A Northum­ber­land cot­tage gar­den comes alive with sea­sonal colour

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by hazel dolan pho­to­graphs by brent darby

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).

En­joy gar­den fea­tures, in­te­ri­ors in­spi­ra­tion and more in CL’S free weekly news­let­ter. To sign up, go to­let­ter.

“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

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