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Invitation to view: The glorious gardens of Columbine Hall near Stowmarket

PUBLISHED: 12:43 17 July 2018 | UPDATED: 12:43 17 July 2018

Columbine Hall

Columbine Hall

Archant

East Anglia’s private historic house tours can lead you down the garden path | Words & photos: Lindsay Want

There’s no doubt about it, the gardens of 14th century Columbine Hall near Stowmarket are magic.

Whichever way you look at them, from inside the moat, from outside the moat, down the avenue of pleached limes or neatly trimmed hornbeam hedges, they’re brimful of subtlety and surprises.

Along from the exuberant bog garden filled with ferns and garlic, near the flowery meadow, dotted with Shirley poppy, black-eyed Susan and fairy toadflax, there even hides an unexpected haven for drought-tolerant plants, soft with grey-blues of ivies and eucalyptus, warm-scented lavenders, bejewelled with little yellow-centred Rock roses.

It’s certainly an unusual find so close to the deep waters of the moat or soft and squelchy green home of the wild irises, but then, Suffolk is supposed to be one of the driest areas of Britain.

Columbine HallColumbine Hall

Just round from the half-moon lawn, where starry clematis and pale old-fashioned roses clamber up the walls, vegetables cluster in a whole ordered cosmos of colours with bright-stemmed chard and purple explosions of flowering artichokes.

And on the platform within the moat, a certain 17th century formality prevails – a bowling green, a herb garden, a courtyard graced with a plethora of pots and planters, and an ‘alleé’ which reaches out to Mid-Suffolk meadows beyond.

“The general flatness of the County of Suffolk will not allow of romantic scenery, or very extensive prospects,” teased Bury-born garden guru Humphry Repton two centuries or more ago. The one-time artist and playwright couldn’t stand the thought of cultured landowners bereft of views and beautiful vistas, and coined the term ‘landscape gardening’.

You can see examples of Repton’s work through the Invitation to View scheme at Glemham Hall and Norfolk’s Hoveton Hall. There is definitely a legacy of sorts here in the wizardry behind Columbine Hall’s gardens.

Columbine HallColumbine Hall

Today, Columbine Hall is owned by Hew Stevenson and Leslie Geddes-Brown, who purchased it in 1993. The turn of the 19th century tenant farmer renting the Columbine Hall estate from the Earl of Ashburnham could muster enough productivity to support the war effort in 1914 and soon lost the property. Lands were sold off and the house fell into disrepair. Everyday debris, including 83 Marmite jars, made their way into the moat.

When Hew and Leslie took over the property and its remaining acres, the place was practically derelict and had been empty for seven years. The new owners were certainly going to need vision and a dose of good humour. Help manifested itself through two enchanting characters. In the house, Hew’s much admired Lancastrian mate, design genius Melvyn Smith, transformed the interior with not-so-ancient-but-you’d-never-know-it panelling and library shelves, and enhanced the exterior, adding a clock tower to an outbuilding. But the real guru of the great outdoors was a more local lad.

Nip into Norfolk on an Invitation to View tour of Silverstone Farm, North Elmham, and you’ll meet Chelsea Gold Award-winning and world-renowned garden designer George Carter on his own patch. Created over a quarter-century ago and home to every sort of make-do-and-mend idea and embellishment, his is a formal, all-green garden of hedged rooms, each with their own individual characters, cleverly staged vistas and little surprises.

For the former sculptor, the plant palette is a simple one – evergreens, deciduous trees and shrubs all available during his favourite 17th and early 18th century garden periods. The whole is an acknowledged confection, a performance, with the garden as a form of theatre, enhanced by the perfectly positioned stage props and visual jokes he loves to craft. A spot of trempe oeil, a shape, cleverly cut out of plywood, an old lavatory ballcock, gilded to make the finest finial. From a distance they all do the job admirably.

Columbine HallColumbine Hall

What George brought to Columbine Hall was all this, plus a healthy helping of Repton’s famous long-term vision. His greatest contribution has undoubtedly been to help Hew and Leslie ‘think outside the moat’. By treating it as a ha-ha, making it into an invisible wall, the views are allowed to roll out freely, so the eye is guided only by the structure of the planting, not halted in mid-flow by some defensive throw-back from the past.

Just 25 years since it changed hands, medieval Columbine Hall finds itself free from the confinement of centuries. It’s a rare example of an historic property loved back to life, totally the way its owners want it to be.

Take a tour

Columbine Hall nr Stowmarket: July 21, Aug 1

Silverstone Farm nr East Dereham: Sept 2

Glemham Hall nr Woodbridge: July 18, 22, Aug 27, Sept 2, 5, 11

Hoveton Hall nr Wroxham: July 17, Sept 12

Netherhall Manor nr Soham: Aug 2, 9

Bressingham Hall nr Diss: Sept 18

Henstead Exotic Garden nr Beccles: July 20, Aug 10, Sept 1, 15

Info: invitationtoview.co.uk

Brochure online, Tourist Information Centres or ring 01284 827087. Tickets: invitationtoview.co.uk or via Mercury Theatre 01206 573948. Prices from £12. All tours (min 1.5 hours, often guided by the owners) include light refreshments.

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