Association of Gardens Trusts Annual General Meeting

29-31 August 2008
by Jean Marcus

Many thanks to Dorset Gardens Trust who organised a most successful conference weekend and managed to influence the clouds to part so the sun shone through to increase our enjoyment.

The conference was based at Leweston School near Sherborne where we were accommodated and extremely well fed. Leweston Estate was the seat of the Lewston family from before William the Conqueror until 1584. Eventually the estate passed to William Gordon, possibly in the last decade of the 18th century. Sometime before his death in 1802 he demolished the old house and built the one seen today. It was bought by George Hamilton-Fletcher in 1906 and he commissioned Thomas Mawson to design the gardens and Belvedere. The mansion was further remodelled after 1926 by the Hamilton-Rose family and then was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and used as a convalescent home during the Second World War. St Antony’s acquired it in 1948 and it became a girls’ Catholic school.

The welcome reception was held in the grounds. Negotiating our way past an impressive statue, the Florentine Boar, we continued down a long avenue to arrive at the lavish and whimsical Belvedere which remains one of Mawson’s most significant garden structures. The Italian influence is evident in the pair of garden houses and the paved piazza and viewing platform. In this lovely setting we sipped wine and nibbled canapés, while standing in awe of the amazing far-reaching view over Thomas Hardy country.


The Florentine Boar at Leweston, Dorset

We had been warned by Steven Desmond speaking in the afternoon that all in Dorset is not what it seems we were intrigued and looked forward to visiting Parnham, Mapperton and Harvard Farm the following day and Duntish Court and Sherborne Castle Park on Sunday.

Parnham, Beaminster

After an illustrated talk by Simon Johnson, a garden designer in the enviable position of being able to spend a large pot of private money to redesign the gardens at Parnham, an English Heritage (EH) Register Grade II* property, we headed off to see for ourselves. The approach is via a long avenue of limes (Tilia x europea) planted in the 1950s to celebrate the Coronation. These replaced ancient oaks some of whose stumps can still be seen. Unfortunately, the limes were planted too close together and are posing a problem.

Many trees have been planted in this landscape over the centuries including a clump of limes possibly dating back to the 1400s. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, with the Picturesque in vogue, trees were planted in the South Park. Important survivors are red oaks, turkey oaks and a fine cedar of Lebanon. In the 21st century, with the wider landscape reunited with the house, trees are once again being planted, the same eclectic mix as went before.


Parnham: Entrance Courtyard c.1913 after Saur’s alterations

The house sits comfortably on rising ground to the east of the River Brit in gentle folds of the Dorset countryside. Until the 20th century, gardening at Parnham had been a hesitant thing. The walled garden (1806) was among the first recorded structures, well equipped with glass and artificial warmth. With continuity of ownership interrupted in the 20th century, it fell into decay but recent work has restored the glasshouses and vegetables, fruit and flowers are grown for the house and a play area for the owner’s children has been created. The brief reign of Hans Saur (1910-14) replaced the terraces and rolling grassland surrounding the house by drastic and monumental alterations. He built his own rail track to bring in materials. To the east an elaborate stone courtyard was built owing much in style to Inigo Triggs. To the south an enormous terrace was raised, with stone gazebos (echoes of Montacute in Somerset), and gushing water feeding rivulets that led the eye across new lawns punctuated by pyramidal yews and over a newly created lake to the distant steeple of Netherbury’s church. This stonework survives softened by planting and mellowed by age. The lake has been reclaimed after silting up.

Parnham is a happy story. Garden and landscape are in good heart, refreshed and revitalised. Under the careful stewardship of new owners, Parnham can face the future with assurance, just as we can enjoy the richness of its past.


The next stop was Mapperton Gardens, EH Register Grade II*. Quoted as being ‘The Nation’s Finest Manor House’, and ‘One of the top ten gardens in Britain’, we were not disappointed. After a warm welcome by the Countess of Sandwich, lunch was the first priority eaten al fresco by the Sawmill Café.

The gardens surround the Jacobean manor house, stable blocks, dovecote and All Saints’ Church. Mrs Ethel Labouchère began the major development of the gardens as they are seen today in the 1920s in memory of her husband, the banker Charles Henry Labouchère. She put in the Croquet Pavilion, the formal Fountain Court Gardens with their topiary of box and yew, the octagonal pool, stone benches and tubs, four classical lead fountains, the grottoes overlooking the Fountain Court and the pergola in the southern half.


