Gardening is a passion at Castle Hill in North Devon

The garden is full of blossom in April

The garden is full of blossom in April - Credit: Archant

Our Gardening Writer Gill Heavens visits a North Devon stately home where gardening remains just as much of a passion for the present day occupants as it did for those who have gone before them

The Palladian splendour of Castle Hill

The Palladian splendour of Castle Hill - Credit: Archant

Castle Hill and its gardens have a history as rich as Devon clotted cream. This stunning Palladian house sits gracefully on a south facing hillside near Filleigh, just outside Barnstaple. It was built in 1730 and since then has been home to 14 generations of the Fortescue family.

The custodians at present are the Earl and Countess of Arran. The Countess is the granddaughter of the 5th Earl. This architectural pearl is set in 50 acres of spectacular 18th century parkland. Over the years the estate has been adorned not only by sumptuous and imaginative planting but with statues, follies and temples, which have been added to and enhanced by succeeding generations.

The garden provides for all horticultural tastes. It boasts a traditional landscape garden, herbaceous borders, woodland, riverside meadows, a kitchen garden, follies and a castle with cannons! The estate is not, however, a botanical museum and the Earl and Countess, like their 18th century counterparts, are continuing the development of the gardens for the benefit of future generations.

Adjacent to the house is the Millennium Garden designed by Chelsea gold medal winner Xa Tollemache, designed to be at its best from June to October. When I visited in April the borders were already full of interest with lissom weeping pear trees, clusters of indigo grape hyacinths, the fresh foliage of emerging peonies and a striking water feature by Giles Rayner. The productive walled kitchen garden keeps the house supplied with vegetables and cut flowers for the whole year. It is flanked by the Earl’s pride and joy, a spectacular scarlet camellia hedge which, when in flower, is a sight for sore eyes.

The Earls pride and joy is the camellia hedge flanking the vegetable garden

The Earls pride and joy is the camellia hedge flanking the vegetable garden - Credit: Archant

A tributary of the River Bray meanders through the garden, interrupted by weirs and spanned by the well-named Ugley Bridge. At this time of year the footpath above the river is at its best, replete with voluptuous rhododendrons and azaleas, late flowering camellias and magnolias and many other spring flowering shrubs. Not only is it a visual treat but an olfactory one too, the pathways are heady with fragrance, provided by amongst others Viburnum carlesii “Diane”, osmanthus and Fothergilla major Monticola Group. Bluebells, primroses, violets and wood anemones clothe the ancient banks.

Once you have passed this fine display of colour and scent, a snaking trail leads you up through a hillside of mature beeches towards the sham castle. Take time to enjoy the views down to the river and marvel at the majestic beeches under-planted with the proverbial host of daffodils. This was once a tangled mass of suffocating Rhododendron ponticum but has now been cleared and the lower branches of the trees raised to splendid and dramatic effect.

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Once you reach the castle, surrounded by a traditional ha ha, there are excellent views to Lundy, Exmoor and Dartmoor. For those of you who would rather forgo the ascent there is plenty of interest at lower climes. The river walk winds past a touching pet cemetery and wildflower meadows full of nodding fritillaries.

Both the Earl and Countess are passionate gardeners, although the Earl says that the Countess is much better than him at remembering plant names! They are both great lovers of magnolias and have created Magnolia Wood to indulge this passion. Here they grow a wide variety including Magnolia kobus, “Black Tulip”, “Heaven Scent” and “Goldstar”.

The Earl and Countess are hands on gardeners

The Earl and Countess are hands on gardeners - Credit: Archant

In true landscape style there are follies dotted throughout the garden with evocative names such as the Sunset and Sunrise Temples; they provide decorative resting places to ponder the beautiful views. Sculptures are also prevalent, including cheeky Pan, decadent Bacchus and many elegant greyhounds which also feature in the Fortescue family crest.

There is an underlying sense of peace and tranquillity at Castle Hill which is large enough to roam all day undisturbed and unhurried. It is a wonderful garden, but you mustn’t take my word for it. Go and see for yourselves!

For more information and visiting hours visit

The garden is full of blossom in April

The garden is full of blossom in April - Credit: Archant

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