Heather woven through a hillside garden
On the unforgiving soil of a former Sussex quarry, a couple have created a hillside garden woven with colour and movement
High up, where trees cling to the steep sides of a former sand quarry exposed to the August sun, lies Champs Hill. Ten miles from the Sussex coast, near Pulborough, the house and its surrounding garden are afforded some protection by a shelterbelt of pine trees and birches. But what sets this 30-acre estate apart is the colourful weave of heather spreading out like a giant tapestry, its earthy aroma filling the warm air. Once the site of three disused quarries, now it comprises woodland, heathland and the 3-acre heather garden which wraps around the house. Far-reaching views stretch across Amberley Wildbrooks, a nature reserve of floodplain and grazing marshes, towards the majestic South Downs, with the seaside towns of Littlehampton and Worthing beyond. Today, its original south-facing flower beds are a riot of berry-coloured pinks and purples, which runs from July through to autumn. In this swathe of gently swaying patchwork, the foliage of the heathers runs in shades of light to dark green and even red, for contrast. To achieve this effect, however, has not been an easy task for the owners of Champs Hill. The area’s poor soil and challenging weather conditions have proved obstacles in both developing and maintaining the garden.
“The soil here is pure sand; there’s no goodness in it at all,” says Mary Bowerman as she surveys the scene. She has lived here with her husband David since 1986, when they inherited their home from his parents, and from where they run their music business. With such poor soil, she confesses that layers and layers of mulch have played a huge role in the development of the garden, ongoing for more than 50 years. David’s parents bought the site before the Second World War, and in 1960 they came to retire, having first built a spacious bungalow with large picture windows to capture the views. They then turned their thoughts to a garden extending from the south front of the house, leaving the rest to open heathland and wooded areas. They chose summer-flowering heathers, as well as winter-flowering varieties, to be the focus of the garden because they were fairly low maintenance and could cope on the quarry clifftop. David’s parents became so passionate about Ericas, as heathers are collectively known, that they became founding members of The Heather Society. “When the garden was originally planted, my mother-in-law would have put in a lot of peat, as you have to have something to retain moisture in the sand,” says Mary. “We’ve added masses of extra material over the years too, such as leaf mould, gathered from the woodland, and ericaceous compost, because many heathers are acid-loving. “A typical cottage-style garden of herbaceous perennials just wouldn’t work here. The plants would need too much staking, watering and deadheading,” she explains as she walks around some of the larger beds in this original part of the garden. They are made denser and more enveloping with a backdrop of rhododendrons and azaleas that provide colour in spring, along with the acers, cotinus and berberis that give the garden a framework all year round. With this cacophony of shrubs and heathers, and the nearby woodland, the garden is a magnet for birds. “They tuck themselves away in the conifers and the bigger shrubs,” she says.
Destruction and rebirth
The weather is always an issue, rolling straight in from the Channel and over the Downs. It can be glorious in summer or wild when the weather turns. There was no wilder event than the Great Storm of 1987, when hurricane-force winds knocked down approximately 800 trees at Champs Hill. “In just a few hours, hundreds of pine and birch trees fell over, and we even had one through the roof,” recalls Mary. Despite the devastation, the Bowermans, together with a band of helpers, spent many months chopping up and burning the fallen trees, while other saplings quickly moved in and were allowed to stay. “The pines like the sandy soil and plant themselves, which is helpful because our big problem is ensuring the
cliff edge above the biggest quarry doesn’t recede,” she explains. “We have to grow a lot of vegetation to keep it stable. We’ve cut some of the Scots pine right down, to give a hedge-like look; to delineate the edge of the garden while maintaining our views.” Although the storm was destructive, it gave Mary and David the chance to develop the garden in their own way and expand it beyond the southern frontage of the house. Mary confesses to having made some mistakes along the way. “After the hurricane, there were lots of blank spaces, so we had to start planting, and I must have put in more than 50 dwarf conifers. After approximately 12 years, we had to remove them because they’d grown too tall.”
