Elegance in historic surroundings
Chris Shaw’s and Colin Varndell’s latest garden visit has taken them to Cranborne Manor
Published in July ’09
Cranborne Manor was originally one of many hunting lodges used by King John in his pursuit of game on Cranborne Chase. Early in the 17th century it was granted by King James I to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, when work was put in hand to add much of what can be seen today. It remains a delightful small manor house, centred beautifully in its gardens. The adjacent garden centre has gained a reputation for roses which have been used extensively in the various planting schemes that surround the Manor.
A circular tour leads from the garden centre through the walled Kitchen Garden and then into the main Manor Garden. Only a step away from the bustle of commercial activity, you enter the green calm of wide open spaces, beautiful trees and orchids among wild flowers. Druid, a mighty bronze bull, stands in the meadow facing the house. Sculpted by Nicola Toms in 2003, he is a tribute to White Park cattle, the most ancient breed, one of which was knighted ‘Sir Loin of Beef’ by James I in 1617. The adjacent beech avenue provides vehicular access to the house, leading through brick gatehouses with wisteria and clematis scrambling up the walls and two stone elephants shouldering tree paeonies aside as you enter.
A circular drive of old stone and brick surrounds a pond with a stunning water feature, a metal waterlily-like sculpture that opens and closes with the build-up of water along its leaves. Seats are tucked in against the walls, where wide herbaceous borders are packed with colour. Philadelphus and lily-of-the-valley, hebe and buddleia, perovskia and agapanthus, all flourish in the warm shelter of the old walls. A Magnolia grandiflora on the house adds a touch of formality, but pots of lilies and huge containers of daisies, pelargoniums and sweet peas keep the theme intimate, entirely in keeping with the pretty porch with its Jacobean decoration and dainty niches. A deep blue hibiscus mixes well with rose-pink climbing pea. This private garden is not always open, but it would be a pity to miss it.
Just beyond the courtyard is the Lump Garden, with balls, domes and geometric shapes of clipped box and yew, a formal contrast to the park trees and immaculate croquet lawn adjacent. The lawn is hedged with clipped yew and buttresses in a no-nonsense style. On the far side of the lawn, through the hedge, is the Sundial Garden, which is believed to have been laid out by John Tradescant. The sundial tops a small mound which gives a good overview of the eight surrounding beds, all enclosed by clipped box. The inner beds are filled with Lavender ‘Hidcote’. The four corner beds are much larger and contain herbaceous plants such as palest pink sidalcea and Clematis heracleifolia, some shrubs including roses, and rustic supports with clematis and ramblers. Clematis heracleifolia ‘Wyevale’ is eye-catching. This herbaceous clematis is often overlooked in favour of its climbing cousins but, left to rampage over a supporting low shrub, it gives a mass of colour over a long period. In my own garden it smothers a spreading cotoneaster for weeks on end.
A bowling allée to the north gives access to the Winterborne Garden. The yews that form this narrow space are some of the oldest in the garden, the allée being a frequent inclusion in Jacobean design. The winterborne – the River Crane, running along the garden boundary – is edged with large shrubs and trees. This is an altogether wilder area, the wind in the trees making it sound even in mid-summer as if the stream is in full spate. There are plenty of crab-apples, cherries and other flowering trees under-planted with daffodils for spring colour.
The White Garden, on the north face of the Manor, is one of the highlights and it is worth timing a visit to coincide with the flowers and perfume it contains. The path is edged with apple trees, trained as espaliers, with a carpet of white dianthus beneath. The borders are full of astrantia, phlox, choisya, potentillas, hibiscus and roses, all white or pale in colour. Clumps of variegated grasses provide interest after the main flowering season has finished, as do the tall stems of Macleaya cordata, the plume poppy, with its soft, grey-lobed leafs. The house terrace is balustraded in stone, a shadier part of the garden where huge hostas thrive. There is a wisteria grown as a compact tree, borrowing just a little support from the balustrade: a pretty idea for a smaller garden, perhaps?
To the east of the house lies the church, approached along Church Walk. In July it is vivid with coral penstemmons, agapanthus and white nicotiana following a spring planting of forget-me-nots, wallflowers and sweet williams. Halfway along the walk an apple tunnel leads off at a right-angle, under-planted with giant Allium christophii which looks so much like a burst of spangled fireworks. On the far wall, Victoria plum trees bear masses of fruit and there are brick-edged beds of dianthus and roses. As the path turns beneath a pergola along the churchyard wall, there is a beautiful collection of roses to enjoy: ‘Étoile d’Hollande’, ‘Guinée’, moschata, ‘Bleu magenta’, ‘Seagull’ – all climb and scramble above iris and hellebores.
There is also a Pergola Walk running parallel to Church Walk, with a very pretty stone-in-cobble path edged with Iris ‘Jane Phillips’ and Verbena venosa. I was interested to see how closely the climbing roses are tied in to train them over the supports. Soft string ties bind them securely about every six inches. I went home determined to do better on my own pergola, where R. ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ gets the better of me every year. This was a classic case of buying what I liked instead of what was most suitable for the position. It is a rambler as opposed to a climber and really needs a thirty-feet-high tree! However, it is a mistake I live with for the pleasure of its massed pink cherry-like flowers every June.
The Green Garden, Chalk Walk and Cottage Garden are interconnected and lead back to the exit. The first, as its name implies, concentrates on foliage with a box parterre and beech hedges around a hexagonal pond. The broad borders and large beds of Chalk Walk are a return to herbaceous planting, an emphasis on yellow and blue with potentillas, Veronica austriaca and the taller Veronica longifolia. Large acanthus spreads impressive foliage beneath tall spires of pale pink and lilies are studded in between. I love the ‘windows’ in the yew hedge on the boundary of this garden, allowing just a glimpse beyond.
Cranborne Manor Garden is open every Wednesday from March to October. There is such a lot to see, so be prepared to spend at least half a day enjoying the surroundings. If the roses don’t tempt you into the garden centre before you leave, nothing will!