Why should you visit Stowell Park gardens in the Cotswolds?
- Credit: Mandy Bradshaw
There’s so much to love about these stunning grounds, with their extensive views over the Coln Valley
Stowell Park has long been one of my favourite Cotswold gardens, although I find it hard to pinpoint exactly why. Probably it’s due to the envy-inducing walled garden, given over to floral cutting beds and vegetables. Possibly because of the classic English borders with their mix of heady scent and sumptuous blooms. Then again there’s the 90ft-long peach house and did I mention the views over the Coln Valley?
Yet, even a garden as beautiful as Stowell needs the occasional rethink. There’s no such thing as a ‘finished garden’, they develop and change, and all benefit from an objective assessment of what works and what needs altering. Stowell Park is no exception.
The impetus for the current reappraisal was the arrival in late 2017 of head gardener Chris Oldham, following the retirement of Neil Hewertson. Neil had been at Stowell, which is owned by Lord and Lady Vestey, for more than 30 years, overseeing much of its development.
Chris, who came from running the gardens at Taunton School, says that gardening is in his blood. He grew up on a Cheshire estate where his father is head gardener and, although his first job was with Barclays Bank, it wasn’t where his heart was and he left after three weeks.
‘I just sat in front of the computer and thought ‘I can’t do it’.’
When he took over the gardening team, six months after Neil’s departure, he found that the garden near Northleach, while still well laid out, needed tweaking.
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‘It needed bringing back, edges sharpening,’ says Chris. ‘We’ve had a big push on rejuvenating the hedges that had got too big, shrubs that were overgrown.’
Among those being tackled are yew buttresses in the Walled Garden that had begun to encroach onto the grass, dominating the flower beds. They have now been cut back hard, to bring them back into scale.
Possibly the biggest change though is to the many glasshouses in the Walled Garden, used to produce pot plants for the house, raise cuttings and, of course, those peaches. They have been completely refurbished, repainting and replacing where needed. The Victorian style has been kept, including in the old metalwork in the cold greenhouse, but with the addition of modern improvements, such as toughened safety glass and more automatic window openers.
The peach house, which is divided into three sections to get a succession of ripe fruit, is gradually having the soil removed and replaced with the team digging down to decades of accumulated silt that was stopping drainage.
‘The soil was so spent,’ comments Chris.
The peaches along the back wall in the first section have been replaced, although those along the glass side have a stay of execution as they are still fruiting. The new trees – family favourites, such as ‘Duke of York’ – have been joined by some apricots. Chris has also taken the opportunity to try a different rootstock, one that’s semi-dwarfing that should produce trees of just the right height for the back wall.
‘Some of the older rootstocks were just too vigorous for in here.’
The structure also includes the vinery, planted with Muscat grapes. Here, the soil has been enriched and new electric fans have been added to help air circulation.
Chris is also monitoring the temperatures, using a guide he found in a Victorian gardening book.
‘It seems to work,’ he says, with a smile.
More fruit and a wide range of vegetables are grown outside. When I visited, the first strawberries were being picked and the asparagus beds were being weeded; replacing some of the 40-year-old beds is another job on Chris’ list. Meanwhile, he’s added mushrooms to the mix of crops.
Then there are the flowers for cutting, some, such as the peonies, grown in rows, others in borders that would not look out of place in any garden. There are delphiniums, alliums, phlox, iris and masses of frothy Alchemilla mollis. All are being added to a new catalogue of exactly what’s in each bed.
Among the subtle changes are cutting back things that had got too big, including a fig that is now neatly trained against a wall, and adding more foxgloves.
‘I’ve got a bit of a dream of them all hybridising together and ending up with something completely unique to the garden.’
In a tradition that stretches back to head gardeners of the past, Chris and his team not only grow the blooms for the house, they also do the flower arrangements.
‘It’s often my deputy, David, who does them. He enjoys it and he’s pretty good at it.’
There’s also a sense of pride in providing the fruit and vegetables for the family. Things are neatly trimmed and tied with raffia, while grapes are placed on a bed of vine leaves.
‘It’s probably only the chef who sees it but it’s the fact it’s going into the house. The veg is presented nicely.’
Chris’ most nerve-wracking task though is picking the six best peaches for Royal Ascot, where they are presented to the Queen.
With flowers provided for big occasions, such as a christening last year, there’s a real sense of the garden being very much part of the family’s life. Indeed, Lady Vestey has always taken a keen interest and has to approve any changes.
Channelling the views out over the Coln Valley has always been a guiding principle at Stowell. There are windows cut into a yew hedge next to the house and planting in the terrace beds is kept low so it doesn’t obscure the vista. A new yew hedge is designed to delay the first glimpse of the house and the vista from the path. Once it’s more mature, circular ‘windows’ will be added.
‘The idea is just to try to tease you a bit so that when you get down to the bottom you have the whole view.’
Immaculate lawns have always been one of Stowell’s strengths and there’s a rigorous regime of maintenance, including regular testing of the soil.
‘I was told when I started that there’s three things that Lord Vestey wants: carnations for his buttonholes, his peaches and decent lawns.’
The terrace beds are pure romance: peonies, roses, salvias, all under-planted with violas and Alchemilla mollis. More roses scramble up the house walls and the terrace paving is broken up by plants, many of which have been replanted where things had got too big.
The bank that links the ballroom with the dovecote is next in Chris’ sights. Already, overgrown laurels that were taller than the ballroom have been cut back and the aim is to have something that links the formality of the terrace with the wilder feel of the edges of the garden.
‘It’s just a question of standing back and thinking, you’ve got that mature feeling but what is it obscuring?’
On the level below the formal terrace, yew buttresses enclose beds with a cream, blue and burnt orange theme, dominated by magnolias that are under-planted with rodgersia, ferns, geranium, ginger lilies and hemerocallis.
‘These are beds that will be developed over the next few years.’
It’s a task made more difficult by the soil: ‘Before I came here I hadn’t heard of the term ‘Cotswold brash’. I soon found out about it!’
Drop down again and there are pools and wildflowers set alongside a thatched summerhouse. In the drought of 2018, the outlines of a former Italian garden reappeared in the parched grass.
There are plans to go through the wildflowers, where cow parsley is beginning to dominate, and replant some areas of the arboretum.
Chris is constantly reassessing the garden and goes around once a week listing jobs to be done.
‘It’s what gives you the vision of where you’re going,’ he says.
It seems the future direction of Stowell Park is in good hands.
Stowell Park is open Sunday, May 16, 2021 for a plant sale; then Sunday, June 13, 2021. Both openings are part of the National Garden Scheme, 2-5pm. Entry is £6 for adults (children under 16 are free), and car parking is free. Cream Teas will be served. stowellpark.com
Follow Mandy on Twitter: @ChattyGardener