Thursday, 19 January 2012

Mist + gardeners + trees = Uppark yesterday

Yesterday morning was happily spent in the company of Andy Lewis, The National Trust’s new head gardener at Uppark, stomping around the grounds looking at the developments he’s undertaking in the gardens there.

Set above the village of South Harting on the Hampshire/West Sussex borders, it has traditionally been ‘the house’ that’s drawn the visitors rather than the grounds. The National Trusts website describes the house as ‘A tranquil and intimate 18th century House set on the South Downs’. To my mind, it’s much more than that; the interiors are not only exquisite, they are an example of considered restoration after a fire in 1989 (Uppark’s repair was the most complicated the National trust has ever undertaken), and the complete basement servant’s quarters and tunnels offer a fascinating glimpse of ‘life below stairs’.  

I have to confess that when we lived in the village the spectacular views of the wide open lawns to the front of the house were a weekend draw for our family - a place to let the children loose within full view as we slumped on the ground for a quick read of the paper and some R and R from the rigours of young children. The gardens were simply a green wrap that one walked through to get to the grass.

Happily I think that my nonchalance at the gardens in their lolloping entanglement (admittedly studded here and there with a few interesting blooms), is now a thing of the past.

I first met Andy in 2010 at the always interesting annual Alitex lecture at the Walled garden at Cowdray. He’d been newly appointed Head Gardener after several years in private estates and a long stint at the more glamorous Wimpole Estate, another National Trust property. Newly arrived in the area, and filled with the excitement of his new challenge at Uppark, he invited me to visit as soon as possible. Instantly likeable, I enthusiastically accepted his invitation.

Full of apology, a full eighteen months later, on a murky morning with drizzle in the air, I finally arrived at the garden compound to take him up on his offer. A chattery mug of hot, welcome tea was drunk in the company of Terry, one of two part time members of staff, and Joy and Liz, two of fourteen precious volunteers who assist Andy, who is the only full time member of the garden staff. Eventually we ventured out into the 54 acres that comprises Uppark’s grounds. Mist soaked the ground, swirling around tree trunks and through canopies, marring Uppark’s crowing glory, the view. Undistracted, we walked down the avenue of trees leading from the Golden Gates, through a garden compartment with paths studded with moss drenched pebble swirls laid decades ago and out to the long border running the length of the dairy.

Low heaped mounds of Hebe and Cistus are soon to reside in a widened border here as Andy plans to formalise the bed's line, widen it and replant with the billowing herbaceous perennials so loved by him, and so lacking in other areas of the garden. As the only planting at this side of the house, where lawns tumble down and out towards the distant view of the sea, this will give visitors a reason to stroll (and linger) upon the path leading to the elegant Dairy Gazebo, which lies at the edge of the woodland wrapping the house on this, its west side.

This copse of woodland was where today’s energies were concentrated, and the place where my heart leapt in excitement and anticipation. Terry and the volunteers were hard at it, clearing scrub beneath a copse of trees where once finished, Andy and his team will drive a clear, unobscured wedge to open up the views beyond. Clearance, and hefty cutting back are key jobs for Andy as he fights back hefty overgrown shelterbelts of yew, which have over time grown to gargantuan proportions, and hitting back shrubs that have grown so tall as to creep into tree canopies, obscure views and obliterate plants at ground level. As much pruning material as possible is reworked into dead hedges around the grounds; aesthetically pleasing structures in themselves, with the added bonus of providing habitat for a proliferation of wildlife.

There are plans afoot for the restoration of the magnificent ‘Gothick’ seat and its surrounding planting, a productive vegetable garden, more work within the wonderful woodland to encourage rambling visitors, possibly a cutting patch, and improvements to signage so wanderers can be encouraged to, er, wander around the grounds.

All in all, my tardiness in accepting Andy’s generous invitation has turned out to be advantageous – Uppark’s bones are once again being revealed, in readiness to be clothed by the enthusiasm of Andy’s enthusiastic eye. I shall be visiting more regularly in future to bandy around ideas and see how the garden develops. Who knows, I may even volunteer to help……

Uppark Gardens entertaining and informative blog (mostly written by Andy himself) can be found here 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Happy New Year

After the excesses of a celebratory yule and precious time spent with the family feasting, talking and generally not doing very much at all, together, kickstarting the new year from a standing start can be a befuddling, difficult wrench. 

And so it was when I arrived back at the office last week bleary eyed, back to a job that I adore, but wondering where and how to start.

Thankfully, the garden here at the office was taking no prisoners and in my absence had been carrying on regardless. It has become my shining example. 

With most of us experiencing the mildest winter that we can remember, for many it will be no surprise to hear that Rodgersia, Echinops, Nepeta and so on are moving on at full tilt, budding up and taking full advantage of the unseasonable warmth. Here, the daffodils and snowdrops are up and at 'em. 

With this in mind, just today, an article in the Guardian caught my eye. In it National Trust conservation advisor Matthew Oates said: "After two cold winters, we've reverted back to the modern trend of mild, wet winters. If you look closely in woods, valleys, stream-sides and south facing slopes in particular, there are features of late January and early February everywhere." According to the central England temperature series, the longest-running instrumental record of temperatures, there were just four air frosts in the last three months of 2011, compared to 35 in 2010 and an average of 15 between 1878 and 2010, the Woodland Trust said. Oates urged people who wanted to visit gardens to see snowdrop and aconite displays not to leave their trips until February as they may miss the flowers. 

You can read the full article here

And whilst the weather reports assure us that from next week the temperatures will revert to more expected lows of January (to what end for our enthusiastic plants and our gardens wildlife too?), I shall take a leaf out of my garden's book.

Hang the consequences, get out there and get moving. With gardens to move from paper to reality and new projects to begin, time waits for no man. 

So the office fire is on, emails are being sent and after a blissful Christmas lull the office is once again a busy place to be. I have even written my first blog in months!

Good luck to one and all, and I wish you a prosperous 2012; may yours be filled with overly enthusiastic flowers....