PUBLISHED: 09:44 19 January 2016
Charlie Hart visits Kentwell Hall at Long Melford, a garden that still manages to delight in deepest winter
There is a raw beauty to a naked garden. On a winter’s day at Kentwell Hall the hedges, topiary, paths, brick and water all catch the soft winter light without any of the distractions of high summer.
Kentwell Hall at Long Melford was built as a stately pleasure dome in the early 16th century for an ancient Suffolk family who had grown hugely wealthy with the wool trade. Now, more than 500 years later, it is under the careful stewardship of the Phillips family.
The approach to Kentwell is through a lime avenue, almost a mile long. This was planted when lime trees became fashionable in the mid 17th century. The avenue would be worth a visit on its own, but it is only the start of the Kentwell experience. At this time of year the lime trees are noteworthy for their massed bunches of mistletoe, which are hidden when the trees are in leaf. They hang undisturbed because they are too high up for Christmas cropping.
Emerging from the lime avenue the hall rises in front of you, a perfect expression of Tudor power and playfulness, a citadel surrounded by an expanse of moated, glistening water. Interestingly, this apparently obvious view was only created when outbuildings to the front of the hall were demolished under the influence of the landscape movement in the late 18th century.
Over the years Judith and Patrick Phillips have brought to the gardens a huge sense of fun and they seem to have responded well to it. An example of this approach – one of many – is The Sculpted Tree, a giant wooden sculpture immediately to the east of the hall, possibly the tallest continuous wooden sculpture in Britain, and a relic of a huge cedar damaged in the 1987 hurricane.
Its theme is the Tower of Babel and the visual impact is to give the garden its own tower, echoing those on the hall and increasing its significance within the whole. Achieving equilibrium in this way is a tremendously bold idea, and it works.
To the west of the house are the monstrously large and elegantly shaped clipped yews, some over 50 feet high. They thunder over the moat. The yews require specialist equipment to clip, but it staggers me that for decades Patrick clipped them himself, perched on a stepladder balanced on the top of his Landrover, in order to ensure he got just the shape he wanted. Not a job for those with vertigo. There is colour at this time of year too. Patrick loves the carpets of little winter aconites that pop up.
“They promise riches of other things later on. They contrast well with the dark yews and nearby bright red stems of dogwood. Best of all is the pure white bark of jacquemontii birch. We strive to grow one as pure white as that which one of my cousins had.”
To the north of the house is the enormous walled garden, home to over 100 varieties of apple and pear trees. Years ago apples were dutifully sent off to the lab and the majority were identified. A few were not and it is entirely plausible that there are varieties here that have now been lost. However, at this time of year, with the leaves and fruit long gone, the trunks and branches of the ancient espaliered fruit trees are things of real beauty in themselves, literally gnarled to perfection. These ancient fruit trees are also useful because they define the original 17th century layout of the walled garden, which is much more apparent in winter.
Surprise and delight
Looking back from the walled garden towards the house you get the best view of Judith’s Pied Piper. This is a long display of yew topiary perched on the top of a wall above the moat. Judith has allowed this to grow and develop over the past 15 years, going with what the yew seemed to want to do.
“It’s complete with the little boy on crutches struggling to keep up with his fellows,” she says. For me there is something both jolly and moving about this display. The gardens at Kentwell are peppered with these sorts of conceits and surprises.
Further to the east of the house is a secondary lime avenue planted with foresight by the Phillips in 1978 to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. This is roughly on the same axis as the original ancient avenue. These trees are pollarded, as all limes once were, to a pyramidal shape, red-hued in winter. Taken from cuttings from the ancient trees – apparently the only time this has worked – the avenue has sufficient maturity now to justify itself as an integral part of the garden layout and it provides a runway from which the nuttery, yew fort, strawbale hut, traditional farm and much else besides can be explored. It is interesting how these young limes provide something equally gratifying, but different from, the ancient ones. Trees, like people, have something different to offer in each season of their lives.
There are so many surprises, from the Camera Obscura – a pinhole that enables the scene outside to be displayed in glorious colour on the inside wall of an adapted gazebo – to the seasonally relevant and entirely restored icehouse, that it requires a couple of visits to take it all in. Besides, there are always projects at Kentwell. Currently the Phillips are looking at restoring a huge double herbaceous border, a typical winter project. This will provide plenty of excitement, but it is too early in the project to be more specific.
As Judith says: “A place like Kentwell continually evolves and changes over the centuries, and under varying stewardship.” But of course it also keeps pace with the annual cycle. Right now, the house looks magnificent set against the stark midwinter scene. And whatever the season, the ancient brickwork of the house and moats – five sections of moat in all – provide a warm, mellow and self-assured setting for the gardens. I look forward to visiting again soon. w
Charles Hart is a gardener, garden writer and garden designer. He blogs about his own garden www.peverelsgardens.com and tweets @peverelsgardens