A classic beauty
Emma Keswick has lovingly developed her Cotswold garden over more than three decades. The result is a triumphant English garden on a grand scale, with majestic topiary and exuberant planting
When Emma Keswick and her husband Simon bought Rockcliffe House and the surrounding farmland in 1981, there was no garden to speak of. The house was surrounded on three sides by undulating Cotswold farmland and, because for the first eight years the couple were living abroad, carving out the garden was a gradual process.
But during return visits Emma, who trained in garden design at Merrist Wood (and is currently working on a re-design for the first Maggie’s Centre in Edinburgh), started to create the structure. She planted evergreen hedges and topiary, built walls and laid Yorkstone paths to make a series of interconnecting areas. At the tranquil heart of the garden is a wide, closely mown lawn framed with two lines of beech obelisks. On either side, areas of profusion, in controlled colour schemes, create an immaculately tended garden of great beauty. I spoke to Emma about the garden’s evolution.
What was your starting point? I’ve never had a masterplan; one area led to another in my eye. The house drops down to a lake at the back, which is not ours, so I realised the garden would have to go out front, where the cars were parked. The first thing I did was move the car park to the side of the house. I wanted a clean sweep to the view from the front of a perfect Cotswold scene with grazing sheep, so we made a ha-ha. The only more or less level part of
the garden was next to the tithe barns so that’s where we made the kitchen garden, enclosed with a wall. It’s not ideal, as it’s in a frost pocket, but I had nowhere else to put it. What kind of gardens are you drawn to? My favourite garden is Rousham – I have been influenced by the beauty and purity of William Kent’s masterpiece. I like my planting to be billowing and blowsy but the garden must have lots of structure – as that’s what you’ve got to hold your interest in winter. From where do you get inspiration for your design ideas? I find that what you have to play with – the lie of the land – dictates what the design is going to be. All my ideas are based on something I’ve read about, seen or visited. Most people adapt a memory they’ve got – and therefore the more gardens you go and see, the more you’ve got to play with. What has been the trickiest part and why? The planting on the terrace in front of the house, because I look down on it from my bedroom. We pass through it 20 times a day and see it from every angle, so it has to look good all year round. I’m trying to get it to be all shrubby, to have hummocks of green and grey, with eruptions of colour in between. But it’s difficult because the plants fall over on each other all the time. My advice is not to have too many small plants – they get lost. What is your favourite part of the garden? I love looking at the dovecote every day. I knew I wanted a focal point at the top of the orchard and once I decided on a dovecote I looked at endless books, and had endless versions of it drawn by architect Rob Gardner until eventually we got it right. The birds sit on the gilded weathervane, which I copied from Eton College chapel, and they are so beautiful, especially against a blue sky. This is a high-maintenance garden. How do you cope with it? This is an incredibly labour-intensive garden, with so much clipping and cultivating, and I want to be on top it. I’m lucky to have a very competent team of three full-time gardeners and two trainees on the Work
The kitchen garden path, edged by cottage garden borders, is framed by hornbeam hedges and espaliered medlars ( Mespilus germanica). Two lines of exuberant topiary birds sitting on yew plinths draw the eye up to the Cotswold stone dovecote, which was designed by owner Emma Keswick with architect Rob Gardner.
Right A curved yew hedge, separates an area of long grass and cow parsley from the herbaceous border, where four Irish yews, bought as mature specimens, punctuate more formal planting of Rosa ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’, Thalictrum ‘Elin’ and Valeriana officinalis.