The 1960s Orangery at Mapperton

After her death in 1955 the estate was sold to Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Victor Montagu), then MP for South Dorset. He was a keen plantsman and rescued the garden from its decayed grandeur. He doubled its size by adding the Arboretum below the Pool Garden and ran a Spring Garden of flowering trees and bulbs round the escarpment at the south end of the Arboretum. He also simplified Mrs Labouchère’s formal Fountain Court. In 1966/8 a neo-classical Orangery was added at the north end of the formal garden. When he died, his son and daughter-in-law, the Earl and Countess of Sandwich inherited.

In the late 1980s the garden had to be revived again. Its planting was expanded and by 2000 the garden had acquired a breadth of perennials and many tender plants. Efforts are continuously being made to offset the formality of the topiary, grass and water with blousy, luxuriant planting.

Harvard Farm

Filled with the romanticism of Mapperton we drifted off to be entertained to afternoon tea in the wonderful garden at Harvard Farm by the Hobson family Dilly, her artist husband Tim, and their son, author of a book on topiary and owner of a business selling all manner of tools to assist in this garden art form.

The Hobsons moved to Harvard Farm in 1992. It had been part of the estate of Thomas Hollis in the 18th century. Hollis, independent radical political activist, connoisseur and philanthropist, retired to his 12-farm estate in Dorset in 1770. He set about a remarkable new ‘Plan of Private Patriotic Action’, transferring the work that had occupied him in London to his country estate, subtly converting it into a conceptual manifesto of his personal beliefs.

When the Hobsons arrived, Harvard was still a working dairy farm consisting of a house, with just a few plants immediately beside it, surrounded by concrete yards and farm buildings. In the fields the hedgerow elms had long since died but the old hedges had been maintained and a few oaks

survived, along with a small area of ancient oak woodland, and a fine row of Scotch pine dominating the view from the valley below. They let the farmland and spent a year demolishing most of the concrete surfaces and the modern outbuildings. This left an empty sloping expanse of heavy blue clay and a very exposed site. Shelterbelt planting was begun. The prevailing south-west wind roared up the bare fields creating whirlwinds in the spaces where Dilly planned her garden. It was hard to establish desirable plants, but a combination of layers of strong green netting, extensive use of ordinary but tough evergreens, and outer shelter belts of native broadleaves gradually improved the microclimate.

The garden now includes an apple tunnel, a lime avenue, a folly ruin, Japanese style topiary, a millennium mount made from seven years of builders’ rubble, and a newly constructed pond. It is a pretty, comfortable garden one where you can sit under the rose-clad pergola and enjoy tea, homemade cakes and a chat on a warm, sunny summer’s afternoon which is just what we did!

On Sunday morning, we split into two groups: one to visit Clifton Maybank where all is definitely not what it seems. In 1786 the richly ornamented front of the mansion was sold to Montacute House to create a grand west entrance. My group headed off to Duntish Court (Castle Hill).

Duntish Court (Castle Hill)

Duntish Court was first mentioned in Domesday Book and was in turn owned by Sir William de Gouis, the Latimer family, and in 1509 was purchased by the forebears of William Barnes, the Dorset poet. By 1650, the building had fallen into disrepair and was restored by Thomas Barnes. After his death in 1674, it was sold to Winston Churchill, father of John, 1st Duke of Marlborough.

In 1713, the estate was sold to Walter Foy and in 1740 his grandson Fitz Walter succeeded him. Twelve years later he married the daughter of John Senex the eminent globe-maker of Fleet Street and, c.1760, he employed Sir William Chambers to design a new mansion called Castle Hill to the north-east of Duntish Court on a hillside terrace overlooking a shallow valley with distant views. To the north-west, the land rises to Dungeon Hill, site of an Iron Age Fort. To the south and west lies the largest area containing the main garden features. Chambers’ dignified country residence showing Palladian influence is illustrated in Vitruvius Britannicus. By 1870 the estate was owned by C. W. Minet Esq. of Devon who built a new stable block, lodge and walled garden.

In 1878 the estate was bought by Thomas Holford, the great-grand- father of the present owner Mrs Douglass. Thomas was succeeded by his son, and when he died part of the estate was sold because of the conditions of Thomas senior’s will and lack of surviving male heir. This included the stables, kitchen garden and the mansion, the latter falling into the hands of a developer. The land, including the garden, passed to a nephew, Richard Holford, father of Mrs Douglass. A fire destroyed the mansion in 1965. Richard Holford bought back the land on which it stood and in 1971 built the present bungalow on the site. The east side was laid to lawn and is separated from the parkland by a brick and stone topped ha-ha built in 1876. Sue and Mark Douglass moved in in 1985 and have been very involved in the continuing restoration of the garden.


