‘Courting Controversy’ at The Courts, a National Trust garden




LH: I found The Courts was an unexpected pleasure off the main road near Bradford upon Avon. After parking in a somewhat un-National Trust-like car park across the road, we were then greeted by a very welcoming lady member of staff who kindly offered us the whole plant schedule for the garden when she realised our interest was professional.

RW: It’s always nice to have our plantsmanship appreciated!

LH: Yes, and I was then quite taken with the initial approach to the house –  the pleached lime walk leading to the front door does give a real sense of arriving somewhere.

RW:  I felt the width of the path didn’t really match the welcome of the staff, and it would have been nice to have been able to walk up to the house two a breast. That said, the immediate impression is one of a comfortable garden, closely related to the style of the building, which people absolutely love – The Courts has a great fan base, and I can see why.

LH: I liked its modesty. Having visited Hidcote recently, I felt that, while this had a similar ‘rooms’ scenario, the feel was definitely more relaxed and less delineated.

RW: This is where I disagree with you. I feel that there is a lack of sharpness and organisation in the arrangement of the various areas which Hidcote gets right. Here there are odd awkwardnesses of angle and alignment and various incongruities which need to be addressed by planning and renovation. For example, why are there three different types of hedge around the main lawn just inside the gate – pleached limes, yew battlements and a yew curtain? You just wouldn’t get that at Hidcote.

LH: Oh, come on, you can’t deny the artistry of those yew castellations. I do take your point, though. The surrounding hedges do detract somewhat from their effectiveness. But we must remember that there have been several stages of development of this garden, and different owners have added their own individual touches at different times. This property was originally built in 1720 and there was also a cloth mill here.  It wasn’t until Sir George Hastings bought the house in 1900 that work really started on the garden, and this was predominantly the planting of hedges to enclose his garden ornaments. The Goff family then took over in the 1920s and made much of what the garden is today.  When, more recently, Troy Scott-Smith took over as Head Gardener, he adopted a new approach again.

RW:  Yes, these historic remnants and changes of ownership do create problems. What, for example, do you do with remains from a cloth mill that comprise a rill, a formal water tank and an informal pond, all closely juxtaposed in the top corner of the garden? I’m not sure that works.

LH: Maybe not in strict design terms, but the reflections on the formal tank were a real wow.  Anyway, you wouldn’t expect the National Trust to destroy historic remains would you? I would be surprised if these weren’t listed. In an ideal world it would also be good to achieve more alignment of the garden rooms with the elevations of the house. But perhaps the original ground plan also has to be maintained.

RW:  I think it is unfortunate that this is an age that respects the resonance of history so much. We do, after all, live in the present. The former owners didn’t seem to have any qualms about knocking down the cloth mill, and these industrial residues do not make for good garden design. In fact, their retention creates problems which need to be resolved.  It doesn’t, for example, make any sense to me that the rill is aligned beside a hedge for part of its length and then runs through a shrubbery, with the odd kink, before it flows into the informal pool. You wouldn’t waste such a feature in this way where it is sometimes barely visible. More needs to be made of it. How wonderful it would be to create a completely straight, formal rill with formal blocks of waterside planting alongside, such as bamboos, rodgersias, ligularias, lysichitons and astilbes.


LH: That would certainly be quite a dramatic change, and actually sounds quite contemporary. Too contemporary?

RW: I think this is part of the problem for this kind of garden. Where does it go from here? This is not one of those ‘hallowed’ gardens which merits staying exactly as it is. Just as previous owners have tinkered with the landscape, maybe it is time for a full scale revision which deals with all these problems. I don’t think that we should go on thinking that we have to save everything of the past.

LH: No, but obviously any changes have to respect the house and its architecture. It is an 18th century building after all. Surely you could create a contemporary effect more easily with planting rather than by making any major alterations to the hard landscaping. Isn’t this what Troy Scott-Smith was working on here?

