The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset Gardens: ‘Ola’, Old Castle Road, Weymouth

Chris Shaw and Colin Varndell visit a garden with lots of different spaces

Just checking out the visitors?

If you do like to be beside the seaside, then ‘Ola’ has the garden for you. Just one mile from Weymouth town centre and very close to the ruins of Sandsfoot Castle, this bungalow sits on the cliff top overlooking Portland Harbour.  The garden has been restored, say its owners Jane Uff and Elaine Smith, from what was a neglected, overgrown jungle. They must have known that the sea was so close; but what a triumph when they finally made it to the cliff edge and found just how spectacular the location really was.
The couple, both ex WRNS, bought the property in 1997 and moved in two years later. They tackled the front garden before moving to the back, where they were faced with brambles, saplings, reeds, grass and ivy, all tall enough and tough enough to completely cover anything and everything. Elaine said they were sure that the garden had once been part of the Sandsfoot Castle grounds and had been designed in the 1930s. All they had to do was find it again. It took them three years of clearance before they could stand at the cliff edge and look down on an area now designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Their clearance revealed hard landscaping which has been mostly retained in the present layout and even a greenhouse which did good service but which has lately been replaced.
Jane, who bears responsibility for the decorative garden, bore the location in mind when deciding which plants to grow. Seaside gardens are often more frost-free than those inland, but also have to face (in this case) the south-westerlies blasting in, laden with salt. She took the sensible approach, she said, and looked to see what was growing successfully in gardens nearby. You won’t therefore find many exotics at ‘Ola’, but you will appreciate the tight planting of hardy shrubs with the less fussy herbaceous plants that can withstand an exposed site.

Ship ahoy! The perfect display for a seaside location

The front garden is so well stocked that instead of a lawn the couple have sensibly decided to use gravel, which cuts down on maintenance. Ceonothus, weigela, and hydrangeas are all easy-care choices, with lavender tucked in between. A lovely burgundy acer is potted up in a sheltered corner. The Kilmarnock willow is a dense green mound and ideal for smaller gardens. It needs careful pruning as catkins only appear on new young growth. However it is a much safer choice than the weeping willow which is so often seen taking over a cramped front garden, having been planted by unsuspecting owners who did not appreciate its eventual size and potential for damage to foundations and drains.
At the back of the house, the garden proper begins with a rockery. It is smothered with thrift (a seaside favourite), pinks, gladiolus byzantinus (rated ‘an all-round tough plant’), sempervivums and many other ground-hugging alpines. The small rill falls into a pond full of water-lilies surrounded by yellow iris. Against the house wall, clumps of velvety arum lilies set off pale pink roses in a pretty combination.

Specimen planting of (clockwise from top left) Paeony, jovibara, erigeron clusters around the sunken area, vivid alstroemeria with its variegated foliage and finally orange escholtzia contrasting dark purple cerinthe

The adjacent boundary is packed with old favourites: acanthus, Japanese anemones, phlomis, achillea. They are backed by a variety of shrubs including viburnum and a variegated holly. Tough, leathery leaves are ideal for the seaside and survive the winds so much better than fine-cut foliage. The exception proves the rule, though, and several hibiscus are doing well nearby. Dainty clematis and honeysuckle are tenacious enough to scramble through their supports whatever the weather.
The opposite boundary ensures privacy with lilac bushes and tamarisk, the ground beneath well covered with heucheras, spotty-leaved pulmonaria, lysimachia and alchemilla. Peach poppies take over from earlier hellebores, but the latter retain their interesting flowers as they fade into the background. There are some lovely paeonies, too; red and double pinks.
The early garden clearance revealed a sunken seating area with two topiary clipped box standards. Jane laughingly complained about the time they take to keep neat, but their beautifully twisted trunks are worth the effort. They may well date from the initial (1930s) planting scheme. There are two curved seats in the paved circle, which is surrounded by beds of vivid orange escholtzia contrasting wonderfully with the dark purple tones of cerinthe. Red valerian and mauve erigeron, lavender, palest pink hardy fuchsia, alstroemeria in rich, deep rust, all enliven this sheltered sun trap.
Elaine looks after the vegetable garden, a small, immaculate plot demonstrating just how productive a garden this size can be. Potatoes, broad beans, runner beans and salad are protected from pests by a line of marigolds, while birds stay clear thanks to the CDs rotating and sparkling in the sun; a very modern scarecrow. The fruit cage contains strawberries in two lovely terracotta towers, gooseberries, raspberries and rhubarb.

A sheltered spot to relax.

The garden then drops down two shallow steps to the orchard beyond. The first is marked by another bank of low-growing and colourful plants. The second step is grass covered and called the Dwarf Bank, a somewhat whimsical resting place in the company of the little people. A mellow bamboo wind chime collects the slightest breeze. There are several fuchsias and vivid geraniums in pots, although Jane regretted that the last hard winter had killed off a few; she said she could safely leave them outside in all but the harshest of winters. The lower garden is a small orchard, with Bramleys, Monarch, Ellison’s Orange and James Grieve all looking full of fruit for the season ahead.

Imaginative seating

And then there is the sea. A low, rustic, timber fence does nothing to hinder the view as you sit and enjoy a cup of tea and home-made cake. A small dinghy rests in one corner, overflowing with decorative grasses. On the gravel a clump of sea kale, a length of rope and a buoy emphasise that this is a seaside garden. The Union flag flies proudly at the top of its flag pole. Jane and Elaine are certainly flying the flag for an interesting small garden.

  • ‘Ola’ was open under the National Gardens Scheme. The Yellow Book gives details each year of which gardens are open to the public to raise money for caring and gardening charities. Not all gardens are open every year, so do check and – even if you are disappointed – do not disturb ‘resting’ owners. They have earned their break!

A garden needs a surprise – something hidden away around a path, beyond a hedge, behind a trellis. To be able to see everything from one viewpoint does not stimulate the desire to explore. Wide paths are certainly easy to negotiate, but brushing between foliage and flowers – especially where there is lovely perfume – is a very satisfying back to nature experience. Jane and Elaine uncovered a garden that had obviously been given careful thought and which they, in their wisdom, decided to leave essentially untouched, except for one or two minor adjustments. Previous owners had cleverly decided that the harbour view would be even more impressive if it could not be seen from the upper garden, but remained hidden until one emerged from the small orchard.
On the way down the garden, there is much to see and enjoy. Although there is not a large space overall, there are more than a handful of separate rooms. Each has its own character; the sums of these parts combining to produce such an interesting whole. The sunken garden, the orchard, the banks at changes in level, the meandering paths around large shrubs make the garden seem much larger than it is. Your own garden may not have a spectacular view or even a vista beyond the boundaries, but a visitor could equally well be drawn down paths by an eye-catching piece of sculpture, say, or an interesting tree. Even in a modest-sized garden, a design that moves in from the boundaries can be effective. Plant a hedge or two, erect an arch or double the effect with an artfully-placed mirror. Interest is provided not just by plants, but by the overall space. Jane and Elaine have stayed true to what was surely an inspired initial design for ‘Ola’. The element of surprise still works.

Clear contrasts which blend well

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