hand­some and en­gag­ingly quirky. Nowa­days, it’s ac­com­pa­nied and en­riched by an equally hand­some but quirky five-acre gar­den, how­ever, one that’s been de­vel­oped over decades rather than cen­turies.

De­spite the me­dieval ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal ori­gins of build­ing here, the present house be­gan life as a mid-17th-cen­tury, rub­ble-and-stone, L-shaped af­fair, just two storeys high. At the end of that cen­tury, ad­di­tions to its north side pro­duced an odd and un­ex­pected, open­sided court­yard. Fi­nally, in the mid­dle of the fol­low­ing cen­tury, the south side was given a fash­ion­ably el­e­gant three-storey brick façade, with stone dress­ings.

Where the house led, in the process of ‘lay­er­ing over time’, the gar­den has en­thu­si­as­ti­cally fol­lowed. Sir Richard and Lady Har­vey be­gan its trans­for­ma­tion in 1964, widen­ing the leat from the River Avon, which winds be­guil­ingly through the gar­den, and giv­ing it stone walls and ap­pro­pri­ate stream­side plant­ing. Then, Mary-anne Robb (now gardening at Cothay Manor) added more and more plants dur­ing her time there, in her char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ex­u­ber­ant style. And➢

fi­nally, since 1993, John and Tessa Manser have put their own stamp on its five acres, adding new ar­eas, re­design­ing old ones and in­tro­duc­ing some strik­ing sculp­tures.

The gar­den be­gins with the con­trolled sym­me­try of the walled south gar­den—in ef­fect, an en­trance court. Here, two late­sea­son bor­ders, de­signed by Tom Stu­art­smith, are full of thal­ic­trums, aconi­tums, diera­mas, se­dums, kniphofias and Ere­mu­rus (one of Mr Manser’s favourite plants). Fac­ing each other across a grav­elled drive and a grass plat, the com­po­si­tion makes an ideal set­ting for the 18th-cen­tury south front of the house.

Pass through a mod­est door­way to the east of the house, how­ever, and you are, all at once, in a very dif­fer­ent world; one of richly ro­man­tic plant­ing, the de­sign of whose many dif­fer­ent ar­eas of­ten in­cludes el­e­ments both of fan­tasy and of hu­mour. As Mr Manser him­self says: ‘This is not a gar­den with a pre­scribed route. It’s one to wan­der around, ex­plor­ing its var­i­ous nooks and cran­nies.’ And, he adds firmly: ‘Gar­dens should have a sense of hu­mour. Even a bit of whimsy doesn’t go amiss.’

Ev­i­dence of this is strik­ingly demon­strated once you en­ter the main walled north gar­den and are con­fronted by a long, wind­ing, twist­ing struc­ture: part per­gola, part skele-

tal pre­his­toric mon­ster. De­signed by the sculp­tor Diane Ma­clean and con­structed by Paul El­liott, it ‘rhymes with’ the twists and turns of the leat in the dis­tance and blocks of yew be­tween each of its ‘legs’ help an­chor it to mun­dane re­al­ity and pink and white roses and Clema­tis viti­cella va­ri­eties pro­vide its sea­sonal ‘flesh.’

Be­yond, the main lawn slopes gen­tly away to the west, where a pair of quinces and a Cor­nus kousa Chi­nen­sis sig­nal the point at which the leat dis­ap­pears through the wall to make its way from the Avon. Along➢

both sides of the leat are beds densely planted with a dis­crim­i­nat­ing se­lec­tion of mois­ture-lovers (in­clud­ing Gun­nera man­i­cata, rodger­sias, hostas, Rheum pal­ma­tum, ligu­lar­ias, Iris sibir­ica, per­si­caria and bis­tort).

The or­gan­i­sa­tion of these beds is by con­trasts of shape rather than by colour and that’s equally true in the shrub bor­der on the far side of the leat. It runs south­ward along the bound­ary wall and leads to a long nar­row grassed area known as the Bowl­ing Al­ley that’s de­fined on one side by a row of an­cient es­paliered ap­ples and on the other by a bed of ev­ery pos­si­ble colour-form of Gera­nium

phaeum. Its fo­cal point is a strik­ing life­size fe­male nude by the late Ger­ald Laing.

