11 August 2014
A road less travelled
Allt-y-bela is approached by way of a very long, very narrow lane with occasional grass growing down its centre and tall hedges that enclose the road that, at this time of year, burst with wild flowers. It is a beautiful approach, during which the pressures of modernity seem to be stripped back.
At the very end of the lane, down an informal gravel drive, you begin to see topiary; some, like the enormous beech, are very definite statements of arrival and others, such as the hawthorn, hint at a more playful side to the garden. The drive winds on until you finally come upon the house, cornered by a renaissance tower and painted a rich ochre colour. It really is quite a sight, yet somehow not out of keeping with the rural landscape that surrounds it.
The impression you get from Allt-y-bela is one of relaxed informality, simplicity and, importantly, of history. The garden looks in many ways as if it might have sat by the house for hundreds of years, which, for a designer known for his 'sense of place', is perhaps to be expected. But the myths of the garden's simplicity and of its history are both dispelled in different ways. The garden to me looks effortless, and the effort that goes into making a garden look effortless is usually extreme!
Immediately in front of the house is a small sunny courtyard, enclosed by pleached crab apple trees and containing the very rarest of bulbs and plants. Opposite is the design studio, housed in a converted granary.
A stream runs through this side of the garden which has recently been enclosed with drystone walling, a traditional treatment in this part of the world where. left unchecked, the water can flow very fast and high re-sculpting the river banks almost with every heavy down pour. On the other side of the stream an amphitheatre has been created looking down on a grass 'stage' at the back of the studio barn. From this very contemporary piece of landscaping the garden starts to return to a more natural state with banks of wild flowers and a small orchard.
Behind the house on its northern side is a small de-constructed parterre of box interspersed with herbaceous planting and roses which transitions into another sculpted lawn which again morphs into wild flowers on the edge of the garden, to the west of the back lawn is a circular purple beech hedge of interlocking spirals alongside yew, beech and box topiary in all shapes and sizes! To the east is a kitchen garden which in many ways is the beating heart of the garden; it was the first area to be built, fresh home grown food being one of the main drivers of the gardening here. The scale is large domestic rather than anything very grand, it looks in many ways like a dream allotment, if you've ever wished for a beautiful plot in which to grow vegetables then its very likely that the kitchen garden at Allt-y-bela is what you had in mind! Opposite the kitchen garden is the fruit garden where you will find currents, gooseberries, apples and pears amongst a riot of colour; this is also the main herbaceous beds and they are punctuated by roses trained into domes. The pathways which lead in amongst the planting are narrow and cobbled and the plants spill into the path; you cannot help but be involved in this kind of planting!
The stream sides are stocked with primula and sanguisorba and the garden is filled with topiary. The Studio overlooks a bed that I haven't yet fully explored but which contains, I have just remembered, a particularly unusual rose that I need to photograph. The wild flower meadows are punctuated with plants that would more usually be found in a border but which have their origins in open grasslands; there is a huge amount to discover!
Over the coming weeks and months I will try to explore each area in a little more detail whilst also talking a bit about the work I'm doing in the garden. I will try to plot the changes in the garden through the seasons and to show you not only the best of what we have here but also an insight into some of the challenges we face.
Words: Steve Lannin, Gardener at Allt-y-bela
Photos: Britt Willoughby Dyer