The rollings hills and sparkling streams of the Mendips lend themselves to that great 18th Century artform, the English Landscape Garden. I was fascinated to learn how these great gardens and parks reflected the lifestyles, and even politics, of their owners when I studied garden design. In Frome we are within minutes of several world-class English Heritage Listed Gardens. History is literally written in our landscape.
Many local Listed Gardens are not open to the public but Ammerdown House and Garden, near Kilmersdon, has an annual Open Day on the second May bank holiday. Ammerdown is a classic example of an 18th Century landscape park overlaid with a 20th Century garden near the house.
The house, charmingly referred to as a ‘villa’ due to its relatively small size, was designed by James Wyatt in 1788 for Thomas Jolliffe. A landscape park, perhaps inspired by Stourhead and Longleat which had become well-known by this time, was set around the house, along with a kitchen garden to the north-east with an elegant orangery set in its southern wall. In the late nineteenth century a memorial column was erected to Thomas Jolliffe. In 1901 the leading light of Arts and Crafts gardens, Edwin Lutyens, was commissioned to create a garden around the house.
|Ammerdown House, showing the ha-ha|
I was lucky enough to visit Ammerdown on a bright spring morning while the dew was still dappling the lawns. A misty view of the park could be seen from the south lawn and the Portuguese laurels cast long shadows. All was fresh, tranquil and still.
|The south lawn at Ammerdown|
|Lutyens steps at Ammerdown|
|Ammerdown’s Italian Garden|
The green lawns lead your eye out to the park beyond, an open sweep that is possible because of the ha-ha that creates a boundary without interrupting the view. To the east a shadowy space, carved by enormous yew hedges, invites you to explore further.
Lutyens is well-known for his steps and the alternating convex and semi-circular steps that lead down to an Italian Garden of intricate parterres are masterpieces. The Italian Garden is a confection of box and yew that would be daunting to plant today. The geometric shapes cast crisp shadows and the creamy statues are thrown into relief by the dark yew.
Paths radiate from the Italian garden, connecting with the Orangery, a Rose Garden and walks through the woodland. Clouds of nodding daffodils drift among the woodland trees and I was delighted to find a blue carpet of wood anemones spangling the ground. A small boating lake can be found just beyond the Italian Garden and beyond this is the Park.
|Wood anemones at Ammerdown|
A Listed park that has found its place in modern life is Orchardleigh, near Lullington, which is now the site of a golf course. The formal gardens are High Victorian but the 18th century landscape park is based on a medieval deer park. The Champneys, who had been at Orchardleigh since the Norman Conquest, dammed the stream to make a lake, drowning the site of the village and marooning the 13th century church on an island. This romantic site is now a popular wedding venue. The 19th century Victorian house was built by William Duckworth, who bought the estate from the Champneys in 1855. He commissioned Thomas Wyatt, a distance relative of the Ammerdown architect James Wyatt, to design the house.
The garden feels dignified and has a strong connection with the surrounding hills. It has some distinctly Victorian touches, including cast iron bed edging. The lawns have central beds today but Victorian photos show Portuguese laurels planted in the lawns, surrounded by snaking floral patterns. The landscape designer, William Page, described the front terraces as being ‘brilliant with flowers’. The Victorians liked a cheerful display.
The greenhouse is an unusual double height construction that must have once housed a vine, perhaps. Trust the Victorians to build an ultra functional design.
Perhaps the most atmospheric area is the island church which is surrounded by mossy gravestones. It feels remote from the sweeping expanse of lawns that surround the house and has an intimate, private feel.
|Orchardleigh’s island church|
Other Listed Gardens around Frome include Mells Park and Marston House. Mells Park is another enclosed deer park that evolved into a landscape garden, culminating in an early 20th century garden designed by Lutyens. It was famously owned by the Horners (as in Little Jack Horner) for generations.
Marston House gardens were laid out by Stephen Switzer between 1724 and 1745. His formal style fell out of fashion and the seventh Earl replaced it with a landscape style garden around 1776.
Although garden styles (and budgets!) have changed, gardening enthusiasm remains the same. Thomas Horner enjoyed a close friendship with Orchardleigh’s Lady Champneys, with whom he exchanged garden tips. Today’s gardening clubs, shows and programmes allow us to do the same.