Sunken treasure

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
June 2021

Looking for new ideas to refresh your garden? I know I am! Considering the cancellation of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (second year in a row), the gardening highlight of the year, are you missing those bold, new contemporary vibes and planting?

A spur of the moment decision last June to visit a rural, peaceful, off the beaten track village near Heydour, halfway between Grantham and Sleaford, set me thinking. Aisby has been expanding in the past three decades. Called ‘Asebi’ in the Domesday Book, the village later became part of the Culverthorpe estate, before, in 1918, being sold off in lots. Thanks to Lottery and local support, Aisby now boasts a smart community hall.

The name ‘Wildwood’ in the yellow National Garden Scheme brochure did not prepare this visitor for the striking house, set in seven acres at the end of a leafy private drive, away from the village’s mostly traditional Ancaster stone or brick housing. I had read that Joy and Paul King’s contemporary home is the only Huf Haus in Lincolnshire, one of about 250 in the entire country. Nevertheless, seeing their black and white timber frame and glass house for the first time was as unexpected and amazing as if Doctor Who’s Tardis had landed!

Massed either side of a smart, poster red front door, clipped box balls and granite cobbles set off the slick ‘Frame House’ architecture. A single glance confirmed that these gardens were just as ‘Grand Design’, with equal attention to detail and expertise.

Paul welcomed visitors at the nearby barn and directed us to the garden. We were to follow arrows west for a tour of the gardens in one direction (respecting Covid rules). To my surprise, several flights of steps, guarded by pencil cypress trees and fragrant shrub roses, led down the side of a hill into a patio garden below. Here the true extent was revealed: what had seemed single-storey is three storeys high, complete with a south-facing balcony! The Huf company aims for both ‘sunlight and the natural world to be brought directly into the living space’, a dream house prefabricated by German engineers to the highest quality specification and energy efficient technology.

Great rocks and boulders create a cliff-edge either side, almost like a contemporary, Swiss chalet snuggled into a hillside. Hard to believe, over the last ten years, this setting has been created from fields. I was stimulated by the ‘distinctive Bauhaus character of the living space’ and its effective ‘Italianate quarry garden’, overflowing with fascinating perennials and sun-loving exotics in strategically placed pots. Round-headed ‘lollipop’ trees, pink variegated willows, Salix hakuro nishiki underplanted with alliums, and a rare, large-leaved Paulownia help to soften the angularity of the architecture.

Exploring the remainder of the bowl-like amphitheatre, wrapped around and above the sunken patio area, both lawn and changing level are easy to negotiate and lead to Joy and Paul’s arboretum on the rise to the south-west. Here a further array of rare and specialist trees will further enclose the gardens when mature. To the east, sculpted high hedges and topiary box balls and cones with silver birch, Betula jacquemontii, create a textured green corner in contrast to rainbow colours in the sunken garden. The outside world, and all its problems, were for a time forgotten.

Strangely, it is almost impossible to come up with something utterly new in garden design. Looking back over time, evidence in surviving plans, paintings and archives suggests that what we might think a brand-new concept has in fact been done before somewhere in the world. Re-wilding ideas, now in vogue, were much discussed in the late 18th century in reaction to ‘Capability’ Brown’s polished lawns, serpentine drives and river-lakes. Critical commentators craved rough, rocky and unkempt landscapes, Mother Nature untamed. Full-size trees and shrubs pictured today ‘greening’ every balcony on every floor of a contemporary high-rise block of flats in Milan have been heralded as an ideal solution to urban pollution. This scheme is in truth a reinvention of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Every generation has interpreted the concept of changing levels in a garden seeking an essence of theatre, a stage-set with a sense of mood, a sense of place. Success comes from the timing of designer plans, let alone their cost and suitability to the perceived environmental needs of the current decade. Gold medals depend on the tonal mix and supply of quality plants and how well the garden is executed.

At Chelsea’s Centenary Show in 2013, I recall admiring Paul Hervey-Brookes’s gold medal-winning BrandAlley garden, conceived for busy working people to enjoy somewhere quiet outside to get things back in perspective. Sculptures and monoliths featured with rendered concrete walls in a sunken paving and seating area. Paul advised: “Whatever you want, you can create. Use your imagination… follow your heart.” A word of warning: sunken garden walls should be robustly built. Also consider the prevailing wind for the seating area if you put in a BBQ or fire pit.

Great stretches of Lincolnshire are relatively flat fenland. It made sense for landowners to create mounts to enjoy wider views of the countryside, and terraces with a walk to look down on living tapestries of border planting, clipped shrubs and lawn, as at Harrington Hall. Today’s popular sunken Italian garden at Belton House was first designed early in the 19th century by Jeffry Wyatville. Other unforgettable, sunken gardens spring to mind: from Harold Peto’s Edwardian pool at the Petwood Hotel to the 1960s symmetrical, sunken rose gardens enjoyed from Skegness esplanade above.

In a recent Zoom talk, leading landscape architect, Kim Wilkie described Boughton House in Northamptonshire as “one of the most thrilling landscapes I have ever worked on”. The mathematical rigour and pioneering geometry, early 18th century canals, avenues and the truncated, pyramid mount across the river, inspired a response of pure genius. He dreamt up a striking modern centrepiece so different from the elaborate French ornamental gardens originally created by Ralph the First Duke of Buccleuch: a crisp, pure and simple mirror image of the mount going down, a superbly-executed sunken garden walk down into a stylish hole in the ground where a mirror pool frames the sky in the water. Kim is thrilled that his ‘Orpheus’ offers a new experience and a “place of great joy and performance”.

Ask yourself, could you go to great lengths, summon shedloads of energy, expense and patience required to transform hard landscaping and clay ground? I recommend a visit to Wildwood this June. The novelty of lowering your sights, and going down in the world, is sure to engage, while the rich planting is as rewarding as coming across buried or sunken treasure!

Sunday 27th June 2021 11am-5pm ‘Wildwood’ Aisby, NG32 3NE will open for charity on behalf of the NGS. Refreshments and home-made teas. Admission: Adult £5, Children free.

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