GARDENS: Learning curves
PUBLISHED: 12:21 05 August 2014 | UPDATED: 12:21 05 August 2014
The ever evolving gardens of Uggeshall Hall are a source of delight to their owners, Stevie and Bob Nicholson. Sally Hepher went to meet them
Tucked away among quiet farmland above Blythburgh’s dramatic church, six miles west of Southwold, lies Uggeshall Hall.
Here, over the past 30 years, Stevie and Bob Nicholson have developed the two acres surrounding their Suffolk longhouse from an almost blank canvas into today’s richly planted garden.
They inherited some fine brick walls and a series of traditional wooden barns and outbuildings. Stevie’s initial thought was to make a formal garden of straight lines, but once it became apparent that all the walls and buildings ran in different directions instead of fitting any rectangular plan, she switched to using bold curves.
Rather than have a path running directly to the front door, a gravel path meanders gently past the barns to a side door, allowing the house to rise above an uninterrupted expanse of flowers and grass, next to a large natural pond.
A gravel border, packed with plants that love sharp drainage, runs the full width of the house. While the garden is on heavy clay, one end of this bed drains into the pond so it was a challenge finding things that would thrive, and Stevie extended the seaside-inspired planting style along the entire length of the border. The result is an ethereal tapestry, including grasses that wave in the lightest wind, silver leaved shrubs, yuccas, sea kale, and annuals such as love-in-the-mist.
A small circular, sunken lawn, echoing the shape of the larger lawns, forms an irresistible playground for children. Flowing around the lawns are areas of long grass, as well as wide borders planted with a mixture of cottage garden stalwarts and more unusual plants, such as tree peonies. The pond, edged with moisture loving marginal plants and stocked with wild white water lilies, is spring fed and holds water naturally thanks to the underlying clay.
Boardwalks lead out over the pond, bridging the steep banks and ditches on its far side. Stevie is keen for it to seem effortless to progress from one area to the next through the entire garden, while views and vistas are carefully planned with something fresh to see around each corner.
Behind the house, straight-line formality has almost prevailed, with a lime tree avenue leading from the back door, the slight slope graded with two steps to give the maximum sense of changing levels in an essentially flat site. Hedges and trellis separate out garden rooms, while arches and gateways are aligned to enable clear views across the garden.
In summer the roses are particularly glorious, trained up the walls, clothing the iron pergola made by a local blacksmith, sprawling over a barn roof, and growing in beds edged with clipped evergreen honeysuckle.
Beyond lie the orchard, a productive medley of apples, pears and quinces, and the vegetable garden. While Stevie jokes that she does not obsess about nettles, much of the planting is chosen to be attractive to bees and butterflies. The garden is alive with birdsong, and the local mallards are allowed to nest in the borders.
The Nicholsons maintain the garden themselves with outside help for heavy jobs. The amount of work might seem daunting, but Stevie loves the garden and enjoys weeding, looking on it as time to think and plan. The garden is always evolving and she accepts that plants will fail or outgrow their spaces, giving way to something new.
The clay soil has been considerably improved by regular additions of organic material and has a neutral pH. Her two main gardening grumbles would be ground elder, and muntjac.
The whole garden sits beautifully in the gentle Suffolk landscape, a source of delight to its owners.