RW: Yes, I visited four years ago and absolutely loved the areas that had been very positively reworked with bolder swathes of individual species. I remember loving a mass of Stipas and Cotinus surrounding a stone ornament on the House Lawn. It’s a bit of a shame that that has been done away with now and there has been a return there to the original layout of box-lined L-shaped beds. This is just really a pastiche.

LH: I know the box edging is fairly traditional, but I felt it was in keeping with the formality of this area, and the planting inside it was interesting. I loved the combination of Teucrium fruticans, Parahebe perfoliata, Salvia argentea and Artemisia ‘Canescens’, and that colour palette of pinks, silvers and greens is always pleasing.  Maybe we will have to agree to disagree on that one.

RW: I would certainly agree with you that The Courts is a ‘plantsman’s garden’.

I reacquainted myself with some ‘old friends’ there. I hadn’t seen Nicandra physaloides or Azarina vidallii for some years. I also particularly liked the yellow and blue borders which even in October had colour and interest: I certainly wasn’t familiar with  Bidens ‘Hanney’s Lemon Drop’, which really sang out, and I will make a point of using it in the future.

But for me, the real star was the avenue of Stipa gigantea with the dark yew hedge on one side – and the narrow gap through it was a stroke of genius. (See photograph at top of post). The simplest ideas are often the best. That also makes me think of the topiary for which The Courts is well known.

LH:  Yes, I must admit I was a little disappointed by that. I felt it was a rather heterogenous collection of objects, some of which looked misshapen, lumpy and tired in places.  And the droopy yews bordering the main lawn I found a bit annoying!  I think the topiary was at its most effective when the edges were straight and crisp.

RW: I was also irritated when there were yews on one side of the path and vines on the other, with a funny piece of topiary in between. I just felt that the whole lacked cohesion. Then there were two different plantings of vines in too close proximity to each other: those on pillars, which didn’t work, and next to them the alternating purple and green vines on pergolas in the vegetable garden, which looked fabulous.

LH: Yes, the vegetable garden is a real success –old fashioned rows of vegetables, but not over-regimented or over-fussy, as in the case of Rosemary Verey’s ornamental potager. 


RW:  Yes, its simplicity charmed, and I guess that’s why the adjacent arboretum is so much loved –  such a contrast to the structured approach of the garden rooms. It’s a bit of a shame that the oddly formal yew circle with the 5 white stemmed birch trees in the centre intrudes into such a relaxed area.

LH: Instead of that square formation of birch trees, wouldn’t it be a good idea if the birch trees themselves formed the circle? I think that would suit the ‘arboretum’ feel better.  I also like the fact that you still feel quite secluded in the arboretum although you are surrounded by a number of neighbouring houses. It is really quite an inward-looking garden.

RW: Yes, even the Temple. If it was turned round, it would overlook first the informal pond and then a view of distant farmland which is currently screened by split cane fencing – what an opportunity missed.

But they are doing lots of really good things here. What I particularly liked were all the visitor-friendly touches such as an invitation to help yourself to apples, trails for kids, a children’s classroom and, especially, the poetry boards attached to seats. Had I been on my own with more time I would have really enjoyed sitting down and reading those.

LH: I agree. It makes the garden very accessible and appealing to all ages.

RW:  My impression is that the Trust is less controlling than it used to be in the way of advice to its Head Gardeners. It think it would be great if current and future incumbents could express something of their own personality rather than feel they have to look to the past. For instance, in the Pillar Garden I would like to see a smaller enclosure with no plants except a lawn of lily turf. It would be like a slim-line version of Stonehenge.

LH: Yes, but don’t forget that we both loved the planting of the white froth of the Aster ericoides ‘Monte Casino’ en masse around the pillars. You can’t back out of that one.

RW:  Fair comment and, as usual, you and I are in complete agreement about the teas. There was a sumptuous selection of cakes available, all oozing with cream.

LH: Indeed. Biggest slice of cake ever, and, what’s more, jolly gentlemen in straw boaters to serve it. A suitably greedy end to an enjoyable tour.