Making a splash!

Steffie Shield meets Peter Eustance, director of Symphonic Gardens.
On a baking hot day last July, I was drawn to a striking display at Grimsthorpe Castle. A range of contemporary water features set up by Peter Eustance made a welcome, sparkling antidote to the heat. Readers may have come across his exhibits at The Burghley Horse Trials in Stamford. He brought his own Chelsea style to a fun-filled Grimsthorpe ‘Garden Day’, supported by local nurseries, gardening experts and garden-related organisations and charities.

A miniscule pond in our naturalistic garden serves resident birds and frogs. In twenty years, we have never solved how to introduce running water, that touch of drama, without it looking ‘contrived’. Discovering Peter had established a base for his landscape design practice inside Grimsthorpe Castle’s eigheenth-century seven-acre walled gardens, I resolved to pay Symphonic Gardens a visit after Chelsea. Besides inspiration for our old orchard space, I hoped to discuss the latest craze of ‘wilding’ gardens and his plans for a water feature showroom.

“Do you want sound, movement, or a calm reflective surface?” Peter’s probing questions took me by surprise. “Is the sound of water more significant to you than the sight of its movement attracting light, in other words, the ripple effect?”

I remembered reading that Peter famously worked with the deaf solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie CH, in partnership with Papworth Trust. In 2016 his sonic garden, Together We Can, with sound design by music students from Brunel University, won a ‘Silver Gilt’ award in the Artisans Gardens competition. Their unique approach to exploring the ‘acoustic landscape’ made Chelsea Flower Show history, while successfully attracting great waves of publicity for Together, the charity aimed at the physical, mental and emotional health of the disabled.

None of this was mentioned. Instead, ever modest, Peter listened patiently to my initial tentative thoughts and answers. Engaging, creative ideas flowed as we set off to explore his unusual gallery. As his business website explains, he aims to fulfil clients’ expectations and optimise the potential of any given outside space. First impressions? It is heartening to see a new large ‘garden room’ and to witness the potential of this ‘useful’ open, east-sloping historical site being exploited in a novel and inspirational way.

A BSc (Hons) degree in Plants and Sciences at Nottingham University led Peter initially to a career in fruit importing and marketing, before acting upon his design dreams by training at Capel Manor College in Middlesex. Among his design heroes, he admires the essence of style of Edwardian architect, Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) and the functionality of his gardens for people. The (new to me) thinking of American landscape architect, Thomas Church (1902-1978) also resonates strongly. Since 1994, a registered member of The Society of Garden Designers and acknowledged water specialist, Peter’s design awards include Royal Horticulture Society Gold Medals at Chelsea Flower Show and Gardeners’ World Live.

He explained his desire to create spaces “to enable people to have a relationship with the natural environment.” London-born and an easy-going communicator, Peter is passionate about landscapes. Vivid memories of happy, childhood holidays spent with his grandparents at Grosmont in North Yorkshire centre around forays into Eskdale, along the valley of the River Esk with its fascinating slatey blocks and craggy rocks, and manmade millraces. On all his rambles, his best moments come from seeking out streams and closely observing watercourses. Peter recently completed, with is son Dominic, the Watkin Path up Mount Snowdon, the hardest and steepest path to the summit in Snowdonia, following the course of the cascading stream, Afon Cwm Llan. He also waxed lyrical about being mesmerised by the crystal-clear water of Colombia’s Rio Claro filtered through limestone strata, while visiting his daughter, Holly who was working for environmental charity Rainforest Concern.

Pausing, Peter drew my attention to curious patination on a ceramic urn, or to fascinating ripples created eternally, as water bubbled up from ‘black holes’ in a copper rill sunken into a solid slab of ancient Grimsthorpe oak, before falling and disappearing into a ‘splash’ of shiny black pebbles. Electric pumps are all secreted, hidden underground in reservoirs, in keeping with the scale of the feature, and straightforward to install. The natural balance of any feature can be controlled and enhanced by sending water through a filter, together with an ultra-violet light to zap the algae cells. If desirable the client can use small doses of chlorine tablets to achieve a crystal clear ‘spa’ effect, Peter explained, to prevent algae build-up and maintain the clarity of water, though warned that this deters wildlife.

Life-enhancing water is a key, often mystical, feature – one, it is said, that slows heartbeats. Quite the reverse, here I was stimulated by an educative, uplifting ‘fairy dance’ as Peter led me around his prize ‘out of doors’ artworks! Tall classical, vases of patinated bronze and copper posed elegantly. Some installations were sleek steel or brutally industrial. Others diverted my thoughts to form or material, to composition as an eye-catching vista or in the way they divided the space. Each attracted either with glistening movement or in profound stillness. I confess to being drawn to single antique coppers, in various sizes, turquoise with age, laced with floating waterlilies and enveloped in long grasses. Will I ever decide?

Peter Eustance’s exhibitions of experimental landscape ideas, sculpture and water features will be held periodically in this unusual ‘outdoor gallery’ open for visits and viewing from the beginning of August (by invitation or appointment only). Here at Grimsthorpe Castle, he is following in remarkable design footsteps: Vanbrugh, Switzer, Brown, John Grundy Jr, Lewis Kennedy and John Fowler (of Colefax and Fowler fame). “It’s important to show clients for them to see the possibilities – to connect and to understand the subtlety of effect of my creative vision,” Peter told me.

I have since ‘boned up’ on Thomas Church, the garden design pioneer of Modernism in in the ‘California Style’. Renowned for the ‘outdoor room’, Church created sub-areas for outdoor living as distinct places within the whole landscape. Rather than those of classical Italian Renaissance gardens with a separation of house and garden, his outdoor rooms interacted with the house with a free flow between the two.

This modern garden room, part manicured formal, part textured ‘wild’ punctuated with vivid, old-fashioned roses and other companion planting, flows successfully into the veteran orchard and the business area of the Victorian gardeners’ offices and bothy. Here his appropriate thyme circle sets off Lucy Churchill’s moving Cupped Hands sculpture beside the old glasshouses. On a more manageable and human scale than ‘Capability’ Brown’s extensive lakes, Peter Eustance’s contemporary water features contrast with the boundary’s rustic old brick walling and reflect bright skies. They, too, have the capability of attracting great interest and contemplation, while the warning centrepiece – FRAGILE – a word-sculpture landform, inspired by the original idea of artist David Crowe, for which Peter sculpted a grass bank with in-set steel edged lettering of local limestone in a wildflower meadow backdrop, will stop passers-by in their tracks.

Never miss a copy!

Big savings when you take out a subscription.