May meadows for the 21st century

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
May 2012

Steffie Shields recommends a visit to the Garden House at Saxby
The price of petrol has gone through the roof. Any jaunts to visit gardens around the county now need careful planning – it is best to share a car with other enthusiasts. Increasingly nurseries in remote country places are laying out stunning gardens which attract customers like bees to a honey pot. They are striving to offer their customers not only choice plants for every season but, more importantly, inspiration as to what to do with them, displaying great colour combinations and what grows best in this neck of the woods. Now the magical high season of late spring and early summer has arrived, even if you live in the south of the county, I suggest you put the Garden House at Saxby, ten miles north of Lincoln, high on your list of ‘must go’ destinations. This young garden on a remarkable site not far from Ermine Street, probably first exploited by the Romans, is creating a buzz, and not just for humming wildlife.

Landscape architect Chris Neave and his partner, Jonathan Cartwright began in autumn 2000 by demolishing Chris’s Aunt Annie Neave’s 1930s bungalow and cottage garden. Situated in a grass paddock, protected from north winds by a belt of trees, on an otherwise exposed site on the edge of the compact village, it is in a prime location overlooking an expansive panorama of unspoiled, farming countryside. The new T-shaped stone house has a farmstead feel and is surrounded by garden on all sides, extending south-westwards. Now, almost twelve years later, the important bones of the eight-acre design, the high hedges, have bedded in, as have a variety of special young trees that are beginning to show their character, form and colour, as thousands of bulbs and wildflowers are naturalising. Delightful horse chestnut trees, Aesculus carnea ‘Briotti’, line the drive. These will grow to about twenty metres – not as high as the wild horse chestnut. Their blossoming deep pink, red and orange candles, echoing the red pan-tiles on the roof of the house, made a cheerful welcome that ‘had me from hello’!

According to their website,, ‘This is a garden of the twenty-first century – which has traditional elements of design but is innovative and aware of the environment and is experimental’, undoubtedly a forward-looking philosophy gleaned from Chris studying amenity horticulture, landscape design and recreation at Writtle College in Essex, founded in 1893. He has gardening in his blood. Chris’s great grandfather, George Neave bought the Saxby estate in 1917. Beginning a big garden from scratch is an enormous challenge, compounded by the windswept location. A good deal of earth moving was required initially to create suitable levels of sandy soil around the house. This was key to the success of the layout which is comprised of formal ‘garden rooms’. The Urn garden, Dutch garden, Lavender walk and potager complement the Pergola and Hosta walk, which includes a lily pond as well as a damp valley area on the side of the sweeping lawn. Thanks to clay lying at the bottom of the hillside, an amoebic pond is, amusingly, shaped like a giant fish. This catches the changing light and draws visitors down to explore the wildflower meadows that they have created further along. A dog-leg area along the ridge, with snaking grassy paths leads to a second ‘Far Pond’. Not only do you need vision in spades, you need perseverance and patience in similar quantities. They lost ten per cent of all the trees and plants that they initially planted. Even so, the garden is beginning to merge with the surrounding countryside very successfully.

The Cathedral Garden, enclosed by red twigged limes, Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’, is an intriguing developing area, perhaps a nod to Lincoln, and perfect for special events, open-air concerts and perhaps weddings. Elsewhere, a charming and memorable vista across a lily pond and low shrubs to St Helen’s adds a frisson of history to this new garden. This eighteenth-century church with classical Tuscan portico was built in 1775 as a mausoleum by the Fourth Earl of Scarborough, where churchgoers were to be intentionally rewarded with the same panoramic paradise as enjoyed by Chris and Jonathan from the Garden House. A beautiful, creamy white incense rose nearby links the church back to the garden. Here a valley area to the side of the hill is planted up with willow that they coppice regularly. This has made a soft, frothy and hazy effect, where the planting of a ribbon of graceful and delicate, blue and purple iris, Iris siberica, weaving through naturalized shrubs, grasses, rare trees and evergreens, offers yet another heavenly tour de force as if a stream tumbling and cascading down the hillside.

As well as a nursery, there is an abundant diversity of mood and habitat for every season; something for every kind of plant fanatic, botanist and naturalist, from bog garden to dry garden, long herbaceous terrace to bulb garden. So what makes this new garden unique? The answer has to be the extent, extra emphasis on and sheer variety of wild meadow, inspired by the rural location, a garden that flows into and sits completely at ease with the relaxing setting. The Fritillary and Crocus Meadow beyond the fish ponds, or lavender blue camassias in among the buttercups cannot fail to move; a chance to experience once more the fresh joy of childhood discovery. A perfect place to take the grandchildren, with so much open space. It is fun to search for wild orchid treasure and yellow hay rattle spikes among a tapestry of waving grasses and wild flowers. Returning up the gentle rise towards the house, this is the time to inspect a spectacular array of bearded iris, each bold, velvety flower flag vying with its neighbour, as if saying ‘look at me’. Beyond, the Pictorial Meadow, a choral symphony of mixed cornflowers and nodding bi-colour poppies, was just getting going on the day I visited. I wished I lived closer so I could pop back to enjoy and photograph the breathtaking galaxy of wildflower colour waving in June breezes. I will treat myself this summer.

I have not even mentioned the all-important tea-room to seal your resolve to visit! Here you can pause outside in the sunshine for a cream tea or an ice-cream, surrounded by fragrant old-world roses, such as Rosa ‘Mary Rose’, a popular, sugar pink David Austin rose named after Henry VIII’s flagship. The Garden House is well and truly launched, with all the uplifting vibrancy, optimism and energy that youth entails – a veritable pleasure boat, albeit twenty-one metres above sea level, sailing into a bright future among a sea of floriferous meadows and woodland. Time to go cruising and exploring at Saxby!

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