Reddish House in Wiltshire is the place where the great Cecil Beaton fell in love with gardening. Taking on this idyllic plot did not involve a slavish re-creation of his work, however — instead, it’s been a case of applying the same spirit. Non Morris assesses the results, with photographs by Val Corbett.
‘Reddish is my dream house’: this is the almost universal response to a mention of the extraordinarily pretty Queen Anne house set in an idyllic position in Wiltshire’s Chalke Valley.
It was most famously home to the glamorous portrait photographer and theatre designer Sir Cecil Beaton, who was pleased with its comparatively grand detailing, yet reassuringly neat proportions and the way it sat at the heart of the village, but within five acres of garden. ‘I am the proud owner of an exquisite country seat… it is the beginning of a new interest and I am thrilled at the prospect,’ he wrote in 1947.
Taking up the baton of this romantic idyll in the 21st century is understandably as challenging as it is exciting. When the dust had settled for the current owners and they began to look more closely at the tired, but iconic garden surrounding their delightful house, they knew they needed a helping hand and turned to garden designer Tania Compton for advice.
One of Beaton’s most ambitious projects for the garden was to buy up the water meadows bordering the River Ebble in front of the house and create a water garden, ‘with a little private trout stream and a lake with an island, all for my own benefit’.
By the time Tania came to view it, the lake was silted up and the whole area dominated by overgrown limes and bamboo. Both meadow and water were cleared (the stream now provides a perfect spot for an icily refreshing swim after an afternoon of steamy debate at the Chalke Valley History Festival in late June) and the edges of the lake were softly planted with the creamy white Aruncus Horatio, the elegant Iris sibirica White Swirl and the single peony White Wings, ‘which do really well in the damp soil here,’ explains Tania. ‘They look amazing.’
The meadow was sown with wildflower seed with strict instructions ‘to follow the John Sales regime and cut the meadow two or three times before Chelsea Week and then let it go’. A meandering mown path through the bleached grass, buzzing with insects and flecked with the bobbing heads of knapweed, offers a dreamy approach to the pretty façade of the house.
The Water Garden is framed by wonderful velvety yew hedges that have been brilliantly cloud pruned — from completely straight-sided yew — to echo the famous organic hedges that abut the house and screen the main part of the garden from the road.
‘Finding someone who really knew about pruning was crucial for Reddish,’ notes Tania, who turned to topiary expert Jake Hobson for a recommendation for someone to take over from resident gardener Jim Scard, who had been painstakingly caring for the topiary for years.
It took the husband-and-wife team of Angela and Chris Berwick six months to make their way slowly around all the hedging and topiary in the garden and they now visit regularly to keep it in trim. The subtly folded shapes of box and yew help create the wonderful settled feel.
The spirit of Beaton pervades the main part of the garden, not least because of the many archive photographs that remind us of his 30 or so years there. He was photographed looking relaxed in Bermuda shorts, neckerchief and wide-brimmed straw hat standing at the stone-framed front door.
There is also a photograph of a peroxide-blond David Hockney amid sheets of white narcissus in the orchard and there are fantastic images of the terrace abundant with self-seeded white valerian and the house walls smothered in 1970s Polaroid colours — pink and yellow roses with the stripey pink-and-white clematis Nelly Moser adding to the generous, celebratory mood.
Tania knew the key to re-creating this sense of delight would be to find a talented individual to lead the four-strong gardening team. At a party held by her teenage son, she pricked up her ears when a 16-year-old friend talked about his gardener mother and she insisted on an introduction.
Penny Bottari (formerly at Kew and the Chelsea Physic Garden) ‘doesn’t have green fingers, she has neon-emerald fingers — she’s a plant whisperer,’ says Tania, clearly delighted, as we turn to the beautifully renovated Kitchen and Cutting Gardens.
Here, towering ranks of impossibly blue, shot-silk delphiniums (from the specialist nursery Blackmore & Langdon) stand before a delicious combination of raspberry-coloured hollyhocks and the clean-sky-blue Clematis Perle d’Azur grown against the restored — and immaculately thatched — cob walls.
The 1950s wooden Strawson & Son greenhouse was impeccably brought back to life and there is now a steady stream of annuals for cutting: sunflowers in every shade from deepest black to Italian White, with tutti-frutti mixes of tulips for spring and dahlias for late summer. ‘We really cranked up the dahlias and we’ve added the luminous Dahlia Karma Fuchsiana and the wine-red D. Arabian Night to dahlias from Beaton’s original stock.’
The Kitchen Garden leads to the box-edged Rose Walk, where Beaton’s cleverly designed ‘rose tables’ — blocks of open trellis over which arching rose stems are trained — have been rebuilt and are in full use. Roses such as Mme Plantier and Chapeau de Napoléon have been added to Queen of Denmark and Mme Hardy, which are known to have been grown by Beaton.
In earlier times, the box was cut neat and low, but a bout of blight a few years ago triggered a different approach. Any damaged material is cut out and the ground beneath immaculately cleared and now, in addition to a specialist spraying regime in spring, the box is only lightly pruned and allowed to billow out softly.
A shady avenue of yew has been lined with light-catching Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle, Alchemilla mollis and scatterings of radiant Welsh poppy and a luscious Peony Patch has been created in the old orchard.
The beds in front of the 16th-century thatched cottage (extended into a recording studio by guitarist and producer Robert Fripp, who lived here in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Toyah Willcox) simply make you smile with their multi-coloured, shamelessly picture-postcard exuberance.
Thousands of bulbs are planted each year in the Spring Meadow, ‘starting with Anemone blanda and finishing with late camassias’. Beyond the lawn, the ground slopes steeply uphill and is left to become a haze of ‘delicious chalk grassland’ laced with ox-eye daisies over the summer. There are mown paths with benches positioned to take in the rolling view.
Tania was keen to find ways of linking the fine specimen trees in this part of the garden and has created a Euonymus Walk, to make a blaze of crimson in autumn, and a Nut Walk (transplanting self-sown hazels that felt in the way in the Kitchen Garden) to help guide your route. Her approach has not been to slavishly re-create Beaton’s garden, but to feel that ‘his spirit is on our shoulder’.
When she first saw a photograph of his rainbow-coloured Iris Border in 2014, it was a ‘bingo moment’, as they’d just planted a border of 10 different varieties of bearded iris in the same south-facing spot. Beaton fell in love with gardening at Reddish. He would return to South Kensington after the weekend with quantities of cut flowers for the week ahead and was rarely seen without a pair of secateurs in his hand.
There is a sense today of a similar story unfolding. Buckets of delphiniums are once again heading to London from Reddish and plant lists have become unstoppable: a new passion is taking hold.
Reddish’s little black book — the specialists who’ve made Reddish what it is today
- The thatched cob wall was expertly restored by Edward Scutt. With the protection of the thatch the wall should now last for 100 years.
- Scott Rice and his team from Kingcombe Aquacare regularly maintain the pond to keep the water clear enough to swim in.
- The 1950s Strawson & Son greenhouse — once home to Beaton’s orchids — was immaculately restored by Martin Page.
- The hedges and topiary are pruned by Chris and Angela Berwick. The yew hedge surrounding the Water Garden was completely plain, straight-sided yew when they began and has now been transformed into a fantastically organic hedge.
- The specimen trees within the garden are regularly visited and maintained by tree surgeon Mark Walsh.
- The box hedges and topiary are cared for each spring by Michael Macnamara — crowned ‘the Box King’ by Tania Compton. This keeps them healthy and catches any possible problems in good time.
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