Beauty captured in frames of green
Amid the open fields of the Norfolk countryside, Silverstone Farm garden has an elegant simplicity and sense of calm
In the cool blue light of a winter’s dawn, the single-track road to Silverstone Farm winds through a patchwork of pastureland touched lightly by frost. This is the heart of the Norfolk countryside, home to family-run farms and vast arable estates. Gently undulating expanses of wide-open field and farmland alternate with stands of mature woodland. Tucked into the south-eastern corner of one of these is the home of garden designer and historian, George Carter. Although it sits in an expansive unbridled landscape, the garden itself is structured and formal, offering internal views. Laid out in a grid pattern, it is bound by straight lines and symmetry, its simplicity creating a sense of peace. However, there are some spots of contrast, with informal planting in the heavy clay soil to break up the more theatrical design. George moved to the farm in North Elmham, near Dereham, in 1990. “The house looked like it had dropped from the sky onto an open space,” he says. He remembers the process for the two acre plot, including the buildings, as relatively clear-cut. “I was seeing it with fresh eyes,” he says, and the bones of the structure were more or less complete before he moved in. Although the farm, which was built in the 1830s, is solitary, the vistas are controlled to stay more or less within the bounds of the garden. “Dutch gardens have a similar topography,” says George. “They’re flattish, with not many views, and pretty inward-looking. I like that. And, similarly to this plot, they are modest-sized gardens for the Baroque style; not endlessly rolled out.”
Garden of surprises
A series of allées and pathways radiate out in straight lines from the two main structures: the house and a complex of three barns. These walkways are bounded by clipped hedges and focal plants in a mix of species which remain in harmony with the 17th century aesthetic. ‘‘I wanted to use the sort of plant palette that might have been around then, although I have broadened it a bit,” he explains. “It’s very simple planting; nothing too exotic. There is native yew, box, privet and holly, and hornbeam, oak and lime, plus some Mediterranean evergreens.”
The effect of the grid of enclosed pathways is at once revealing and concealing. Vistas open up in unexpected places, while the hedging creates varying degrees of enigma depending on the season, allowing the visitor to discover different garden spaces one by one. At the back of the house, where the main entrance is, the sea of gravel which had accommodated farm machinery has been transformed into a herb garden edged with box and punctuated by clipped evergreens. Flanking the herbs are a pair of elegant sheds resembling classical pavilions. Another similar building sits to one side, reached by a pathway running on an axis across the garden. This is the outside toilet, grandly named the Temple of Convenience, enclosed in what at first glance looks like rusticated stonework. On closer inspection, it is revealed to be marine plywood and is an illustration not only of George’s playful sense of humour but also his skill as a master of illusion. Throughout the garden, he has ingeniously fashioned a variety of structures from simple materials. At the front of the house, a terrace and simple grass parterre, edged in gravel and anchored by painted balls, are laid out in elegant proportion to the building. An arrow-sharp vista shoots down from the house through a hornbeam hedge and broad expanse of lawn to a simple but imposing flint obelisk at the end of the garden. “That’s another thing about 17th century gardens,” he says. “They’re very often minimal. They rely on scale for their effect.” At the far end, bearing left, a woodland garden provides a foil to the formality, with a naturalistic planting of shrubs and trees. Crossing this and returning towards the house, the early sunlight shafts across the frosty orchard, an intriguing mix of formal clipped yew and box, a flint grotto and rough grassland blurring into woodland. This juxtaposition of wild and formal is an important characteristic of the garden at Silverstone Farm, surrounded as it is by the rural landscape. “You need some kind of counterpoint to formality,” maintains George. “I think the best formal gardens all have that association with some kind of wilderness at some point.”
Sense of theatre
Moving up the garden, he has created a green ‘theatre’, with a grassy auditorium and a ‘stage’ comprising five arches. These contain simple urns on stone plinths, complete with box ball footlights in front. The illusion is subtle, evoking a sense of
both grandeur and playfulness, the expanse of frost-rimed grass spreading out before the precise narrow niches containing the urns and the cushions of box. Turning back towards the buildings, the informal pond to the right, originally made to swell wooden cartwheels, and its splendid stone duck-house temple in the water, is left behind. Another walkway opens up to the right, drawing the eye to the far end with another carefully placed stone obelisk. Along this broad path are ranged a series of old barns, each with their own garden, which are sheltered and more or less south-facing. Each has its own simple charm: rectangles of grass and gravel are adorned with painted pots containing clipped evergreens, interspersed with the occasional urn. Sun-loving plants thrive here, with the intermittent addition of silver foliage in the form of helichrysum and germander, Teucrium fruticans, lifting the predominantly green rosemary, bay and Phillyrea latifolia. There are even mature orange trees, although these are planted in pots. Unlike the summer, there is no scent at this time of year. These have been with George since 1972 and are overwintered in one of the barns. Magnificent peacock Birdie also enjoys the sunny aspect next to the barns, particularly during the winter months. The most recent garden addition is the starkly beautiful pool, which he refers to as the canal, and is approximately 39ft (12m) long and 13ft (4m) wide. This adjoins the last barn, which was created just four years ago and is another nod to the Dutch influence on Baroque style. “You might think that Baroque was highly unsuitable for a Norfolk farmhouse, but I think it works as long as the detailing is relatively simple,” says George.
At the far end of this part of the garden, an allée of young limes forms an alternative vista onto yet another stone obelisk. George has substituted the red-twigged lime, Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’, for the more authentic Dutch lime, Tilia europaea, as it does not sucker so much at the base.
“Our England is a garden that is full of stately views, Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues, With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by; But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye”
Rudyard Kipling, The Glory of the Garden
It also adds colour in winter, with its young tracery of growth glowing red in the January sunshine. The effect of the light plays an important part in his enjoyment of the space. “With a garden like this, the way light falls on it does give pleasure. It changes throughout the day, especially in the sunlight. The deep shadows reveal form which makes it more sculptural.” As well as keeping busy designing gardens, George is also a writer, lecturer and historian, so has enlisted some part-time help to keep the garden in order. Nevertheless, he tries to get out in it at least one day each weekend: to work rather than relax. “There are lots of seats, but I never sit unless I have visitors,” he admits. “I tend to tidy compulsively because the effect requires tidiness. And it’s never tidy enough.” Even so, he would not have it any other way, valuing the simplicity of the geometric forms. “The whole idea of formal gardens is that they’re calming,” he says. “I find being in the garden very soothing.”
Silverstone Farm is open for the National Garden Scheme at North Elmham, Dereham, NR20 5EX (2019 dates to be decided).
A view from the house over the neat frosty lawns to the flint obelisk at the end of the garden as the sun rises. Painted balls mark out the path alongside clipped hornbeam and box hedges.
Waterproof plywood is used for detail around the Temple of Convenience, far left, and for an ornate bench against a shed amid evergreen box and holly, left.
A parterre of clipped Phillyrea latifolia and variegated box in the herb garden reveals a decorative water feature.
The duck shelter resembles a tiny temple floating on the water. It creates a striking feature when bathed in shafts of winter sunlight on the mirrored woodland pond.
Birdie the peacock, with his iridescent blue and green plumage, takes in the sun outside the orangery.
A cluster of red-twigged lime, Tilia ‘Rubra’, catches the January sunlight. A decorative wooden gate, blending with the garden colours, mirrors the geometric style of the layout. Beyond is a wooden gazebo with a vista through to another obelisk. The bare hedges are of hornbeam, Carpinus betulus.
A stately bench sits against the shelter of a wall curtained with Rhamnus alaternus in the barn garden.