Hanham Court sits on the outskirts of Bristol, cheek by jowl with the Ring Road. To reach it you pass close by the DIY ‘temples’ of Longwell Green and then through a suburban housing estate. Can this really be right? Yes, because suddenly, as though passing through a gap in the curtain of time, you find yourself in quite another world. A meadow full of cows at the bottom of the lane sets the scene. You park beside a Norman tythe barn, of all things. And, although we didn’t notice a flock of doves wheeling in unison overhead to settle on the wavy, tiled roofs of the mansion, you could well expect to.

 

A small forecourt contains a nubbly network of a box parterre which is studded with the dramatic dark verticality of Irish yews and decorated with pots of cool blue hydrangeas. This little gem of a garden exudes an understated, almost Italian simplicity, which makes it an elegant antipasti for what is to come. Pass beneath an archetypal arch and you are entering a sunlit garden which has all the old world charm for which English gardens are famous the world over.

 

The Court itself is a ravishing amalgam of all architectural periods – even the dog kennels are to die for. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, has its own 13 century chapel and a Tudor tower. The garden front of the house is swathed with luxuriant climbers. Huge, plain terracotta pots billow with scented pelargoniums, pink flowered tobacco and brugmansia.

Crisp gravel paths lead away between borders stacked with monstrous, predominantly flacon shaped, topiary and profuse with bloom. The turf is emerald and the gardeners work diligently and busily away. You do have to pinch yourself and remember that in 1993 when Julia and Isabel Bannerman (garden designers to the royals) took this over it was almost a wilderness. So what you are seeing is the recreation of an imagined idyll. The BBC’s bodice ripping ‘Tudors’ could have been filmed here.

 

Around the house they have created a garden of conventional interconnecting ‘rooms’. It is unfortunate that the confines of the elevated bastion of rock and soil, on which these gardens themselves sit, and some ancient garden history, effectively dictate their use of the space. A large Tudor bowling green is a dominant feature which descends sideways over a steep slope to a long border.

Maybe this construction played a suitably fiendish role in Tudor bowls, but it is odd here. The green feels too long, while the border at the bottom of the slope is too narrow for its prodigious length. As a consequence of this feature, the garden rooms on the other side of the lawn feel intimate to the point of tight and constrained.

The swimming pool garden is certainly rather cramped. Swimming pools are notoriously difficult to design seamlessly into the English landscape-a problem which doesn’t bother designers on the Riviera or California. And this bright blue pool certainly jars –  particularly with the surrounding rough stone walls and the ruined casement windows which are set in them. However, with a flamboyant grotto and a liberal display of pot plants, it certainly has a sufficiently exotic ambience for a modern day Henry and courtiers to disport themselves.

We were visiting after the roses and peonies, keynote plants for them, were over. Why? Because it is sometimes interesting to see what the composer has up his sleeve apart from the main theme.  But we certainly saw enough evidence of roses, in variety and abundance, to know that in season this garden would be a rose scented sensation. And we were not to be disappointed ourselves. Mindful of the late season gap, they had flung thousands of tender annuals and perennials into pots and beds. There were Dahlias in Dixter-like profusion, cosmos, argyranthemums, sweet peas and cleomes. A hot border, all nasturtiums and tawny heleniums, had taken the place of what had earlier been a cool palette. This is keeping the show on the road with some pzazz!

However, the most successful areas were actually those which were simple and bold. Particularly memorable was a gravel garden centring on a vast copper bowl seasonally planted with pink argyranthemums, with yew and box balls of differing sizes, glaucous euphorbias and irises. Of course, these were now out of flower, but that didn’t matter because, as with a good florist, a good gardener should be able to make a stunning display with just carefully chosen foliage.

Equally appealing was a romantic bower-like enclosure, simply schemed but to overflowing, with white tobacco, agapanthus and  purple cherry pie, all contrasted with the broad leaves of  brugmansia. Even the green oak bench was lined with box hedging as a riser. The whole effect was sumptuously overpowering. A suitable set for Anne Boleyn to succumb to the royal seduction?

