In the windswept flatlands of the fens, Bank House provides an oasis of colour. Annie Green-Armytage meets the owners
In the south-west corner of Norfolk, an otherwise bleak, bumpy lane is transformed by a vibrant roadside display of flowers. Scarlet roses, pink geraniums and bright daisylike osteospermums grow in extravagance in front of a wooden picket fence and if your car pauses at the unlikely traffic light regulating the adjacent drain crossing, you can peer back into the garden over a tumble of clematis to a solid red-brick cottage bordered by immaculate lawn and a profusion of trees, shrubs and flowers.
This is Bank House, owned by Teresa Lovick and Andrew Stephens, who bought the house in 2011 and started gardening immediately. “The house needed a lot of work so we didn’t actually move in until 2012,” explains Teresa. “But we were doing the garden every weekend that year. Gardens take longer to establish so why would you wait?”
When they began there were traditional rose beds and a good deal of lawn, backed by a leylandii hedge which provides shelter from cold easterly winds. The hedge survived for practical purposes; the rose beds did not. “I like roses in a border with other plants scrambling around them so one of the first things we did was to transplant the old roses,” says Teresa. She is the ‘visionary’ in the partnership, according to Andrew, seeing the big picture in terms of the garden’s design, and masterminding the planting. Over the years she has created many distinctly different areas in the acre of garden, including orchard, cutting garden, bog garden, and flower-filled cottage-style borders at the back of their old barn.
This area was once lawn, banished when Teresa sat out there one day and realised she was longing to be surrounded by flowers. This is characteristic of her process: “I sit in it (an area of garden) and I wait till it tells me what it wants. I wait and sit, and then I’ll have an epiphany; then I do it.’”
The garden’s development has also been shaped by the prevailing conditions. The plot sits 12ft below sea level, which is why in the 1850s, after a major flood, the Middle Level main drain running past the end of the garden, was dug. Part of the garden contains a ditch pre-dating this which still acts as a sump for the rest of the plot, and at certain times of the year this area is very wet. One day Teresa realised she could turn this to her advantage.
“I’d always wanted a bog garden,” she explains. “It suddenly dawned on me that this was the ideal spot. It has worked really well – if I dig into the garden there, even in summer there’s water at less than a spade’s depth.” The constant supply of moisture allows her to grow a range of damp-loving plants, including candelabra primulas, Iris sibirica, hostas and shuttlecock ferns. Her favourite plant of the moment here is Astrantia: “They’re beautiful and it’s the first time I’ve been able to grow those successfully because they’ve got damp feet.”
“I quite like jobs which have a degree of autonomy but don’t require much thought”
Andrew is more than happy to take a back seat with the planting. Retired from a high-powered position as board secretary for the British Library, he has enjoyed developing very different skills in the garden, taking care of the lawns, hedges and edges: “I quite like jobs which have a degree of autonomy but don’t require much thought,” he says with a smile.
Nevertheless, he has also discovered new skill in carpentry, renovating benches, building an auricula theatre, and creating wooden obelisks from lengths of timber. “The obelisks are probably what I’m proudest of,” he says. “They cost around £12.50 each, and they’re topped with a tennis ball. We had to peel the fluff off the tennis balls, but we just gave them to the dogs and they did it for us!”
The dogs are welcome in the garden, other than when they sense the presence of moles, which they did one memorable time, remembered by Teresa as ‘like open cast mining’. They are named Harry and Beau, names which become more meaningful when called together.
Humour is something which pervades the couple’s easy conversation. Andrew sees their garden as having a painterly influence, saying: “Where our friend’s garden would be like photorealism, with no room for dogs, Teresa is more of an impressionist.” Teresa responds: “Monet had cataracts, apparently. I do put a lot of this garden down to the fact that I’m really shortsighted and I don’t wear glasses.”
Short-sighted she may be, but her skill in combining colour and texture is evident. Bold foliage of tender Melianthus major forms a counterpoint to old-fashioned roses, clematis soften hard edges, scrambling up trellis and over fences, pots of graceful Japanese maple (Acer palmatum cv.s) lighten shady corners.
Pink and purple is a favourite theme, with bright, spiky irises and graceful pale peonies backed by an exuberant mix of sweet williams (Dianthus barbatus), pinks (Dianthus cvs) and aquilegias (A. vulgaris). Many plants are grown from seed in her two small greenhouses – the packet count was at its highest last year at around 120.
How much time do they spend in their garden? They laugh. “How much time don’t we spend in the garden?” says Teresa. Andrew agrees. “We do have days out – we went to London recently to see an exhibition, and it was all right… but we just wanted to get back.” A former teacher, Teresa values the garden as a space away from people. “I sit out here and listen to the birds and the insects and the cats and dogs doing their thing, or I pootle away, with my own thoughts. It’s just very calming.”
Bank House is open for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday 26 May and Sunday 25 August 2019. Teresa and Andrew are also taking private group bookings May - July; contact teresao[email protected] or andystephen[email protected] for more information.
“I sit in an area of garden and I wait till it tells me what it wants. I wait and sit, and then I’ll have an epiphany; then I do it”
ABOVE:Paving and cobbles through mixed borders behind the stable building. Plants include Fuchsia magellanica, sweet williams, Stachys byzantina, bearded irises, Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, hebes, scabious and roses
LEFT: Ornamental bird-boxes including ‘Gothic’ and ‘swiss chalet’ on one of the weathered brick walls. Campanula poscharskyana scrambles along the top of the wall
Andrew Stephens and Teresa Lovick parodying ‘American Gothic’ by Grant Wood in front of the gable end of the ‘Bat Cave’ (swallows nest in here and bats often roost here)
ABOVE: Roadside border featuring Rosa ‘Stromboli’, Geranium maderense, Phlomis italica and osteospermum BELOW: One end of the courtyard featuring Japanese maples (Acer palmatum sp.) in pots, in the shade of a weathered brick wall, and an old garden roller