A se­ries of har­mo­nious in­ci­dents

Ge­orge Plumptre is won over by a sym­pa­thetic and highly in­di­vid­ual de­sign that grad­u­ally re­veals its string of se­crets

Country Life Every Week - - Property Comment - Pho­to­graphs by An­drew Law­son

Just oc­ca­sion­ally, I visit a gar­den that res­onates on all fronts. On the happy oc­ca­sions when this oc­curs, the gar­den’s in­flu­ence is so har­mo­nious that you sim­ply want to purr with plea­sure. It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what time of year you visit, as it will be a place that’s not de­pen­dent on sea­sonal high­lights. the sea­sons only af­fect its chang­ing ap­pear­ance, like a well-cho­sen, el­e­gant wardrobe.

Nor will it be re­liant on grand or im­pres­sive fea­tures. In­stead, it’s a lov­ingly crafted com­po­si­tion made up of a gar­den that’s both do­mes­tic and or­na­men­tal, around ver­nac­u­lar build­ings and with seam­less bonds with the sur­round­ing coun­try­side.

Rof­ford Manor, near the small south Ox­ford­shire vil­lage of Lit­tle Mil­ton, is such a place. the char­ac­ter­ful, gabled farm­house with an­cient ori­gins and its as­so­ci­ated farm build­ings have now been wo­ven to­gether by a gar­den that flows around all sides in a se­ries of in­ti­mately var­ied en­clo­sures.

tucked away at the end of a dead-end lane and sur­rounded only by open fields and wood­land, it was dis­cov­ered in the early 1980s by its own­ers Jeremy and Hi­lary Mog­ford, who were look­ing for some­where within easy reach of Ox­ford. It wasn’t for sale, but, un­de­terred, they put a note through the let­ter­box say­ing ‘if you ever think of sell­ing, here are our de­tails’. Back came the re­ply: ‘How could you know we’re em­i­grat­ing to Canada?’ Within a year, it was theirs.

There is some­thing thrillingly Hid­cotean about the com­po­si­tion from ter­race to lawn

‘We re­alised you can’t see an­other roof from the up­stairs win­dows,’ Mrs Mog­ford told me. ‘That clinched it for us.’ The site of the cur­rent three-acre gar­den was vir­tu­ally derelict and the house and other build­ings were in a poor state, but Mr and Mrs Mog­ford had an ini­tial vi­sion of what they wanted and the farm­yard/fields state of the site meant that they could be con­fi­dent in bull­doz­ing and start­ing from scratch.

Mrs Mog­ford wanted a gar­den in which you couldn’t see ev­ery­thing at once, which led to a de­sign that sur­rounds the house, re­veal­ing va­ri­ety at each turn that com­ple­ments the dif­fer­ent façades. How it would be viewed from in­doors was an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion, as would be the fu­sion with the sur­round­ing mead­ows and the more dis­tant views. En­clo­sures were laid out for a ten­nis court and swim­ming pool and their struc­ture of yew hedges has now reached a con­fi­dent ma­tu­rity.

At this stage, Mr and Mrs Mog­ford de­cided to bring in the de­signer Michael Bal­ston, os­ten­si­bly to plan the lay­out and plant­ing for a new pair of borders that would frame the view to the north. In the end, it was 10 years be­fore he got to the borders. Over the in­ter­ven­ing years, he cre­ated a se­ries of fea­tures for dif­fer­ent parts of the gar­den that de­vel­oped the Mog­fords’ early ef­forts.

More than 30 years later, his com­ment on the work at Rof­ford seems to un­der­line the qual­i­ties I dis­cov­ered: ‘Our as­so­ci­a­tion with the own­ers of this gar­den has been a long and happy one… It is a model re­la­tion­ship that we be­lieve has pro­duced the best pos­si­ble re­sult which is re­flected in the over­all har­mony and beauty of the place.’

Mr Bal­ston’s skill was to in­tro­duce new ar­chi­tec­tural and plant­ing schemes and to make sub­tle al­ter­ations to the ter­rain that both en­hance dif­fer­ent parts of the gar­den and weave to­gether to form a de­tailed, co­her­ent whole. A per­fect ex­am­ple is the area im­me­di­ately to the west of the house. This was given a square tank of wa­ter en­closed in a pat­tern of clipped box, look­ing out to a screen of pleached limes that re­placed a low wall and bor­der. Be­yond the limes, he lev­elled a rough field into a lawn en­closed by a sweep­ing ha-ha that’s now en­hanced by a sculp­ture from Bar­bara Hep­worth’s as­sis­tant De­nis Mitchell.

Fields dot­ted with clumps of trees stretch away from the ha-ha, but you’re drawn to the med­lar walk, from which a se­cre­tive wooden door­way in a brick wall leads into the area north of the house that is per­haps Mr Bal­ston’s

pièce de ré­sis­tence.

A visit to Hid­cote was an early in­spi­ra­tion for the Mog­fords and there is cer­tainly some­thing thrillingly Hid­cotean about the com­po­si­tion from paved ter­race in front of the house (made es­pe­cially broad so it gets the sun, de­spite be­ing on the north side), with hipped wooden-trel­lis gaze­bos on the corners, to wide lawn flanked by the lon­gawaited borders and a mem­o­rable view➢

The gar­den’s in­te­grated sub­tlety is best il­lus­trated by its last–tiny–sur­prise

framed by clipped yew and pairs of In­dian horse chest­nut, Aes­cu­lus indica, be­yond.

