Mandy Bradshaw on the snowdrops of Cerney
Cerney House Gardens have an atmosphere that wins you over
Sat in a corner of the Walled Garden watching winter sunshine slowly melting the frost, it’s easy to see why people fall in love with Cerney House Gardens. There’s an atmosphere that no amount of clever design can guarantee, a stillness that forces you to slow and that’s making me reluctant to leave.
From my vantage point, high up in the Walled Garden, I can see clearly the intricate design of the knot garden, while over the walls there are glimpses of the old house and the woods that wrap around the site. At this time of year, they are full of snowdrops and borders in the main garden are beginning to fill with the purples and pinks of swathes of hellebores.
Although it’s a five-acre garden that opens to the public for nine months a year, it feels far more like a private space that I’ve somehow wandered into.
And in a way, it is. This is very much a family garden, first laid out in 1984 by Isabel Angus and her daughter, Barbara. Now, since Lady Angus’ death in 2016, Cerney House is run by her son, Nick, who runs a food manufacturing business, and his wife, Janet.
They were left the house, says Janet, on the understanding they would take on the garden as well.
It was no small undertaking as the couple weren’t gardeners; Janet, a consultant dermatologist, describes herself as a city girl who had previously had only a small, town centre garden. Lady Angus’ sudden death also meant the gradual hand-over didn’t take place and the pair were, in Janet’s words, “thrown in at the deep end”.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to do it,” she says. “There was trepidation but I’d promised Isabel.”
They’ve been helped by the close-knit team of seven part-time gardeners and one full-time, many of whom have been there for years. Heading up the team is Lou Mercer, who had been working at the cheese factory – the estate produces the award-winning Cerney Blue. She was asked to lend a hand in the garden until a head gardener could be recruited and was won over by its charm.
“I’ve been a gardener all my life and I wanted a change, to do something different,” she says, “but I could not resist this garden.”
Like so many private gardens, little seems to have been written down and the team have relied on the knowledge of one of the former gardeners who visits every couple of weeks to give advice.
‘Isabel really trusted people and was very welcoming. She just wanted to share this garden’
“There is no plant list, it’s in Sylvia’s mind, she is the plant list,” says Lou simply.
“There are over 200 roses in the walled garden some of which don’t have a label. Sylvia knows them and, if they’ve not got a label, it’s because we don’t know the name. Her knowledge has been invaluable.”
More problematic are the snowdrops. Over the years, labels have moved or been lost and no one seems to know what is in the collection.
“We knew we had a lot of snowdrops but none of us are experts,” explains Lou.
Knowledgeable visitors have helped with some and they are hoping to bring in some expert galanthophiles to help with others.
“We are going to start trying to catalogue and photograph all the ones we know and get names of some but it’s very difficult to identify them.”
This lack of detailed knowledge in no way diminishes what is a beautiful display. The woodland ‘Snowdrop Trail’ takes you past huge drifts of white blooms, with winter aconites and cyclamen adding splashes of yellow and pink. Later in the year, the woods will be full of bluebells and wild garlic.
In the main garden, snowdrops cluster around steps, colonise the foot of walls, and are slowly spreading across the lawn.
If the woods are gardened with a light touch, the one-acre Walled Garden is far more labour intensive. The clipped box of the Knot Garden is infilled with tulips for spring with the colour then moving to the mainly rambling roses that form a flowercovered screen around it.
There are beds packed with perennials – peonies, geraniums, sedum – a lavender-edged central path and an area of vegetables and fruit.
“The borders are huge and a lot of the stuff needs staking,” says Lou. “If you’re staking something in this garden, it takes a whole day to do it.”
Naturally, this influences what can be achieved: “You have to think in terms of scale and have to let go of the idea of perfection. It’s just impossible to have anything perfect.
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you look at what needs doing. You have to prioritise and plan in this garden.”
Changes have been more slight alterations than radical overhaul. More alliums have been planted to fill the gap between the tulips and roses. There are plans to grow more Heritage vegetables and to introduce added
‘I’ve been a gardener all my life and I wanted a change… but I could not resist this garden’
autumn colour with dahlias and other late season performers.
“Barbara did such a beautiful job of creating structure, the design of the borders, the planting and things are so good, it’s just needed tweaking,” comments Janet.
An example of this clever structure is the long view from the gazebo, through carefully aligned gates in the walled garden and down into the main garden beyond.
The gazebo, bought to mark Lord and Lady Angus’ 40th wedding anniversary, has been completely refurbished and the garden around it, originally a medicinal herb garden, is being replanted as a memorial to the couple.
Elsewhere, there are subtle changes including better signage, while the bothy, which has long been used as a DIY tea shop, has been opened up to include tables and now offers an impressive range of teas, coffees and fruit cordials along with homemade cakes, another skill Janet has acquired. It is still run on an honesty box system.
“Isabel really trusted people and was very welcoming,” says Janet. “She just wanted to share this garden.”
And it has won her over too.
“I love it and I want to know more,” she says. “There is something special about the Walled Garden. It’s got a special atmosphere. I open up the bothy every morning and those are the best five minutes. It’s so perfect. It just stills you.”
Cerney House Gardens, North Cerney, starts its 2019 season on Saturday, January 26.
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Snowdrops are allowed to naturalise throughout the garden
ABOVE: Snowdrops are slowly spreading across the lawn
LEFT TO RIGHT: Large drifts of hellebores fill the garden with early colour. The Walled Garden’s topiary stands out in the winter scene