18th-century engraving of Castle Hill (Duntish Court)

There is some argument about the age of the yewery south of the house; one expert claims it is Elizabethan, another Victorian. It is thought that William Chambers had some input into the contemporary garden with its surviving canal, grotto and summer house. The summer house (left) was listed as ‘the Carpenter’s Shop’ in the 1845 sales particulars, probably because of its rustic timbers which were ‘.tacked onto its walls to represent pediments, columns and entablatures .’ It has been recognised by Professor Timothy Mowl as ‘a joke’ by William Chambers, ‘. the bitter humour of a great, frustrated classicist, a witty protest against pedantry …’, a reference to ‘L’Abbé Laugier’s theory of the origin of classical architecture from the primitive hut’.

After the opportunity to munch on freshly picked Discovery apples in the orchard and a quick coffee, we were taken by coach back to Leweston to enjoy lunch and collect our luggage. We were to drive to Sherborne Castle Park on our way home.

Sherborne Castle Park

Sir Walter Raleigh’s first sight of Sherborne Castle was as he rode past on a journey between London and Plymouth. The 12th-century Old Castle, built by Roger de Caen and owned by the Bishop of Salisbury, stood on a bluff above the river, its extensive deer park ringed by hills and wooded with ancient trees.

Raleigh petitioned Elizabeth for the property and in 1592 was granted a 99-year lease from the crown. He tried to modernise the Castle, but the difficulties and expenses were too great so he abandoned the attempt and instead built a new house across the valley. Raleigh named it Sherborne Lodge to distinguish it from the Castle. As first built, the house was a plain rectangle and in 1594 the Raleighs moved in. Six years later, four corner turrets were added which were used as banqueting houses. Gardens were created around the new house. The River Yeo was dammed to create a water garden and there were orchards, gardens and groves planted with exotics brought back from expeditions. In one corner of his gardens, Sir Walter built the structure still known as Sir Walter Raleigh’s Seat. Against the park wall, it gives a good view of the traffic along the road to Dorchester and on the other side to the Old Castle and across to the gardens and Lodge.

In the early years of the 18th century Robert Digby who shared a gardening interest with his friend, Alexander Pope, set out formal gardens, with canals, a bowling green, regular groves of trees and a Wilderness of evergreens near to the house to the north. To the east was a walled garden, almost certainly containing knots and parterres (the patterns could be seen in the dry summer of 1997). The sloping ground below the house was terraced. Pope visited Sherborne in 1724 and wrote a long description of the gardens and expressed his admiration for his friend’s work.

In 1752, 22-year-old Edward 6th Lord Digby inherited and moved in with his five brothers. Six months after inheriting, Edward contracted Lancelot Brown to create the lake which swept away the canals and bowling green. He also put in the Cascade where the valley naturally narrows under the Old Castle. The ruins of the Old Castle became a backdrop to the water and were ‘improved’ by the Digby family by the addition of a mock-ruined tower (1756) and a crenellated wall (1755) along with a planting of yews and cedars to create a romantic landscape. Beside Brown’s Cascade, an Alcove seat was put up in 1780 and this is now known as Pope’s Seat in tribute to the poet.

In 1776, Brown laid out the Castle Yard and, at the same time, smoothed out the formal terraces north of the house and planted the large trees on the north lawn. He built a ha-ha along the south side of the East Lawn (created in 1765, replacing the formal walled garden) to hide a new carriage drive. The lakeside garden was planted with trees, shrubs and flowers, almost certainly including the Ginkgo tree seen today. This area was enclosed by the Greenhouse (now Orangery) in 1781. Earl Digby died in 1793. His son made no changes but when his nephew, George Wingfield Digby, inherited in 1856 he extended the Park and built a lodge at the gates to the designs of Philip Hardwick.


After the last war, the grounds became overgrown, the lake choked with water lilies. In 1969 Mr Simon Wingfield Digby opened the Castle and Lakeside Gardens to the public and the lake was dredged. The gardens are now maintained by a staff of three gardeners.

No AGT Conference ends without a nursery opportunity. Fortunately there was one very near Sherborne Castle Park. Thanks again Dorset for an interesting weekend. I’m looking forward to Lincoln in September, why not join me?