Bryan’s Ground: an Edwardian idyll

The planting at Bryan’s Ground in Herefordshire, home to the garden quarterly Hortus, reflects its two creators’ passion for the Arts & Crafts period.
There is little sign of the 21st century at Bryan’s Ground, where names such as loggia and skating pool are still in usage, and visitors arriving by car are directed to ‘Parking for Motors’. No, the era conjured up in David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell’s Herefordshire garden is Edwardian, the period of Lutyens and Jekyll, sleepy vernacular architecture, abundant topiary and colour-schemed washes of flowers. ‘The Arts & Crafts period. We love it,’ Dorrell says.

The Edwardian era also pervades the civilised gardening quarterly Hortus that the couple publish here together, which eschews glossy paper and colour photographs.

Wheeler, a keen gardener, began the journal on his kitchen table in 1987 (he had previously worked in advertising in Fleet Street and then on fundraising campaigns for the RSPCA, before being made redundant), having identified a market for something to counter the plethora of gardening picture books, and for ‘the well-turned garden essay that favoured aesthetics over practicalities and was a pleasure to read for its own sake.’ It quickly found a readership for its eclectic subject matter – which, picking an issue at random, encompasses essays on hermits and Sacheverell Sitwell, an in-depth interview with Penelope Hobhouse, and paeans of praise for perennial candytuft and Munstead primroses. This year is its 25th anniversary, and its hundredth issue will be winging its way to some 1,800 subscribers, mainly in Britain and the USA but also including, Wheeler says, ‘a Shanghai banker and a cement factory worker in Pakistan’.

Dorrell is the art editor. ‘In 1988 I was working in a bookshop in Hereford. David walked in one day, introduced himself and told me he was looking for someone to do pen and ink drawings for Hortus,’ he recalls. Trained in illustration at art school, and working freelance, ‘I was already painting gardens, and generally getting into gardening.’ His other great passion is for architecture and design, and in the two extensive gardens

that the couple have gone on to make together, he has planned and physically built the ‘bones’ of the design while Wheeler, the plantsman of the two, has had the fun of fleshing out the design with trees, shrubs and flowers.

They found Bryan’s Ground in 1993, after being forced to move from their previous home across the Welsh border by encroaching housing development. Built in 1912, the house itself exudes Arts & Crafts style in its individualistic layout and rooflines and use of local materials. It was owned by sisters called Holt, whose uncle was Sydney Webb, one of the founding members of the Fabian Society. ‘George Bernard Shaw used to attend garden parties here to address the Society troops,’ Dorrell says.

The present garden is his and Wheeler’s own creation. And the fact that it harks back to a bygone era in its leisured three acres of formality, subdivided by walls and hedges into more than 20 ‘outdoor rooms’ filled with topiary and flowers, has in no way stifled the imagination behind its detailing. They lost no time in giving the house a warm and welcoming coat of ochre paint – ‘The walls were white when we came but we had painted our last house ochre, and discovered that every plant colour seems three times richer when seen against it,’ Dorrell comments.

He has also carried the ochre into the splendid ‘dovecote’ he has built beside the house, in which a high, slim Dutch-style shape has been combined with half-timbered Herefordshire construction; instead of doves, it has a small dining-room on its first floor. Wheeler has partnered the building with zinging terraces of hot-coloured perennials, including orange and yellow crocosmias and deep navy agapanthus.

Rich colouring, notably orange, is especially prevalent through the grounds in early summer, Wheeler and Dorrell finding it the perfect complement to the intense lime-greens of the season’s trees and other leaves. Below the south-facing front of the house, the Sunk Garden’s formal pattern of box domes and Irish yews is lit by the flame and mahogany-red tints of ‘Abu Hassan’ tulips, with pots of violet pansies surrounding the central water lily pool. After the tulips, the beds become wild with pale yellow daylilies and self-seeding fennel; carefully conceived, labour-saving planting schemes, in which a chosen plant is repeated over a wide area, being a favoured summer recipe here.

Around the Lime Walk, the orange tulips (succeeded by a mass of lime-green alchemilla) are accompanied by acid-yellow Euphorbia polychroma and fiery azaleas. ‘Azaleas love our alluvial soil,’ remarks Wheeler, who has been able to indulge his enthusiasm for them particularly in Cricket Wood, the site of the village’s former cricket pitch, disused since the 1940s and now within their boundary.

‘On the morning of the new millennium, I started turning these extra five acres into an arboretum. I have planted particularly for autumn colour, with trees such as Acer ginnala, which is one of my favourite maples, very early into leaf in spring, lovely in seed, and a beautiful orange in October. But there are a lot of bulbs for spring and hydrangeas for late summer, and for early summer, scented walks of viburnums and yellow azaleas [Rhododendron luteum].’

Even here, a formal structure of tree and shrub avenues has been introduced to give an elegant Arts & Crafts order to the more random elements of the planting and the landscape, which includes a small lake and the meandering River Lugg (the official border with Wales). And for the arbor­etum’s centrepiece, Wheeler has made a small formal grid of wild cherry, Prunus avium. ‘I was inspired by the Mezquita in Cordoba, with its forest of marble and onyx columns. I put the trees in as 2ft whips, and now they are 25ft. The growth has been staggering.’

The long, narrow borders leading up to the Sulking House – a Gothic pavilion built by Dorrell for Wheeler’s 50th birthday in 1995, and designed as somewhere to retreat to during purple moods – have brooding colours, with plum-purple ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Black Parrot’ tulips appearing in late spring. These share the ground with self-seeding dark aquilegias and Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ with its purple flowers and maroon-splashed leaves, astrantias and ‘Patty’s Plum’ oriental poppy, and, later, purple asters and eupatorium. ‘The tulips are perennial, but we have a problem with badgers digging them up and eating them, so we have to top up every few years,’ Dorrell says.

In the nearby Dutch Garden, the problem has been otters, which come up from the river and eat the koi carp. This calm, shady green space, filled only with grass, a central canal pool and flanking lines of fastigiate ‘Chanticleer’ pear trees, is a delight amid the intricacies of the other rooms.

Until last year, the canal pool was the principal expanse of formal water in the garden but, tirelessly creative, Dorrell and Wheeler have just added a long pool with scalloped edges to the house’s entrance orchard. ‘The shape was inspired by the rounded canopies of the apple trees which are in rows either side of it,’ Dorrell explains. Set into mown grass, the grid of 25 different varieties of apple tree is underplanted with squares of soft blue Iris sibirica ‘Papillon’. Before the irises flower, blue anemones and white ‘Pheasant Eye’ narcissus appear in the squares, and later the spent black flower stems of the irises are complemented by their fading leaves of buttery yellow.

‘Formality and wildness side by side, that’s part of the essence of Arts & Crafts style and what we particularly like,’ Dorrell adds. ‘Together with local, organic materials in the buildings, and planting that is fairly natural and not too exotic or elaborate, this produces a house and a garden that is rooted in place, and belongs to the countryside around it.’

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