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Serles House, Wimborne Minster

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell paid a visit to this unusual garden in the heat of last summer

The garden is cool and shaded by mature trees

What a load of old rubbish! I know Ian Willis will be pleased with that assessment because it echoes his own claim that his garden makes use of things the rest of us throw away. However, my comment is made very much tongue in cheek, because I can only admire this masterpiece of inventive design and clever management which makes just one-sixth of an acre the unlikely venue for an amazing, almost surrealistic, visit.

Serles House is in Victoria Road, one of Wimborne’s main thoroughfares. Ian has lived here since 1981 and, despite his many changes at the back, the front garden retains its small Victorian-style parterre totally in harmony with the house, with rope-edged tiles, gravel, a few small beds and borders. There are one or two pieces of statuary, the merest hint of a reclamation yard.

Entry through the house gives an intriguing glimpse of Ian’s exotic taste, but even that hardly prepares one for the Indian-style conservatory with its lush foliage plants, tinkling fountain and bejewelled statue of Shiva. Every nook and cranny is crammed full of something, artfully arranged and displayed. Despite the generous size of the conservatory, its green-stained timber merges unobtrusively into the garden beyond. Outside, it is cool and shaded by mature trees. Two columnar yews front a hedge over which a sculpted head peers benignly. Ian explained that this is going to become a ‘hedge of worthies’, with Queen Victoria already lined up for occupation. All he has to do is strike the right deal with the reclamation yard. In this essentially green garden, the begonias are a vivid splash of colour. Tall and lush, they are a Thompson & Morgan hybrid known as Dragon Wings which Ian has grown on from plugs each spring.

The pretty shell grotto

In the middle of the country’s July heatwave, I was amused by the strange sculpture known as Picasso’s Bull, which commemorates the hottest day so far in the UK when it reached over 100°F in August 2003. Is the record about to be broken, I wondered, grateful for the shading trees. Incredibly, in this small plot Ian has still found space for a ginkgo biloba which, he assured me, has taken 25 years to reach the present modest dimensions, so there is no danger of him having to move out. A friendly tree surgeon keeps a careful eye to ensure that all the trees stay a manageable size.

Another splash of colour is provided by fuchsias which flank the archway through to the sunken garden. This, no larger than a modest living room, has so much of interest that one needs time to stand and stare. First, there is the pond and rill running past a generous-sized fig tree and clump of tree peonies; then a folly built to celebrate the millennium, complete with fireplace containing a skull and topped with a splendid collection of chimney pots. The fig does not fruit well in such a shaded position, but there is another, in a sunnier location, which does rather better.

A money tree in the summerhouse

Ian’s own explanation of the making of this part of the garden gives just a hint of the work that has gone into it. ‘I dug out a few tons of soil to create a flat, gravel terrace, built steps down to it from the house, bagged up the topsoil for friends and surrounded the area with raised, granite-walled beds. Because the original pond kept leaking I built a stone rill in the middle, followed by a pagoda to frame the entrance.’ All in many days’ work, I suspect, but it has obviously been a labour of love.

Finding the sixty or so artefacts scattered throughout the garden is like a game of ‘hunt the thimble’, made easier by an excellent booklet Ian has produced in which they are all listed. The thought of a hundred or more people all trying their hand on the same afternoon is mind-boggling, but those are the numbers Ian has come to expect when he opens for the National Gardens Scheme. So far he has raised more than £1000 which, for a small garden, is remarkable.

Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’

Next to the folly is a shell grotto, pretty enough to please anyone. Most of us would settle for a good meal out to celebrate reaching fifty years of age, but Ian went one better and built the grotto. Shells were begged and bought from places such as beach shops and fishmongers, then painstakingly assembled to frame a bronze statue and cool column of bubbling water. A summerhouse, too, has been found space in amongst the trees, beautifully crafted and full of yet more interesting paraphernalia including a money tree and a lamp made out of all sorts of things.

The Fernery is dominated by a beautiful tree fern, ‘Dicksonia Antarctica’. It is growing extremely well and obviously enjoys the shelter and protection of the trees. The box hedging in the ‘secret garden’, though, is not faring as well. I asked Ian if it was a casualty of the heatwave but he told me it was the dreaded ‘box blight’. He was remarkably philosophical about something that has taken him fifteen years to grow and trim, and is now looking for just the right stones to enable him to perform a re-design of this particular area. With green everywhere, clever use has been made of variegated foliage shrubs such as elaeagnus and pittosporum, as well as introducing different leaf shapes such as magnolia and willow.

Dahlias give colour over a long season

I love mirrors when they are done well and Ian has two superb examples in this part of the garden, latticed arches rescued from a throw-out at Wimborne Minster. They are set up opposite each other and make the garden look so much bigger. In fact, they are done so well that it took me a minute or two to realise one is not a mirror at all, but has been kept as a window and gives a view through to the parallel section of garden.

The kitchen garden and orchard lie beyond. Two good apple trees provide

cookers and eaters and there is a productive fruit cage. A bed of dahlias, hollyhocks and climbing pea are good midsummer colour subjects when earlierplants are beginning to look jaded. Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ is one of the best of the sea hollies, although it tends to be short-lived.

Ian has used old garden tools to wonderful effect, forming a fence of implements topped by a spray of sunflowers, all of which has now rusted to a deep, rich brown. Beyond the fence is the Golden Jubilee obelisk, a flowerpot man and a tree house that any child would be pleased to own. Ian describes its style as Strawberry Hill Gothic, but I would rather call it a gingerbread house. Here, where the sun has difficulty penetrating, is an ideal place for a carpet of spring flowers such as primroses, snowdrops, daffodils and anemones.

So is this a garden in the true sense of the word? Of course it is. It has trees, plants and a pond. They do, however, take a back seat in the face of Ian’s extraordinary collection of memorabilia. Wimborne’s past is here, from ironwork off the old Crown Hotel to stonework off the Minster. There are items rescued from such sites as the Tivoli Theatre, Farrs House, Kingston Lacy, St Margaret’s Almshouses – the list is extensive.

Ian, by his own assessment, is not a plantsman. He has preferred architectural foliage, a mixture of greens, blending them with what some might call an eccentric or idiosyncratic collection assembled over many years. What he has proved beyond doubt however is that a small garden need be no barrier to creativity. Anyone could do it given time, effort, an eye for design, exuberant enthusiasm coupled with a reputation of being a person who can make use of anything.

If you want to see how Ian has done it, the Secret Garden at Serles House is open for the National Gardens Scheme, usually on a Sunday afternoon in July, August and early September. Private appointments can be made on 01202 880430. There are one or two evening openings and sometimes the chance to have your palm read by a well-known clairvoyant. I predict an increase in visitors in the future.

Bill – or Ben?

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