A Northumberland cottage garden comes alive with seasonal colour
Spring mornings can come slowly to Albert Weir’s corner of Northumberland. An early start and camera at the ready count for little when the landscape is tucked in tight under a blanket of dense fog and Albert’s 1920s forester’s cottage, huddled in greyest white, is barely visible.
“Wait and see,” counsels Albert and, sure enough, the mists lift in layers of grey, blue and pink to reveal a network of stone and shingle paths, borders packed with cottage-garden favourites – snowy drifts of sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and spires of Persicaria bistorta in beds trimmed with starry saxifrage – then beyond the garden’s edge, acres of fields, pockets of forest and hills to the horizon.
“At 275 metres, we’re really elevated here and very exposed,” he says, “which makes gardening a challenge, but it does give me the most wonderful views across hills to the Cheviots.”
Albert, a conservation officer-turned-antiques dealer, is a gardener to his bones – a Cheshire farmer’s son who, aged five, would slip through the hedge into the country estate next door to rescue flowers from the compost heap. He crossed the Pennines to study for a PHD, then stayed to work for the Northumberland National Park. Over three decades, by trial and error and in all weathers, he has created this garden – a series of four interlinked, room-like spaces, made for sharing – as an extension of his home, and learnt what flourishes and what fails in these conditions.
Shelter for both visitors and plants is a clear priority. As well as the vintage tools he collects and sells, his lifetime interest in conservation has yielded a ready stock of reclaimed stone and weathered woods for landscaping and garden buildings. A boarded summerhouse for garden suppers has been built in
reclaimed wood and slate in the style of a traditional 19th-century Northumbrian hay barn. “Salvaged timber has lots of advantages, being dry, seasoned and ready weathered, but you must check it for woodworm or dry rot,” he says.
Albert designed the panelled lookout cabin, nicknamed ‘The Mausoleum’, around the dimensions of a vintage horsehair mattress. “It faces the forest and, from the open doors, which fold right back, we can sit and watch the stunning sunsets. To prevent draughts, the gaps where the sawn wooden panels meet are overlaid with roofing slats. That’s what they used to do on hay sheds so that snow didn’t blow in,” he explains.
The granite setts were an auction buy, left over from an urban landscaping project. Albert has laid them in a grid pattern from a narrow point at the porch entrance, broadening as the garden opens out: “It’s like a runway, which helps to encompass the wide view better and make the garden seem bigger than it is.” He beds in the setts with a weak mix of lime, sand and cement, leaves it for three days and then points with a similar mixture. “I don’t want them over-mortared. I like moss growing to soften the edges,” he says.
Skirting the plot is a dry-stone wall, salvaged from the nearby forest. “If you have a boarded fence,” he points out, “the wind hits it and causes an eddy, a vortex, whereas this filters wind through
the gaps. It protects the plants and also discourages pests, as clean air is continually being wafted through the borders.”
Albert has found that moisture-loving rodgersia does surprisingly well in the shadow of his outbuildings, while box blight put paid to some of his box edging. Now he favours beds framed in low-clipped yew or laced with London pride (Saxifraga x urbium) instead. Marigolds sown for nostalgia in a shady gap struggled, but his policy of trusting old faithfuls – campanulas, peonies, lily of the valley, alliums, poppies and foxgloves – and checking out successes of local growers means there have been more hits than misses.
“I go round markets and any open gardens I can find,” he says. “They’re good, because you get local plants that are acclimatised and you can ask the owner whether they grow well. I came across Erythronium dens-canis – dog’s tooth violets – this way. A country house lady said: ‘You look like a keen gardener – you must have these.’ They start out as a scrubby root yet are exquisite little things. They dry out quickly, so you must plant them the same day. And, despite being fleeting – they can be over within a week or less – they’re worth it because they’re so perfect when they come.”
Albert plants tightly so he scarcely needs to weed. “I do a bit around Easter,” he says, “and then the plants are so densely packed together, they shade out any emerging weed seedlings. I tend to save one or two plants and scatter the seeds on every border, so each year new ones spring up in different places.”
The key is to protect what he can, invest in proven ‘good doers’ and take the odd gamble. “At this height, no exotic plants survive, so you’ve got to work with native stock,” he says. “I’m not a good propagator or sower of seeds. I don’t have time or a glasshouse, and I don’t stake anything – it all has to take pot luck.”
Overscale appeals to him and he has used it to dramatic effect with voluptuous vintage planters that draw the eye. “The two big trees are oak – unusual in a small garden,” he admits, “but they’re deciduous, so for half the year you see their skeletal framework and get the broad views to the Cheviots and the snow. I’m quite willing to see the wild wintry weather in the broader distance when the trees are naked, but in summer I like the more intimate views of just the fields around the garden, because that’s the time when you want to simply sit and enjoy the space.”
Albert sells a selection of vintage garden tools, fashion and homeware at Vintage at the Tower, Hill Street, Corbridge, Northumberland (01434 632186).
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“I’m not a good sower of seeds and I don’t stake anything – it all has to take pot luck”
PREVIOUS PAGES Albert’s hilltop garden is laid out in a series of four interlinked ‘rooms’ designed for entertaining
THIS PAGE, FROM TOP Albert planted the English oak as a tiny seedling; he has created his garden around a 1920s forestry cottage; the summerhouse is built in reclaimed timber and slate – borders are packed tight with cottage planting; selfseeding sweet rocket Hesperis matronalis springs up at will
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE The sinuous trunk of a Pyrus salicifolia silver leaf pear adds drama; poppy Meconopsis cambrica; the summerhouse was designed around a narrow arched window salvaged by the builder’s grandfather; showstopping globes of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ are good value in a border; all manner of rustic treasures are hidden in the foliage
CLOCKWISE FROM THISPICTURE Pink spikes of Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’; tiny drawers holding nuts and bolts were originally used by First World War ammunition makers; blush-tipped tulip petals poised to unfurl; ‘The Mausoleum’ faces west for the sunset views; the delicate fronds of wood ferns add to the variety of textures
RIGHT A group of snow-white allium on the cusp of blooming stand tall in the herbaceous border OPPOSITE A flagstone path edged by packed beds of herbaceous planting leads beneath an arch to Albert’s 1920s cottage. Early morning mist often shrouds the Northumberland hilltop, casting an ethereal ochre glow