They quickly realised that water and irrigation would allow them to achieve their plans for a much larger garden that spread to the east and the north of the house. “It was a baptism of fire, but we were still in our prime” she says. “We had some hot summers when we first moved in, and saw that the garden was totally dependent on being watered, and that we would need better irrigation if we were to add more flower beds. David, always far-seeing, sensibly said: ‘We’ll put in irrigation while the garden is in such a bad state’.” To this end, in the early 1990s, they lined the two smaller quarries to the north of the house and transformed them into rainwater reservoirs, installing underground irrigation pipes throughout the garden. Water collected from the house’s ample roof structures feeds into these reservoirs, ensuring that the chlorine-hating heathers and other plants have a constant supply of rainwater. Once the reservoirs were installed, the couple could concentrate on putting in new beds for more heathers. “To the side was a pine wood, and all the way behind us was completely wild, open heathland,” says Mary. After all the fallen trees had been cleared, the Bowermans began to convert some of the heathland into lawn and dig large flower beds to the east and the north of the house. “The 1990s were a very busy time, but we were very lucky to have a wonderful gardener called Sid Brown, who was trained by my parents-in-law, to help us,” she recalls. “Sid was an expert on heathers and he could look at any plant at any time of the year and tell you exactly what it was called and how to treat it.” With his help, they filled the new beds with both summer- and winter-flowering heathers. Rarities include the tall tree heathers, with their frondy flower spikes; a spectacle in spring, but with the best overall display in summer, from mid-July onwards. Pottering from bed to bed, an exuberant
blend of native calluna heathers, pretty daboecias and Erica vagans can be seen. These include varieties such as dusty pink Calluna vulgaris ‘E. Hoare’, magenta-coloured Daboecia cantabrica ‘Rainbow’ and Erica manipuliflora x vagans ‘Valerie Griffiths’, with its golden foliage. The newer East Garden, also referred to as the Enigma Garden for the elegant sculpture that sits at its centre, is reached via a green sward of grass lawn. This is one of the bowling green lawns which link the entire garden. Here, in the large curving flower beds, the bell heathers can be seen; vivid pink Erica cinerea ‘Lady Skelton’ rubbing shoulders with soft pink ‘Blossom Time’ and the deep bronze flower of ‘Rendlei’. “Pairing a heather with red flowers or foliage always makes a good contrast against the pink-flowered and green-leaved heathers,” says Mary. The last part of the garden to be created, in 2000, at the north side of the house, is known as the Music Room Garden because it was made for the enjoyment of guests who come to recitals at the Bowermans’ private concert hall. “We wanted a garden where our guests could come out during an interval with a glass of wine and enjoy the vistas. We cleared away a few trees and scrubby heathland to create this space.” The Music Room is open all year, so guests wander around some of the heather beds enjoying the ebb and flow of the seasons.
Weaving a pattern
As in other areas of the garden, the heather patchwork is a blend of plants, but heavy on the summer-flowering cinereas, much loved by the bees which come to collect nectar to make honey. “Because of the concerts and events, the beds have to
look reasonable all year round, so I’ve interwoven them with other plants, such as daphne, pittosporum, fuchsias, agapanthus and sedums. But basically, the flower beds are a patchwork of heathers with a background of shrubs,” she explains. Some heathers are chosen particularly for their foliage colour, to create a foil for the less striking flowers. These include Calluna vulgaris ‘Arran Gold’ and ‘Wickwar Flame’, with its yellow to hot-orange foliage, or the silver grey of Calluna vulgaris ‘Alison Yates’. In common with the southern and eastern sections of Champs Hill, the flower beds here gently curve and undulate. “The beds we put in are all round or curving: I don’t like straight lines. It’s a very natural garden, wild almost, where you just wander from one thing to another,” says Mary. She claims that there is “no design; it just happens”. However, she and her two gardeners, Sid’s sons Adrian and Lynn Brown, have a masterful touch with planting if that is so, managing to interweave so many different heathers with such a deftness of touch. “Most of the beds are pretty much wholly heather, and the key to getting a tapestry is to plant quite a few of the same variety together to make a ribbon. You need to plant five, seven or even nine plants of the same variety to create this effect,” she adds. After all these years of dedication and cultivation, Champs Hill has a collection of heathers which stands at more than 300 varieties. One of the best private heather gardens in the country, it has opened annually for the past 40 years in aid of the National Gardens Scheme. Mary and David have been awarded a beautiful bronze sundial in recognition of their contribution to the charity. “In the summer, the garden is like a patchwork of heathers, with one plant flowing into another. It’s my favourite time of year,” says Mary. “It’s a very natural garden, and we’ve designed it so you have to keep walking around the corners to find surprises. We have a lot of musicians here to stay, and they’re all bowled over by the views and the tapestry of heathers. It’s very satisfying to see the things we’ve planted mature, and the framework fill out.”
Mary Bowerman, who has taken the baton from her in-laws in developing the heather-filled garden at Champs Hill.
Soft waves of heather carpet the Bowermans’ garden, bringing a vibrant summer display to the hillside.
A medley of rich colour, comprising bell heathers Erica cinerea ‘Lady Skelton’, ‘Blossom Time’ and ‘Rendlei’, with its unusual deep bronze flowers, along with Erica manipuliflora x vagans ‘Summer Time’ and ‘Pallida’, and a Calluna vulgaris with gold foliage.
The south-facing east side of the house, bound by trees including a sorrel, or sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum. In the foreground are a mix of Erica manipuliflora x vagans ‘Valerie Griffiths’, Daboecia cantabrica ‘Rainbow’ and Calluna vulgaris ‘E. Hoare’.
Compact, low-growing Calluna vulgaris ‘Wickwar Flame’, which has orange foliage in summer.
A spindle tree, with the yellow foliage of Erica erigena ‘Thing Nee’ banking up behind. This retains its sunny colour throughout the year.