Plantsmanship can help to give a clear identity, relaxation and conversely stimulation, to spaces and, where they do achieve this it is, in fairness, a huge success. Elsewhere, the planting in these rooms can at times seem overfull, repetitive and occasionally ill considered. Plants need both room to be seen and planting in sufficient volume to register within the scheme.

One plant combination of crimson, mauve, and white with flashes of scarlet had us drooling. But there were also some naughty little shocks like pink and scarlet – maybe this is the ‘Christo influence’ again.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and sugar pink phlox together? Ouch! And even the great man himself, we are sure, would have hesitated to put four different Dahlias within a square metre.

Throughout your tour of these rooms you can glimpse and look down on wildflower swards and rising orchards and parkland beyond. It would be great fun for the bastion itself to end in twin pavilions, possibly of green oak drenched in roses which is very much their style, from which to more leisurely enjoy these long views. But doubtless the garden history police would have words with us about this!

Instead, at the end of the narrow border is a sunken but ostentatiously pedimented wooden gate. A change of pace is frequently a valid design exercise. And it was therefore good contrast to be able to step through this gate, away from all this complexity, and look back on it from the knoll beyond, with some time for reflection and almost with a sense of perspective.

The word ‘Parkland’ and ‘wildflower sward’ perhaps over dignify, for the areas outside the formal gardens are quite plainly work in progress and it will be interesting to see how all this develops in the future. They are building collections of Magnolias, Lilacs and Philadelphus. Yet more romance in the offing! Following the progress of a garden, which you visit over a number of years, is no small part of the pleasure of garden visiting, since you learn by watching the successes and failures of others. Outside the garden rooms you are certainly aware of the outside world in the form of traffic noise. But in actual fact this just makes you hug the idyll a little closer.

We returned from our lofty viewing point, via a pond system which also looks as though it is still partly under development.

While the lowest pond was frankly a mess, the middle section of this system, a woodland pond in filtered light, was a delight-simply charming, in the truest sense of both words. While the water surface itself was studded with floating clouds of white Alisma, the banks were planted with bamboo copses and stalked by an army of tree ferns juxtaposed with native hazels. The latter was a brilliantly successful combination.

With yet more contrast, the uppermost part of this water system finds the Bannnermans at their most excessive, with a stumpery, coroneted fountain, waterfalls AND a statue of Neptune all in one comparatively small area. Foxgloves, ferns and loosely grown box plants act as very necessary softening. Since the statue is juxtaposed against the backmost stumps, which are themselves silhouetted against penetrating light entering from beneath lime trees, you almost do not register the god of the sea at all.

 Rumour has it that the stumps are what was left over from the stumpery developed for HRH at Highgrove. And it is all rather royally extravagant. There was a bit of a problem that day with the coronet which floats on the fountain jet. But then, even the Windsors’ crown has looked unsteady from time to time……..

This piece de resistance leads the visitor neatly back to take tea within the loggia of the Arts and Crafts wing of the main house and also to some sense of recapitulation. What value does this have as a garden? Do we need another garden of rooms, another pastiche? None of this is exactly cutting edge design. But then you know, neither is it aiming to be. If that was the Bannerman’s style, they would doubtless not be by appointment. They have responded generously and romantically to the history soaked architecture of the place and context is, after all, one of the designer’s key watchwords.

There is more than a hint of theatricality thrown in. It is no surprise to discover that, given their druthers, they would have loved to be stage designers. A faux tree house, a fountain formed from 3 stone ox heads,  some remarkable wooden Carolinean garden ornaments, bits of Greco- Roman architrave, a gypsy caravan……

These, often outsize, items are rather nonchalantly thrown in and often rely on size rather than careful placing for their effect. Some of the architectural elements do seem a little chunky and clunky-we are not after all seeing them from beyond the footlights. But these are minor cavils.

Their website makes it clear that they regard this garden at least in part as an experimental testing ground for their ideas. I think we can say, as far as the uber romance test is concerned, they have certainly passed it. It is refreshing to see people going at gardens with gusto and this is a bravura performance.

We were made to feel welcome and cared for by the staff, which is not the case everywhere. Their cream teas are truly scrumptious!

Encore!

Lesley and Robert

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