Showborough House: Garden in the spotlight

Showborough House, Gloucestershire

Showborough House, Gloucestershire - Credit: Archant

Designed for art, the garden at Showborough House is far more than merely an outdoor gallery

Showborough House, Gloucestershire

Showborough House, Gloucestershire - Credit: Archant

Most people’s idea of a retirement project is taking up golf, or maybe watercolours. Glynis and Andrew Roache tackled something far more ambitious. For the past 12 years they have been turning an unloved area of lawn and shrubs into a glorious Cotswold garden designed as a showcase for art.

The couple, both vets, were looking for something to do when Andrew retired from the Army and while Glynis admits the garden wasn’t the most obvious solution, particularly as a neurological problem means she cannot bend down for more than a few seconds at a time, it has suited them perfectly.

“It was a bit of a foolish thing to take up,” she says with a laugh, “but we wanted a project rather than Andrew getting another job and not being here.”

If it’s surprising that they decided to take on a garden of this size with little experience – frequent Army moves meant little opportunity for horticulture – then what they have achieved is astonishing. Far from being a professionally designed space backed up by a large budget, this complex one-and-a-half acres has been designed by Glynis and built on a shoestring, using reclaimed materials and DIY skills.

They started with very little: the house had been an old people’s home and both building and garden needed a lot of attention.

“It wasn’t a wilderness but it was not gardened,” recalls Glynis.

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Today, they have a plot full of unexpected corners and changes in mood with crisp lines and thoughtful planting, nothing particularly rare, “the usual suspects” is how Glynis describes her plants, but combined in a way that shows just how good the commonplace can be.

From the moment you arrive it’s clear this is a garden with style. Set into the gravel drive are a series of low Portuguese laurel hedges interspersed with rectangular beds planted in white and green and punctuated by silver birch.

“It’s the Chelsea square effect,” explains Glynis.

Showborough House, Gloucestershire

Showborough House, Gloucestershire - Credit: Archant

One bed has hostas and white alliums, another box and Luzula nivea while a third sees libertia teamed with astrantia and molinia.

“It’s not very imaginative but there’s something nice about white and green.”

Innovative it may not be but the effect is classy and a vast improvement on a wider drive.

Opposite is a shady walk in an area once full of tree seedlings: “They were growing like mustard and cress and you could barely walk between them.”

A ‘stumpery’, made not from tree roots but from trunks, is planted up with Luzula sylvatica ‘Starmaker’, white hesperis and ferns, and the walk continues past numerous hollies, including Ilex x koehneana which has glossy green serrated leaves and masses of berries.

“I had a bit of a holly fad when I came here.”

Overhead scrambles Rosa ‘Rambling Rector’, or possibly ‘Bobby James’; both were planted but Glynis admits she has no idea which made it through.

At their feet are daintier things: white flowered Omphalodes verna ‘Alba’, white dicentra, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ and ferns, while a small clearing has Lonicera pileata clipped into a circular hedge enclosing foxgloves and Japanese anemones. Nearby, a seat sits in a froth of Rhodotypos scandens, Geranium phaeum, and Solomon’s seal.

In contrast, the south-facing side of the house is a suntrap and Glynis favours grey-leaved plants that can cope with the tough conditions. Among them are artemisia, perennial wallflower, bearded iris and rosemary. Huge domes of box give the border a well-defined edge.

Showborough House, Gloucestershire

Showborough House, Gloucestershire - Credit: Archant

The east side of the house with its views across to Bredon was, according to Glynis, the easiest to design with a parterre the obvious solution. Geometric box, pyramids of yew and standard mop-head hollies give an elegant formality that is the perfect backdrop for the annual art exhibition; in some places the box encloses display plinths while in others it surrounds a bubble fountain or a group of variegated iris.

Wide steps lead down to matching beds of pink David Austin roses with ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Hyde Hall’ Glynis’ favourites for their strong growth and prolific flowering despite her thin, sandy soil. Other roses to do well are the carpet flower varieties, including ‘Kent’ and ‘Sweet Haze’, which don’t need spraying. Again the front of the borders are held in by domes of topiary, this time yew, while the retaining wall is softened by cascading aubrieta.

At the heart of the garden is probably the most ambitious – or foolhardy – part of the project, the sunken garden. Dug out not by machine but by hand, it started life as a sloping lawn and small pond. The latter has been completely rebuilt on a larger scale and yew hedges enclose the flower-filled borders while still maintaining vistas along and across the space. Surprisingly, the yew was bought cheaply from a nursery about to close.

“All the books tell you not to buy plants in pots, grown from seed and pot bound but it’s survived.”

Height in the sunken garden comes from shaped silver pears, structure from box cubes and there’s colour from tulips in plummy shades, white choisya blooms, iris sibirica, purple alliums and Geranium psilostemon, planted to scramble over the alliums when they fade.

While the yew in the centre is thriving, the wet winter of 2007 killed off a hedge elsewhere. Now replaced by Portuguese laurel, in front there’s a serpentine planting of purple berberis mixed with perennials and shrubs.

Glynis has no problem with fastigiate yew though and has a block of pillars in one bed with Carex comans ‘Frosted Curls’ and white alliums in front.

It’s an example of how effective restrained planting can be. Opposite it is colour rather than plant variety that is restricted with mainly white plants, including Brunnera ‘Mr Morse’, tulips, narcissi and Orlaya grandiflora, punctuated by pink from aquilegia, astrantia and geum.

Nearby, a ‘folly’ has a carefully constructed ‘abandoned’ air with pasque flower, geranium, and campanula colonising the space, while the recent removal of some old conifers has created a new bed with ferns, hellebores and luzula.

“They are growing virtually in pine needles and doing really well. It’s astonishing.”

Conifers are used in the dragon garden so called because the spoil from digging out the sunken garden was used to make not a mound but a dragon, reclining by a pond. Originally designed as a wildlife pond, it has proved largely unsuccessful.

“The irony is nothing lives in it for some mysterious reason that’s beyond me.”

However, it is a tranquil spot, despite the noise of the nearby M5: “It’s just the price you pay for having all this room that has not cost millions.”

It is also home to the unusual rainwater seepage ‘canals’, which the couple have paved – using reclaimed slabs, like most of the garden. Newly built steps now lead from the main garden allowing a circular route around the plot.

Tucked away is the potager, a complete contrast to the rest of Showborough House. If elsewhere has the tasteful colours and clean lines of Chelsea’s Main Avenue then this is typical of the Artisan Gardens that delight Chelsea visitors. The colours are primary with orange marigolds, scarlet Geum ‘Mrs J Bradshaw’, and blue cornflowers, old wine boxes are filled with herbs and raised beds are planted Sarah Raven style with vegetables started in lengths of drainpipe and then slid into place. In one corner, a clipped box man reclines in an old bath full of Cerastium tomentosum water.

“I was in the bath too – it was Andrew and I facing each other – but I died so he got some knees,” laughs Glynis.

In the make-do-and-mend spirit of the garden, her ‘greenhouse’ in one corner is actually an old conservatory, bought cheaply. It and a polytunnel in the nearby workhouse part of the garden are used to raise countless seedlings.

It enables her to ‘dress’ the garden for its all-important two months in the spotlight while the art exhibition is on.

“There’s a little bit of the theatre about it. A little bit of bling goes in at the last minute.”

Yet while it was the desire to provide a setting for art that provided the impetus, the garden is so much more than just an outdoor exhibition space.

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This article is from the April 2015 issue of Cotswold Life.

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