The gardens at Elton Hall: A 40-year transformation, an ‘absolute hell of weeding and mulching ‘, and more than worth the effort

Tilly Ware visits the historic gardens of Elton Hall, Huntingdonshire, where much of the distant past remains a mystery, but which, after four decades of care and attention, have been brilliantly transformed. Photographs by Richard Bloom.

Elton Hall, tucked into the fold where the Fens meet the Northamptonshire hills, has been in a state of continual adaptation and renewal since the reign of Henry VII. Sir Richard Sapcote built the first major buildings in about 1469, but, by 1664, when Sir Thomas Proby took ownership, the house was in disrepair and had to be pulled down, with only the gatehouse and chapel remaining.

For almost four centuries, the Proby family has added, extended and rejuvenated the property, concocting a magnificent collage of octagonal bay windows, castellated turrets, Gothic embellishments and Classical façades. The garden is more of a mystery. There are no records of the original medieval outline and only one drawing from 1730 showing formal gardens to the north-west followed, a few decades later, by sketches of lawns, trees and shrubs.

Elton Hall. ©Richard Bloom

The 1890s brought gravelled walks through woods, around the lake and yew topiary, but it wasn’t until 1911 that a major garden plan emerged, designed and painted by A. H. Hallam Murray, father-in-law of Sir Richard Proby. Murray was a watercolourist, not a trained designer, yet his bird’s-eye plan shows a confident vision of wide gravel paths, expansive lawns, geometric parterres and crisply divided spaces for a bowling green, rose garden and bedding out.

Murray’s essential structure remained, although two World Wars and death duties saw the garden’s fortunes plummet. By the 1970s, the 13 gardeners required to maintain complex schemes had been reduced to three, with little machinery to help as it became too expensive to run. The yew maze had been chopped down and large areas had become impossible to control. Happily, however, the past 40 years have seen an astonishing transformation, thanks to Meredyth Proby.

Elton Hall. ©Richard Bloom

When Sir William and Lady Proby took over the estate in 1980, they immediately began to simplify and rationalise. The Olympic-sized, bramble-covered walled garden was cleared and later given over to a plant centre and the size of the whole garden was reduced by putting about 10 acres back into parkland. That still left the couple wrestling with eight acres of formal planting and 27 acres overall.

Gazing from the house, with its main rooms on the piano nobile, Lady Proby remembers that the more she looked out of the windows, ‘the more flat and desperate it looked’. To create some interest and structure, she laid out string lines to get an idea of which areas would suit hedges and some tree planting. Murray’s paths were kept and, gradually, yew, box, hornbeam, pleached hornbeam and lime have provided the structure that was sorely needed.

A favourite copy of David Hicks’s Garden Design inspired her bold decisions on structure and volume. What appeared to be ‘this windy desolate place’ began to gain a little more height and, crucially for a house open to the public, more privacy.

Elton Hall. ©Richard Bloom

It must have been a challenge to balance the setting with such a characterful, dominant house. The best view of its ravishing south front is from the almost 10ft-wide perimeter path along the top of the front lawn. The lawn had been remodelled by Murray to slope gently downwards towards the house and now affords a clear vista of box parterres, a gigantic yew dog and several peacocks clipped to precision by James Crebbin-Bailey, as well as stone steps smothered in valerian and wisteria.

The path then drops into a pergola and the main showpiece, the Flower Garden. Almost an acre in size, this began as a Rose Garden designed by Murray. It was initially revitalised by Lady Proby with Peter Beales in 1983, replacing the formal beds with old roses in large expansive beds. It looked magnificent for 20 years, but, despite leaving the area fallow for three years before replanting, the roses were suffering from sickness by 2008. A bold redesign was planned with the help of Xa Tollemache. Proportion and size were key and have certainly delivered knockout oomph. A tall helix-shaped fountain designed by Giles Raynor sits in the centre, ringed by cones of clipped box and four enormous, stone-edged beds. These are densely planted with a vast number of herbaceous perennials, about 50 different species for each bed and more than 1,000 plants in total, many supplied and planted by Mark Todhunter.

