Tales of the unexpected

The garden moves to a more natural style as you go towards Blockley Brook.

The garden moves to a more natural style as you go towards Blockley Brook - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

A Cotswold garden where surprise underpins its success. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw

Little prepares you for the garden at Colebrook House. True, the magnolia at the front is a Blockley landmark and much photographed when in flower, but the scale and variety of what lies behind is completely hidden. 

Entry is via a brookside path, shaded by yews and edged with ferns and lily of the valley. It opens into the first of a series of surprises, a wide expanse of lawn broken only by clipped yew domes, and with a view to distant trees. 

The Kitchen Garden is a mix of flowers and vegetables.

The Kitchen Garden is a mix of flowers and vegetables - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

The carefully understated style is typical of a space that has been designed and the sheer size is the first indication that this is more than the average village garden. 

It’s been created over the past five years by George and Melissa Apsion with the help of landscape designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who likes to weave the unexpected into his work. 

‘One of the great pleasures of a garden is to surprise people,’ he explains. ‘It makes them so much more interesting. 

Rosa 'Anne Boleyn'Note: Rosa needs to be in italics

Rosa 'Anne Boleyn' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

‘I try to create a garden that compels people to move in the space. You draw them through because they can't see everything. It’s why, in my view, lots of formal gardens don't quite have that drama because they don't invite you to explore.’ 

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The topography at Colebrook House lends itself to this slow reveal of the garden. Immediately around the house, the ground is level before falling away steeply to Blockley Brook and then rising again as woodland. 

Cross to the other side via one of the bridges, and you get a different view, part of that continuous element of surprise. 

‘Every time you turn around you get a new perspective on the garden,’ comments Todd. 

Lupins add a vertical element to the Kitchen Garden borders.

Lupins add a vertical element to the Kitchen Garden borders - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

One of the key features is the newly constructed walled Kitchen Garden, although flowers rather than fruit and veg have the starring role. 

It’s been created out of an area that George describes as having ‘fallen in on itself’ with little beyond a central path and a second that crossed it. 

Today, it’s a series of beds edged with Ilex crenata – ‘It’s fantastic because it looks like box but doesn’t get blight.’ – and filled with a mixture of flowers for cutting, and vegetables. Height and year-round structure come from fastigiate Irish yews. 

A lavender hedge draws the eye towards an ornate gate.

A lavender hedge draws the eye towards an ornate gate - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Tulips start the season, to be replaced by annuals, while summer is dominated by beds at the bottom that are stuffed with roses and lavender. 

A boundary wall to one side has recently been planted with 12 Magnolia grandiflora that will eventually be pleached to create a hedge on stilts. 

Once they are mature, George is planning to remove an inherited hedge of leylandii and install a series of staggered greenhouses down the slope in a nod to Chatsworth. 

‘I’m going to grow annuals, vegetables, vines, anything, and everything. I’m just going to tinker, tinker, tinker.’ 

Peonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty'Note: Peonia lactiflora need to be in italics

Peonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

The roses – all David Austin varieties – are teamed with nepeta, peonies, delphiniums and foxgloves in pastel shades of pink, white, and purple, although there is one bright yellow achillea. 

Meanwhile, the shadier walls are home to Morello cherries, trained against the Cotswold stone. 

Rosa 'Christopher Marlowe'Note: Rosa needs to be in italics

Rosa 'Christopher Marlowe' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Step through ornate iron gates at the end and the mood changes with the first sighting of the Blockley Brook. 

Overhung by trees and with edges softened by plants, it’s an informal place of reflections and tranquillity.  

Nearby, under an old willow and a yew that might be 500 years old, the Cole Brook, first sighted at the front of the house, reappears in a small waterfall.  

The Cole Brook re-enters the garden as a waterfall.

The Cole Brook re-enters the garden as a waterfall - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

‘This was one of the things that attracted me to the house in the first place,’ says George. ‘It’s too amazing for words.’ 

The planting suits the damp shade – sarcococca, hellebores, ferns, and sedges – with a glimpse of the roses through a circular window adding a spot of colour. 

A still, reflective pool further up the slope has more ferns, woodruff, Campanula poscharskyana and euphorbia before opening into another more formal area. Here, large pots, planted with agapanthus and Erigeron karvinskianus line one side of a path with a low hedge of lavender on the other. 

Below is another ‘room’ of lawn, complete with an ancient mulberry, and a mixed border of phlomis, iris, geranium, hydrangeas, alliums and echinacea with a relaxed style. 

There's a tranquil feel to the garden alongside Blockley Brook.

There's a tranquil feel to the garden alongside Blockley Brook - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

‘Todd likes to mix the wild with the formal and he likes a riot,’ says George. 

The borders around the swimming pool are gradually evolving. Repeating plants, including hydrangeas, Erigeron karvinskianus, nepeta and hydrangeas, helps to give the garden an overall cohesion while the introduction of grasses, phlox, veronicastrum and salvia keeps it individual.  

Some things are thriving while others are likely to be replaced. 

‘We’re still finding the rhythm. A lot went in, and probably 60 to 70 per cent took. There's something of the Jackson Pollock going on – just flinging things and having fun.’ 

Another area that is developing is around newly planted apples and pears. Hundreds of foxgloves and martagon lilies have been added to the grass, which will have mown paths to a stone seat, while specimen grasses are designed to add more height. 

Rosa 'Boscobel' - italics on 'rosa'

Rosa 'Boscobel' - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

‘The idea is ‘Alice in Wonderland’,’ explains George. ‘It’s meant to feel like when she sees the caterpillar with the hookah pipe. That’s the kind of environment we’re going for.’ 

On the far side of Blockley Brook, the aim is to create something with a natural feel in an area that was woefully underused. Many of the self-sown saplings have been removed to allow light in and yellow rattle introduced to subdue the grass.  

There are ox-eye daisies, achillea, ferns and foxgloves. Narcissi add early colour and George is planning to plant vinca to provide ground cover once the daffodils die back, along with umbellifers, such as Ammi majus and Daucus carota, wild carrot. 

It’s a gradual evolution which Todd believes is part of the garden’s success: ‘We had a rough master plan, but it’s been done incrementally over several years. That allows you to embroider and embellish, to enhance and to refine your thinking as you go along. 

‘George has been a wonderful person to work with because he has a natural enthusiasm that just bubbles over.’ 

Billowing geranium contrasts with neatly mown lawn.

Billowing geranium contrasts with neatly mown lawn - Credit: © Mandy Bradshaw

Todd still acts as a consultant, providing advice but the day-to-day running of the garden is now managed by Glyn Jones, former head gardener of Highgrove and Hidcote Manor Garden, who joined Colebrook House a year ago. 

Yet, it’s clear that George will still be very much involved, despite being relatively new to gardening: ‘When I came here it just sparked my imagination. I just dived into the garden, and it got momentum. I’ve got the bug now.’ 

Colebrook House will open for the National Garden Scheme along with other Blockley gardens on June 19. Full details are on the website: ngs.org.uk

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