A taste of Tuscany

Intrigued by the notion of an Essex garden with a Tuscan feel, our columnist took a trip to Hyde Hall
When I interviewed Sue Biggs, the director general of the Royal Horticultural Society, some weeks ago, I mentioned that I was planning a visit to RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Essex. Sue said it was her favourite RHS garden and reminded her of Tuscany, where she has a house. The resemblance seemed unlikely, given the unrelieved flatness of Essex, but she said I would see what she meant when I got there, which was intriguing and whetted my appetite for a visit.

A few weeks later, in early May, I caught a train to Chelmsford, and armed with a local bus timetable cast around for the bus stop for Hyde Hall. I abandoned the wait when no buses appeared and succumbed to a taxi – I had an appointment with the curator, Ian Le Gros, and couldn’t be late. We met in the visitor centre, a light and airy barnlike structure built in 2009.

First, a history lesson: Ian explained that Hyde Hall extends over 365 acres, of which 150 can be visited by the public. At the centre of the site, and forming its historical hub, is an 18th-century farmhouse on the top of a windswept hill, 150 feet above sea level. The property was bought by Helen and Dick Robinson in 1955. They created first a kitchen garden and then rose and woodland gardens. The rhododendrons, planted in alkaline soil, failed to thrive, and the Robinsons sought advice from the RHS, initiating a relationship that led to the bequest of Hyde Hall to the society in 1992. 

At this stage, the garden extended over 24 acres, including 16 acres of lawns and borders on the hilltop, where the car park was also situated, and a field of malus species. There was little inducement for visitors to venture down the hill, a shame since the landscape is beautiful, gently sloping and with farreaching views across unbroken countryside. There has been a settlement on the hill for centuries – the first record is in the Domesday Book of 1086. The place feels ancient, and there is a sense of peace and timelessness.

Over the years there have been master plans and initiatives to extend and develop the garden. The construction of the new visitor centre, with car parking alongside, has made a dramatic difference to how people can use the site. Two new courtyard gardens, set close to the building and on a domestic scale, provide instant immersion in the garden experience, and are thoughtfully designed for the older members of a family party, with lots of places to sit, and wide, level paths. The Cottage Garden, which Ian describes as ‘a happy jumble of chaos’, is given height by hazel wigwams of sweet peas and runner beans. The Modern Country Garden has great blocks of perennials punctuated by clipped cylinders of yew and Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’, the weeping pear.

There is much to delight the visitor, for example the tree ferns in the Robinson Garden, near the house, set in a hollow backed by a gabion wall, the sweeping borders and zigzag plantings on Clover Hill and the willows, cornus, hornbeams and amelanchiers, which thrive in the heavy clay. There is an imaginative new play area for children, with a tall wooden play tower in a woodland setting. The list goes on, but my word count is finite.

One of the most spectacular areas of the garden is the Hyde Hall Dry Garden, established in 2001 and extended to twice its size in 2011. It has great clumps of grasses, and towering through them at the moment the sulphur-yellow spires of the giant mullein, Verbascum bombyciferum. The lines of boulders reinforce the undulating character of the surrounding landscape, which rolls away far into the distance. More than a tinge of Tuscany, I thought.

RHS Garden Hyde Hall; 0845-265 8071, www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/hyde-hall

Ulf Nordfjell

A distillation of Chelsea delights

Chris Young is the editor of the excellent RHS journal, The Garden. In his book, Take Chelsea Home: Practical Inspiration From The RHS Chelsea Flower Show, he examines show gardens from the 2004 to 2012 shows, and identifies for readers features to admire and maybe emulate in their own gardens. A number of Chelsea styles are identified, ranging from romantic and minimalist, to ‘magical and mad’.

The book is divided into garden elements such as entrances, paths, boundaries, materials, water and lighting. There are tips from designers and case studies of some of the best gardens, including Cleve West’s 2012 garden for Brewin Dolphin, which won best in show. Chris Young observes that the garden had a sense of permanence, the result of a special gift that only a few designers possess. There is much valuable advice applicable to ‘real’ gardens, for example that small gardens feel bigger when boundaries are hidden.

Take Chelsea Home by Chris Young is published by the Octopus Publishing Group in association with the RHS, £20: www.octopusbooks.co.uk

Foxtail Lily

Plant of the week

Eremurus stenophyllus is a foxtail lily whose golden-yellow flower spikes are a dramatic sight in high summer. Needs good drainage and full sun. Plant in autumn for flowers next July. £6.20 for 3 tubers: www.blomsbulbs.com