Visiting The Down House in Itchen Abbas this winter

Standard cypress punctuate the rope garden that is hedged with cornus

Standard cypress punctuate the rope garden that is hedged with cornus - Credit: Archant

Don’t miss the wonderful winter stems and the first early bulbs at The Down House in Itchen Abbas, where you will be surprised at just how much colour is possible at this time of the year

Enjoy the beauty of the crocus and snowdrops up close

Enjoy the beauty of the crocus and snowdrops up close - Credit: Archant

When Jackie and Mark Porter bought The Down House in 2001 they were well aware of the potential it offered.

“We had seen the house and the lovely view it had over the valley as we have lived in the area for over 30 years and had often walked the adjoining Pilgrim’s Way along the water meadows of the Itchen Valley, so when it came on the market we knew we had to buy it.

“We say we bought ‘a wreck with a view’ as the house was in a poor state. We had finished our third-of-an-acre garden nearby, having done as much as we could so were ready for a new challenge,” comments Mark.

After renovating and extending the 1930s house, attention turned to the garden. It was mostly a blank canvas, however one stunning feature of the garden was to the side of the house where mature trees, including a towering 300 year-old oak, sheltered carpets of early spring bulbs, snowdrops, Eranthis hyemalis (aconites) and crocus. “Here we only had to add a path to create a woodland walk to fully enjoy the beauty close up,” Mark adds.

They decided to cultivate around three acres as garden, leaving fields beyond of around five acres. Both passionate gardeners, the couple were keen to put their mark on the landscape and their local knowledge guided them with plants that would do well in loam on top of chalk soil. A particular interest in the arts and crafts style has informed the design, further honed by reading The Art and Craft of Garden Making by Thomas Mawson, a classic tome written in 1912.

“The beautiful diagrams show you how to create large scale arts and crafts gardens. We knew we wanted rooms, a journey through the garden and long vistas. The challenge was how to get long lines with views while incorporating the dominant large oak tree already there,” Mark explains.

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The structural elements of the garden were introduced from 2002, with an extensive terrace out from the house and curving steps leading down to a large rectangular formal lawn punctuated with large urns, creating levels out of the sloping south-facing site. A visit to The Manor House at nearby Upton Grey, a Jekyll garden restored by owner Rosamund Wallinger, inspired the next development of a rope-swaged formal garden with pond. In 2004 Chris Beardshaw was called in to advise on design and planting elements.

“We engaged Chris after seeing The Flying Gardener TV series as we liked his style. He added the pleached hornbeams around the lawn, yew hedges at the back of the garden and radiating hawthorn hedges in the potager. He took us to the next stage,” explains Mark.

After four or five years of structural and framework development, feeling like they had ‘employed most of Hampshire’, the infill planting began.

“We look out from the kitchen window onto the rope garden and wanted year-round interest, particularly for winter.

“We decided on a predominantly yellow and green colour scheme shot through with red. We planted four lollypop standards of Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’ (Monterey cypress) that really shine in winter and used Cornus alba and flaviramea (dogwood) as formal hedging, something you don’t usually see.

“It looks really pretty, especially with the coloured stems in winter, and we cut it back every five years to stop the hedges getting woody,” explains Mark.

A visit to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Romsey inspired further emphasis on winter planting to create two dramatic coloured stem borders at the base of the garden leading to a meadow walk down to the river; one of dogwoods, including Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, and the other of willow varieties, such as Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ and the very rare white-stemmed S. fragilis decipiens. Backlit by the low sun they blaze in reds, golds, blacks and purples.

“My favourite has to be Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ with its stems of orange, yellow and coral that look like they are on fire,” comments Mark.

New projects are sure to emerge as the various areas continue to evolve; with Mark freely admitting this is not really a low maintenance garden. As well as enjoying spending time in the garden themselves and for entertaining, this very busy pair open the garden through the National Gardens Scheme.

You are sure to find wonderful inspiration for your own garden from their knowledge and experience; this is definitely a garden not to miss.


Mark’s top tips

Lift and divide snowdrops about three weeks after the flowers have gone over or buy them ‘in the green’.

Try to establish ‘drifts’ of colour, keeping species together.

When planting an area for the first time, cast the bulbs onto the ground with a wide throw and plant where they land, the more random the better.

Feed your bulbs in late autumn.

Keep aconites under control by chopping them back.

Take photographs of your bulb area to remind you where the bare patches are, so you know where to plant your new ones.

To add winter interest mass plant cornus and willow for their coloured stems.


Opening times

The Down House, Itchen Abbas, Hampshire, SO21 1AX

Sunday 16th February (12-4), June (date TBA)

Groups of 10+ also welcome Feb to July

Admission £4, children free

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