Monday, March 12, 2012

Gardens of Somerset: Forde Abbey

A landscape that's remained much the same
for over a thousand years
Some gardens are known for their topiary; others for their cloud-pruned hedges, or monumental cascades, or ranges of spectacular Victorian glasshouses.

Forde Abbey, not technically in Somerset but near as dammit being just a few miles over the Dorset border from Chard in south Somerset, is known for something altogether smaller, more modest and natural: it is covered, at this time of year, with swathes, rivers, and cascades of crocus.

This is how crocus should be grown: not as little clumps of specimens without context, floating lonely in a sea of mulched garden soil, but as rivers of purple and violet and white running down hillsides and cascading across fields, witness to the generosity of the natural world.

When you see crocus in this number you realise what spectacular plants they are: a sheet of colour from a distance, when you get up close you see how not a single one is the same as the next. Some have slender, papery petals, others are blowsy and generous; some petals are deeply striated in violet or fade from deep purple at the tips to translucent white in the centre as though someone had been along and turned the flower upside down to dip it in paint.

Most of the crocus at Forde Abbey are Crocus vernus and C. tommasinianus – both perfect for naturalising in grass as they seed freely and grow vigorously. The huge variations within each species is part of their charm, of course. They're also delicate enough to meld in and look natural: imagine large-flowered 'Snow Bunting' here and you realise it would just look plain wrong.

If you can tear yourself away from the crocus for long enough (don't worry: there are bound to be more just around the corner) there are other delights to be seen at Forde: not least the Abbey itself, a wonderfully mellow 12th century Cistercian monastery owned and run privately by the Roper family for over a century.

I love the fact that both house and garden are still in private hands: it avoids that corporate too-perfect National Trust look entirely, and though it is undeniably a little woolly around the edges, that's part of the attraction (and rather reassures you, since when a stately home has a few weeds in the borders it somehow gives you permission to, as well).

It's the only place I've ever been which leads you to the house through the veg garden: I approve enormously, as this is a real testament to the fact that edible gardens needn't be tucked away out of sight. This bit of the garden is ably managed by Charlotte Roper, who was kind enough to let me have a nose round the peach house – usually closed to visitors – in exchange for a photo of her Peach 'Peregrine' in full and sumptuous flower.

Peach 'Peregrine' in the lean-to greenhouse looking sublime
against the mellow stone of the Abbey walls
The lumpy-bumpy cloud-pruned hedges that greet you on the other side of a monastic archway are echoed in the quirky and deliciously tactile dollops of clipped yew hedgery that line the pathways. Forde does long framed views extremely well – the legacy of its 17th-century landscape roots - both down the Lime Avenue and across the Mermaid Pond to the waterfall beyond.

Yews like big green dollops of cake mix:
I just wanted to stroke them
Water is a big thing at Forde: as well as the Mermaid Pond and its accompanying Long Pond, running the length of the double herbaceous borders, there is a huge bog garden full of burgeoning skunk cabbage, a canal pond and a Great Pond, too – the only surviving bit of the landscape the monks left behind.

It is a peaceful, absorbing place: one of those gardens where you find little surprises in odd corners. You may come to see the crocuses, but you stay to teeter along the ha-ha, explore the Blacksmith Hill and meander along the Stone Path. I ended with a happy half-hour rummaging among the extremely good selection of plants in the well-laid-out nursery alongside the garden. The perfect end to a perfect day.
  • The gardens of Forde Abbey, Dorset, are open every day from 10am. You can also look around the house if you go in the afternoon between April and the end of October.


Arabella Sock said...

I think many of the spring bulbs, snow drops, crocuses and daffodils only really look good in these mass plantings. Iris and tulips look fine in small pots or borders although I would love a mass swathe of my lovely little blue and purple irises.

Forde Abbey looks gorgeous and is on my ever growing list of places to visit soon.

VP said...

I must go there and soooooooon :)

The Constant Gardener said...

Oooh yes - swathes of iris... now that would be worth a picture or two :D

And both Arabella and VP: when you do, pop in for a cuppa - I'm only three miles round the corner :D

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