The plant­ing has de­light­fully in­di­vid­ual touches through­out, from quan­ti­ties of dif­fer­ent al­li­ums fol­lowed by a vi­brant mix­ture of late-sum­mer peren­ni­als to a rare holly with small crinkly leaves clipped into top­i­ary spec­i­mens, with great clipped drums of the or­na­men­tal pear Pyrus calleryana Chan­ti­cleer back­ing the borders. Equally Hid­cotean are two other de­tails. First, the view from a seat along the borders that faces west and looks through an open­ing in the yew hedge across fields to new tree-lined lakes dug to pur­pose in 1996, whose stand of Lom­bardy poplars re­minded me of Rousseau’s tomb at Er­menonville. The sec­ond is the en­filade across the ter­race, lead­ing from arched door­way to arched yew, that’s en­livened with top­i­ary shapes and a chang­ing ta­pes­try of sea­sonal colour.

From this feast, you progress to the new box gar­den, where paved paths wind among bil­low­ing cloud-clipped box that flows right up to the walls of the house. The mono­chrome pat­terns of stone, box domes and yew hedges present a se­cluded, mes­meris­ing scene of Mod­ernism, full of sug­gested mo­tion and yet re­as­sur­ingly con­stant through­out the year when viewed from the house.

A wrought-iron gate­way in the wall leads to the fourth and fi­nal side, where the gen­er­ous grav­elled en­trance court, lined with pleached limes, of­fers the per­fect wel­come and a glimpse through the en­trance gate­way of the view across open coun­try to the dis­tant beck­on­ing ridge of the Chilterns.

From here, there’s one last area of the gar­den to dis­cover be­yond tiled barns on the far side of the court­yard—the mouth-wa­ter­ing kitchen gar­den. The com­bi­na­tion of for­mally pat­terned pro­duc­tiv­ity and sur­round­ing ver­nac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture cre­ates a vi­sion of in­tox­i­cat­ing rich­ness. Paths di­vid­ing beds of lux­u­ri­ant kale, spinach and cavolo nero are lined with low step-over ap­ples and pears, with other va­ri­eties cov­er­ing the cen­tral ar­bour.

It was here that I came across the fi­nal key per­son in the gar­den’s story: Jon Hu­son,

the gar­dener who ar­rived more than 20 years ago as a young man, when they didn’t think there would be enough work to keep him busy.

Pro­duc­tiv­ity is com­pleted by an over­flow­ing green­house, cold frames filled with sweet po­ta­toes and a mixed or­chard, but the gar­den’s in­te­grated sub­tlety is best il­lus­trated by its last—tiny—sur­prise. From one cor­ner of the kitchen gar­den, a gate leads into the minia­ture Plum Gar­den, where dif­fer­ent plums are trained on a curv­ing frame be­hind a bank of dahlias in au­tumn and there’s a neat stone raised bed for herbs.

Once here, you sud­denly re­alise that the path leads back to the ha-ha lawn and the Mitchell sculp­ture and that you’ve come full cir­cle to re­turn to your start­ing point.

A few years ago, Mrs Mog­ford and Mr Hu­son de­cided their watch­word for de­vel­op­ing the gar­den would be ‘bet­ter, not big­ger’. Each year in late au­tumn, they go round and an­a­lyse each area with the ques­tion ‘how can this be bet­ter?’. As a re­sult, their gar­den, which has built up es­tab­lished lay­ers of de­tail and char­ac­ter over nearly four decades, has clear signs of re­newal, which add a price­less el­e­ment of con­fi­dent vi­brancy.

Per­haps most im­por­tant of all, this is a gar­den that, in spite of its ar­ray of riches, achieves that elu­sive qual­ity of be­ing, first and fore­most, a place of tran­quil­ity, in har­mony with its sur­round­ings and with the peo­ple for­tu­nate enough to live here or to be in­volved with it.

Ge­orge Plumptre is chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Gar­den Scheme. The new edi­tion of his book ‘The English Coun­try House Gar­den’ has just been pub­lished. To buy a copy for the spe­cial price of £14.99, in­clud­ing UK p&p (RRP £18.99), Coun­try

Life read­ers should tele­phone 01903 828503 and quote of­fer code QPG514

Plant­ing asters be­hind the seats on the paved ter­race was a stroke of ge­nius, adding a shot of late colour to the year­round struc­ture of clipped shrubs

Above left: A tan­ta­lis­ing view into the kitchen gar­den. Above right: The en­filade across the north ter­race. Right: Michael Bal­ston sug­gested in­stalling the square tank of wa­ter ringed by clipped box globes. The Bos­ton ivy on the house is a glo­ri­ous au­tumn high­light

Above: In the walled gar­den, beds bil­low with abun­dant rows of cavolo nero, kale, Swiss chard, cour­gettes, fen­nel, squash and cele­riac, as step-over ap­ples and pears make the best use of the space. Far right: Bas­kets of Cox’s ap­ples from the or­chard

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