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Traditional perfection

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell are enchanted by the garden at Higher Melcombe and distracted by its sumptuous views

Just a stone’s throw from the Dorsetshire Gap, tucked into the surrounding downland, lies the 16th-century manor house with chapel known as Higher Melcombe. This charming group of buildings, home to Mr Michael Woodhouse, is approached by a lime avenue from the centre of Melcombe Bingham. The village itself is picturesque and peaceful, but the drive to the manor house shrugs off even that contact. It could almost be a journey back in time: the 21st century retreats as Higher Melcombe is reached and the perfection of its location can be appreciated.

Roses and Lavender
Roses and lavender have been used to create a pretty frontage

This is a garden visit, I reminded myself. Views are secondary. But you can’t ignore them. The surrounding hills and woodlands are magnificent, providing a most stunning backdrop to this very traditional English garden.

Two acres of land provide enough space for generous planting schemes, and the drive from front gate to the house runs between large irregularly-shaped shrub and herbaceous beds. These can also be walked through, with narrow grass paths winding in between. Beautiful copper beech gives a wide area of shade, but reliable and unfussy shrubs such as viburnum, hypericum and berberis have all had the space to grow to full size, inter-planted with clumps of day lilies, which need the minimum of care. Lupins and other perennials grow under lilac, where an adjacent low hedge allows an inquisitive herd of cows to watch the visitors watching them.

Close proximity to open countryside has its drawbacks and there were dark mutterings of deer damage in the garden, particularly to roses, of which there are many. One can appreciate the frustration it must cause. Trying to control slugs is tiresome enough, but keeping out deer that seem to have springs on their heels is probably a non-starter. I was told that they like everything except Michaelmas daisies – which does restrict planting options somewhat!

Beyond a lonicera hedge, at a lower level, are more shrubs and herbaceous plants. Colourful aquilegias, achilleas and hydrangeas contrast informally with clipped yew topiary. The dried heads of hydrangeas can be used to bring soft winter colour indoors, as can the cut and dried heads of echinops, the globe thistle. Toni Shearing, who took over as gardener at Higher Melcombe in spring 2006, told me there were plans to re-model this part of the garden. With an almost perfect amphitheatre opposite, I’d like to suggest the inclusion of a seat. It would be a terrible time-waster, though, as the opportunity to stop and enjoy the scenery would be too good to miss.

The views beyond the gardenr
The views beyond the garden form a perfect setting

Toni also mentioned that she had installed an irrigation system. In a garden the size of this it is of obvious benefit but probably something many would dismiss as being for larger gardens only. However, I have a colleague who spent a very productive afternoon linking the pumps and tubes of a reasonably inexpensive package and is now full of praise for the very efficient set-up in her own small garden, where it waters containers and troughs filled with summer bedding. It saves her the worry of having to ask a friend to water when she is away from home and, working on a timer, is not at all wasteful as it just drip feeds to order. Systems can also be laid inconspicuously through borders and, hosepipe bans notwithstanding, it is an idea worth considering for the Mediterranean summers we are now frequently warned to expect.

As I left the shrubbery behind, the colours of a massive herbaceous border drew me towards the chapel. The border is one of the widest I have ever seen, banked towards the back, which ensures nothing is overshadowed by a neighbouring plant. Toni said ruefully that it had been packed with day lilies and many hours had been spent clearing them out. She has replanted with paeonies, delphiniums, poppies, rudbeckia, echinops and euphorbia. It is a great success, again proving that large spaces benefit from generous planting schemes.

scarlet Lychnis chalcedonica
Just a dash of scarlet Lychnis chalcedonica spices up a mixed border

The adjacent chapel walls are smothered in ‘Rambling Rector’. What other rose could possibly be as appropriate? Utilising the rose framework are clematis and honeysuckle, the warmth of the sun drawing out delicious wafts of perfume to enjoy together with a cup of tea and slice of cake when the garden is open under the National Gardens Scheme.

Other new additions to the garden, which hasn’t been open to the public for several years, are the David Austen roses. Both chapel and house are now edged with a soft colour scheme. ‘Old Blush China’ is there, pale pink, one of the best repeat-flowering roses that starts early and continues until Christmas; ‘Evelyn’ is a musk rose, apricot and pink, and also the old rose hybrid ‘Constance Spry’ with deeper pink flowers. The roses are combined with lavender and the whole is gradually becoming backed by glossy Virginia creeper, which will give fiery colour once the roses have done their stuff.

An invitation to walk through
An invitation to walk through

Beyond the house, the north boundary of the garden is a lovely old buttressed wall. This south-facing position is ideal shelter for a fig tree. Another creamy-white rambling rose supports a blue-flowered clematis and an earlier pale pink Montana clematis as well. The border at the foot of the wall takes the palette from subtle to sizzle, with vivid escholtzias and gaillardias. A dash of scarlet Lychnis chalcedonica is eye-catching, this perennial benefiting from being surrounded, gaining necessary support. A small rockery at the far end is shaded by a burgundy acer, under which is a tumble of deep pink paeonies, hardy geraniums, fuchsias, potentillas and achilleas.

An old stone path and pond make an interesting feature, edged with narrow borders crammed with red and peach poppies, purple iris and the pale yellow flowers of sisserinchium. Small obelisks are covered with clematis. A Magnolia grandiflora spreads over a carpet of Houttuynia cordata. This ground-cover perennial does best beside ponds and streams, preferring moist soil or shallow water. It is invasive, but worth the fight for the striking green, yellow and red foliage. The narrow strap-like leaves of red hot pokers contrast well with whorls of Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ and the soft hairy foliage of globe thistles.

Echinops, the globe thistle
Echinops, the globe thistle

Throughout the garden are neat, clipped hedges of yew, beech, pyracantha and berberis, segregating cultivated from countryside. My eyes were constantly drawn to the latter. Yes, this is a lovely garden, well worth visiting. But those views…!

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