Garden diary

Creating a sense of place


One of the things I love about Arne's gardens is that they all exude a sense of belonging to their landscape. Whether modern or traditional, English, European or American there is a sensitivity and depth to the design which allows it to sit comfortably within its surroundings. Having worked with Arne for a little while now I have picked up breadcrumbs of wisdom about how this might be achieved but when I was offered the chance to sit in on Arne's three day course on creating gardens with a sense of place, I naturally jumped at the chance!

I won't try to condense three days of learning into a few short paragraphs because it would be utterly impossible. What I was struck by though is the extent to which Arne routinely goes to understand the landscape, the clients and the site in order to achieve a successful garden. It goes way beyond making sure that the materiality of the garden is right and that the history is respected. Arne studies his clients and their home; motifs and patterns which occur within the historic fabric of the house may well end up being used as inspiration for garden elements. A treasured possession, a family relic, a much loved painting may be the inspiration for a border's colour scheme. The end result is personal to the client, to the house and to the wider landscape.

Arne creates gardens that are uniquely personal to his clients. To emphasize just how important this is to a successful garden design, he took us to two very different homes; one where a garden has been created and one where the delicate nature of the site, which is epitomised by the house itself, makes creating a garden incredibly challenging.

Our first stop was Llowes Court near Hay on Wye. At first glance everything is much as you might expect; it is a lovely Welsh manor house painted in saffron yellow with well tended barns and a meadow. But something totally unexpected lurks just below the surface of this garden. The first clue was meeting Sue, Llowes Court's rather magnificent owner and creator of the gardens there. She is charming and direct with a glint in her eye that at once leaves you in little doubt that you are in for a treat.

"Where do you want to go first?" she asks Arne, "The mineral pavilion? The birds nest? The Grotto?" Her invitation is like a grandmother offering you sweets when your mother's back is turned. We looked at each other and grinned and leaving our expectations at the gate we happily fall in behind her. I don't really want to describe the garden to you; it's one that needs to be experienced. It is magical though, it is like being transported back to childhood. It's fun, it's confusing, it's totally beguiling but there is an undercurrent of wisdom to it, it's not at all silly nor throw away. The design is considered, modulated and worldly. It is masterful, fearless and energetic. The garden is a reflection of Sue herself and I can't think of a higher compliment for it.

Our second stop was Ciliau, a Welsh farmhouse perched high in the Brecon beacons. On arriving at its gate you drive up a steep and rutted track and are greeted by the back side of some very utilitarian looking tin roofed barns. Pallets of roof tiles and pieces of architectural stone lay stroon about and my first impression was of having arrived at an abandoned farm. On closer inspection though you notice that the gate posts are rough hewn from great gnarled tree trunks and that there are some signs of life.

Nothing quite prepared me for what I found when I rounded the corner into the courtyard of the farm itself. It struck me as something that had been carefully arranged for a painting or perhaps a film set for a period drama. Three wild looking horses, positioned centrally in the yard, looked languidly across at us while a pair of geese eyed us suspiciously from the doorstep. The old house looked in just the correct shade of decay and an old Victorian table sat abandoned in the corner. In places the bedrock jutted straight out of the ground and the land rose slightly towards the house, which lay at just the right distance to allow you to properly drink in the scene. The word bucolic was probably coined for Ciliau.

The house's current tenant is Roger Capps, a renowned master builder, who quietly takes us through the history of the house, most of which I miss as first the cat, and then the horses, seemed to take an unnatural interest in me, first sniffing, then nibbling at my hair. From what I gathered though the house was given its last major tart up in 1590, it has miraculously survived major development ever since. It still has no heating and no bathroom in the house so Roger has built a wonderful bathhouse in the garden. It gets so cold in the winter that Roger has been known to find his house guests asleep on the heated bathhouse floor in the morning. It's a hard life living at Ciliau, which is the only property in the UK to be designated a SSI due to its colony of lesser horseshoe bats that share the house. Roger is a great custodian for Ciliau; he has spent a lifetime working on some of our most treasured buildings. The house is rich with wall paintings and layers of colour. History drips off the very walls. It is beautiful and fragile and in better hands than it could wish for.

I think what I learned most from the course is perhaps what I have learned most from gardening; there are no shortcuts. If you want a garden to be right then you have to be prepared to really work. Gardens reflect people and their interactions with the landscape and both have to work together to create something which lasts. Arne's great skill is at least partly his sensitivity, and then there is his creativity and the ability to bring the elements together. In many ways though the creation or reinvention of a garden is just the beginning of a long-term relationship.

Words and photographs: Steve Lannin


Arne runs a series of garden courses from his home in Monmouthshire each year.

Arne's new book, The Gardens of Arne Maynard, is available to purchase now. Buy signed copies directly from us here or visit your local bookshop.