An­other, smaller Laing nude, of a girl wash­ing her hair, is po­si­tioned in the mid­dle of the leat, where large trees add to the air of wa­tery ro­mance. One of those trees has a fine stone seat sur­round­ing it, with a ded­i­ca­tion to Esau, a much-loved and missed dog, com­plete with an in­scrip­tion in ‘pre-ca­nine’ (the let­ter­ing was carved by Emma Laven­der).

In­deed, dogs fea­ture quite as largely here as naked ladies. An­other, Flora, is one of the stars of a suit­ably sea­sonal frieze cov­er­ing the walls of the sum­mer din­ing room.

Here, where the leat passes through the south­ern wall of the north gar­den, is a clus­ter of smaller gar­dens, in­clud­ing a sunny shel- tered Se­cret Gar­den and a ‘Stone Gar­den’, the cir­cu­lar pool in which is sur­rounded by a ta­pes­try of var­ied fo­liage, the flow­ers mostly in shades of yel­low, white and blue and the whole is guarded by two re­dun­dant lions from the House of Lords.

There is a rare nod to colour-them­ing in the shape of a White Gar­den (its curv­ing bor­ders are full of white al­li­ums, vi­o­las, fox­gloves, thal­ic­trums, Gera­nium phaeum Al­bum and Nepeta race­mosa Snow Queen), with the strik­ing cen­tre­piece of an ab­stract sculp­ture by Jo­hannes von Stumm. The box­hedged beds of the Parterre Gar­den, with a cen­tral rose ar­bour by Paul El­liott, are both sculp­tural and prac­ti­cal.

A bridge by the same crafts­man leads over the leat into the wild west gar­den. Here, the only for­mal bed is along the out­side of the north gar­den’s south­ern wall, which is de­voted to what Mr Manser de­scribes as ‘a paean to

Phlomis rus­seliana’, al­though its massed whorled yel­low flow­ers are en­riched by a scat­ter­ing of self-seeded mauve and pur­ple al­li­ums.

In­deed, through­out the gar­den, Mr Manser is happy to tol­er­ate and some­times even en­cour­age self-seed­ers, as they give the gar­den the re­laxed at­mos­phere he prefers. Mostly, how­ever, ‘I do try to keep the wild gar­den prop­erly wild,’ sim­ply al­low­ing frit­il­lar­ies, pyra­mi­dal or­chids and cowslips to oc­cupy the ex­panses of long grass, through which oc­ca­sional paths are mown.

Even here, he can’t re­sist ei­ther the shock of con­trast or the sheer fun of a vis­ual joke. As for the first: be­yond the duck pond in the gar­den’s west­ern­most cor­ner, the gen­er­ally ‘nat­u­ral’ mood is sud­denly bro­ken by a plant­ing of vividly red ac­ers. As for the sec­ond: not only do the ducks have in the mid­dle of their pond an elab­o­rately ori­en­tal duck house, but, emerg­ing out of the pond­side plant­ing, is a sculp­tural mon­ster (‘by a Cana­dian lady liv­ing in Provence; I can’t re­mem­ber her name’).

Mr Manser’s own char­ac­ter­is­tic sum­mary is that ‘some­times, gardening is just an ex­er­cise in frus­tra­tion’, but it’s equally clear that, at other times, it’s a source of enor­mous en­joy­ment and sat­is­fac­tion.

The gar­den at Chisen­bury Pri­ory, East Chisen­bury, Wilt­shire, opens most years for the Ngs—visit

Fine old walls, fine old roses and a fine se­lec­tion of herba­ceous peren­ni­als

Diane Ma­clean and Paul El­liott’s dra­matic sculp­tural per­gola that twists and turns in har­mony with the leat. Pink and white roses and Clema­tis viti­cella pro­vide ‘sea­sonal flesh’ and box be­tween each of its legs an­chors it

The Stone Gar­den’s ta­pes­try-like plant­ing of con­trast­ing fo­liage al­most hides the cir­cu­lar pond with a sculp­ture by An­to­nia Young

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