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A glorious way to spend a Sunday afternoon

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell enjoy the garden of Manor Farm, Stourton Caundle

Entrance to garden

The enticing entrance to the garden
This was the first year that Mr and Mrs Oliver Simon opened their gardens to the public through the National Gardens Scheme and it was obvious from comments heard all round me that everyone hoped it would be an ongoing event. It was, in a nutshell, a glorious way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Stourton Caundle is one of those tucked-away Dorset villages that seems a step back in time. ‘The Trooper’, immediately opposite Manor Farm was doing a roaring trade with customers sitting outside in the sun. The village is quiet enough for children to be roaming at will, investigating the mill stream with parents keeping a watchful but laid-back eye. The wall bounding Manor Farm was cascading with roses, a hint of what was to come inside.

The garden-yards where tubs and planters brim with colour  <div>brim with colour<br />

There are yards where tubs and planters
brim with colour
The farm dates from the 16th century and the house looks as though it could go on for ever, sitting four-square behind its curtain of wisteria and other climbers. This was part of the Stourhead Estate, the whole property extending to just over 400 acres. It was owned briefly in the late 1950s by Enid Blyton, who used it as inspiration for Five Go to Finniston Farm. When Mr Simon bought the farm in the early 1960s there was little by way of gardens. Ten years later, design work began in earnest. Trees planted in those early days have now reached maturity and many shrubs, too, form interesting backdrops, dividing the various areas into more private spaces.
The main garden is set on a higher level behind old stone retaining walls. The first steps lead to a rustic pergola smothered in climbers, wide herbaceous borders packed full on either side. There is a beautiful collection of peonies, with delphiniums, geraniums, iris, day lilies, phlox, acanthus, and giant lemon scabious. The dangling seed-pods of allium indicated earlier interest and a starry patch of smaller alliums was still in flower.

The ponds in Stourton Caundle garden

The ponds are sited in a wonderfully contemplative stretch of woodland
To one side of the pergola, a lawn is bounded by shrubs, the whole backed by a magnificent eucalyptus tree. Dogwood, shrub roses, lilac, deutzia, viburnum: all are here, with burgundy rhus and berberis adding foliage colour. There is a predatory hawk intriguingly made out of barbed wire, perched on a dead tree branch. I was marvelling at how full of movement it appeared, when in the nearby shade I found a sad scatter of white feathers. Well, it wouldn’t have surprised me…. To the other side of the pergola a swimming pool fits unobtrusively into the garden, surrounded by lawn and bold clumps of lavender and euphorbia. More than one hot visitor looked ready to dive in.

 Rosa mundi'in Stourton Caundle garden

Rosa mundi’s stripes are a favourite with many

The next level of garden, slightly higher again, leads along a wide old path to the prettiest of arbours at the far end. A massive rose clambers up one of the trees; it was not yet in flower, but its size indicated that it was going to be something quite spectacular. Potentillas in zingy yellow and orange are a lovely splash of colour on this upper level, coupled with old stone containers of pelargoniums. The arbour is smothered in golden hop and honeysuckle, with a carpet of mainly blue geraniums around its base. Behind it, a field fence supports climbing roses which extend beyond the tennis court to a bank of roses at high level. Features like pergolas and fences cleverly link different parts of the garden, leading you seamlessly from one to the other while you wonder what could possibly be around the next corner. The differences in level provide vantage points from where a colourful overview can be enjoyed before the next bank of shrubs or twist of steps leads you on again.

Pale bells of heuchera in stourton caundle garden

Pale bells of heuchera make a lattice pattern
against the sky
I was en route to tea in the barn when I noted a sign indicating: ‘Ponds’. Not yet having read the history notes kindly provided on tea tables, I expected a couple of two metre by four metre ponds with perhaps a handful of koi, but nothing could have been further from the truth. The water is in a totally separate area of the garden, a wonderfully contemplative stretch of woodland with a gentle walk around the perimeter. The smaller ponds, as I later discovered, were created in the early 1970s and are edged with all the usual water-lovers such as gunnera, primulas and iris. There is also an old stew pond which served a Norman castle built nearby, and a pond which acted as reservoir for a downstream mill. These larger expanses of water are now occupied by ducks beneath willows: a haven of tranquillity.

Amsonia tabernaemontana in stourton caundle garden

The star-like flowers of clump-forming Amsonia tabernaemontana are good for early colour

Tea in the barn was a fitting conclusion, I decided, before realising I had yet to find the kitchen garden. Fortified by coffee cake, I found the way through to yards where tubs and planters brim with colour. A delightful small potager by the mill stream has raised beds and gravel paths, the whole set off by an unusual and very tactile sculpture at the water’s edge. A small bridge over the mill stream leads to a pretty kitchen garden next to the chapel. Decorative timber pyramids are set up for runner beans. Old brick paths divide beds where sweet williams brush shoulders with fruit bushes, artichokes with euphorbias, huge rhubarb leaves contrast with narrow grasses. The gentle sound of water is perfect, as are the swallows darting across the mill stream.
That, I thought, was surely that. No – there was still a narrow walled garden in front of the farmhouse. The sun was just catching the foliage of a couple of red acers, turning them to fire to echo a vivid scarlet rose. Massed planting fills every space and a small patio was invitingly shaded with an umbrella. I was tempted just to take off my shoes and stop. As I said, a glorious way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Hardy geranium

Hardy geranium “Johnson’s Blue”
at the base of the arbour

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