Antoinette Galbraith falls for the glorious mix of cascading, fast-flowing and still waters in the Japanese Gardens at Stobo in the Scottish Borders
Reflecting on the glorious Japanese water gardens at Stobo
This autumn promises to be an exciting one in the Japanese Water Garden at Stobo. The long, cold winter, followed by a hot summer, have resulted in the perfect conditions for an outstanding display of colour. ‘It will be an early autumn,’ says Hugh Seymour, ‘a glorious autumn with a succession of colour. After a hot, dry summer the red and gold Acers and the yellow Cercidiphllyum in particular will be spectacular.’ Coupled with this feast of colour comes fragrance. ‘Stobo is a surprisingly sensory garden,’ continues Hugh’s wife Georgina. ‘Visitors speak mostly of the scent, the light, the tranquility, the reflection of the plants in the water and the birds.’ Nestled in the Peeblesshire hills this historic but relatively unknown garden was established by famous cricketer and keen gardener Hylton Philipson (1866-1935) who famously vied for the wicketkeeper position in the England team with notorious Scottish soldier, adventurer and confidence trickster General George McGregor, the man best-known for an audacious fraud where he persuaded thousands of Scots to invest in the fictional Central American territory of Poyais (250 also emigrated there, over half of whom died). A Northumbrian, Philipson married the Honourable Nina Murray, whose family had once owned Stobo but lost their estates after they were exiled following the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. On his way back from the England cricket tour of Australia from 1895, Philipson visited Japan and was so inspired by the gardens that he saw there that he resolved to create his own and between 1909 and 1913 built the gardens at Stobo.
“Visitors speak of the scent, the light, the tranquility, the reflection of the plants on the water
The work was finished just before the First World War having cost just under £8,000, but the estate was sold in the late 1930s shortly after Philipson’s death. In 1971 it was bought by Leo Seymour and the gardens were separated from Stobo Castle, which is now a successful hotel and spa. Georgina and Hugh, Leo’s son, live in a farmhouse perched on the side of the hill above the garden and currently tend it with the help of two part-time gardeners. An understanding of Philipson’s vision is key to understanding the garden. ‘Initially he planned just to build a dam across a valley to form a loch in the hills above Stobo with the intention of providing an energy source for the castle and sawmill,’ explains Hugh. Shortly thereafter he dammed the burn a second time to create the lower loch. The hidden loch directly above the garden feeds the nine-metre drop and is now the cascade at the heart of the garden. ‘This was the start of the water garden,’ says Hugh. ‘The existing backdrop of noble firs, oak and beech were incorporated into the design.’ The Japanese style is enforced by the white painted Trompe l’oeil bridge at the top of the loch where it overlooks water cascading through the dramatic, narrow gorge before rushing through rills, around moss covered rocks and under Japanese style bridges. ‘The garden is all about light, water and colour,’ says Georgina. ‘Our main challenge is to be brave, keep vistas open and canopies raised so the light can filter between the trees and shrubs and reflect in the water.’ The garden is entered through a small, wooden gate at the foot of the slope, which leads though the belt of conifers. The path leads up the slope, past one of several Japanese lanterns, a trio of stepping stones linking two waterfalls and over the first of two arched bridges. Here the Japanese horse chestnut aesculus turbinata scatters its golden crown of leaves, while to the east plantings of bamboo rustle gently in the breeze. It is impossible to pass the Japanese Umbrella Pine Sciadopitys verticillata without reaching out to stroke its long, soft needles.
“Looking down on the glowing tapestry of colour and texture is a magnificent sight
Standing on the dam, looking down on the glowing tapestry of colour and texture accentuated by tall green columns of conifers, is a magnificent sight. ‘A storm took out a lot of the rhododendrons and in 2000 another violent storm uprooted some of the larger conifers, but the garden became a lot lighter,’ says Hugh. Once the debris was cleared an ongoing planting programme incorporating many of Philipson’s original species began in earnest. Dramatic in autumn Stobo is also magnificent in spring when the trees are heavy with blossom and fresh, lime green foliage. Colour comes from rhododendrons and azaleas and the all-engulfing scent from R luteum. But for Hugh and Georgina autumn, when the burn cascades though a kaleidoscope of colour contrasting with the purple hills, is the most exciting time. ‘We love it in the garden and are incredibly lucky to have it so close to the house,’ he says. ‘It is just like stepping out of the real world into a hidden valley of peace and tranquility.’
Cascade: The dramatic Stobo waterfall.
Top: Stobo farmhouse in the autumn sunshine. Above: A cascade of water from Tromp l’oeil bridge.
Above: Hugh and Georgina Seymour enjoy the garden. Left: A Japanese artefact amongst the foliage.