Elton Hall. ©Richard Bloom

With the garden open three days a week in summer, the gloriously intensive display runs from late May until September, requiring a pin-sharp annual schedule of staking, mulching, clipping, cutting down and dividing, all expertly co-ordinated by head gardener Rob Kett and assistant Paul Bonsall. Thousands of Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and A. christophii emerge through burgeoning foliage of Phlox paniculata ‘White Admiral’ and P. ‘Blue Paradise’, Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia, Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ and ‘Little Carlow’, Penstemon ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’ and Astrantia ‘Hadspen Blood’, ‘Roma’ and ‘Shaggy’.

There are tall bottlebrushes of Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’, Persicaria alpina, Sanguisorba tenuifolia var. alba and Veronicastrum viginicum ‘Album’; there are contrasting flatter heads of Monarda ‘Croftway Pink’ and ‘Mahogany’ with Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’. Some favourites, such as Lupinus ‘Polar Princess’ and Salvia ‘Amistad’, are mirrored and repeated, although each bed has an individual mix. The hornbeam hedge, now more than 10ft high, creates an ideal framework for towering Eupatorium maculatum atropurpureum, Thalictrum ‘Elin’, Aconitum carmichaelii and delphiniums grown from seed. The colour scheme is a soft ripple of pinks, purples, white, silver and blue.

From the far south corner, a neat corridor takes you along the edge of the parkland, with tantalising glimpses through pleached tree trunks looking down to the lake and woodland. At the end sits an exquisite little shell arbour, built to celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and decorated by Charlotte Kerr-Wilson, a shell artist based in Norfolk. To the right is the Orangery, designed by Christopher Smallwood to celebrate the Millennium. This small Gothic building is lime- washed a rich pink and stuffed with lemons, oranges and kumquats in huge terracotta pots, surrounded by Solanum laciniatum and the Peruvian magic tree, Cantua buxifolia.

Elton Hall. ©Richard Bloom

The garden is, as Lady Proby wished, ‘a little piece of Italy in Cambridgeshire’, with that same cloistered, hushed atmosphere of a Mediterranean early afternoon. The classical layout comprises four square beds bisected by stone paths. Cypresses and bay columns are under-planted with a mix of drought-lovers such as Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’, Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Swan’ and Phlomis russeliana. Changing palettes of tulips and lilies intermingle with dark sedums and the narrow black stems of the white wood aster, Eurybia divaricata.

The neighbouring Shrub Garden is a breath of cooler air, of twisty paths and shady carpets of white woodlanders. Mountainous daphne and viburnum ring a central walnut (Juglans regia) and there is always a blossom to dip a nose into, from the fat heads of Paeonia suffruticosa to elegant Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’, with plentiful deutzia and hydrangea further into the season.

The exit from the Shrub Garden leads back out onto the main south terrace, but private garden tours can duck sideways through more vertiginous yew walls, cross the ocean-like lawn on the west front and explore the Wilderness Garden. Peaking in early to mid spring, the Wilderness is lush, mysterious and deeply beautiful.

Elton Hall. ©Will Pryce for Country Life

The original half-moon design from Murray’s plan was for an annual bedding display, which has been simplified to three radial paths, with four segments between, crammed with trees and shrubs and bulbs. It feels like an ancient shrubbery despite only being planted in 1993. Shaggy walls of sarcococca and box quietly reveal treasures: a grove of white lilacs or a bladdernut (Staphylea colchica) shimmering with vanilla-scented blossom or a cluster of Cornus ‘Norman Hadden’. Lady Proby chose ‘gentle trees’ — cherries, thorns, currants, amelanchiers — the foliage of which is light enough for the surrounding hellebores, brunnera and fritillaries to thrive. The first decade was ‘an absolute hell of weeding and mulching all the time’, waiting for everything to mature. It was worth it.

To have conjured such intimacy, delicacy and complexity from such an unpromising, outdated space is rather miraculous. ‘What I have sought to achieve,’ wrote Mr Hicks, ‘all through my working life, is a liaison between the past and the present day’. In an estate of staggering history and mutability, Lady Proby has achieved exactly that.

Elton Hall, Huntingdonshire, is open to the public — www.eltonhall.com