Last Sunday the sun came out, the sky was blue, and it was a perfect day for the Halstead Marathon in Essex. No, no don’t be silly I wasn’t the runner, that was my daughter. I would rather visit a garden any day so I waved her off at the start and nipped off to nearby Sandy Lodge, opening for its second year for the National Garden Scheme.
With a little time to kill before it was to be open, I walked around the delightfully well kept cemetery situated opposite the Marathon start. Calming soft summer greens and birdsong, a haven of peace after the giddying gathering of over 400 runners, lycra, gels and a plethora of multi-coloured trainers.
The garden was just a short distance away up the hill on the North side of Halstead. I had arranged to meet a friend and what better place to catch up before she moves to her new garden in Devon.
As always with people who so kindly want to share their much-loved garden there was a warm welcome at the entrance.
The house was built during the 1960s with large replacement windows added in recent years. You are drawn in through the open gates and the driveway is softened by the pretty combination of mainly tulips and irises interplanted with Stipa tenuissima,
and there is a touch of the Beth Chatto influence here as the planting seamlessly spills out from the raised border on the left.
Looking back from the house the low hedge of Pittisporum tenuifolium echoes the sweep of the drive, snaking round from the pale stone face, asleep in the morning sunlight.
The gravel spreads underneath a cherry tree where the solid wooden benches have been arranged amongst the driftwood pieces,
which adds a sculptural element, with the Feather Reed grass providing a strong vertical accent and creating a division between the gravel and lawn. This ornamental grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ is an early perennial, already grown to a good height, a lush green now but will turn golden in the summer, and bringing a suggestion of movement to an otherwise static area.
So who exactly was Karl Foerster? Born in 1874 in Germany his life was caught up in the turmoil of 20th Century Europe, and defying the Nazi regime he employed Jews to help in his nursery near Berlin which he had set up in 1903. After the war, the nursery was nationalised as it was located in East Germany, but Foerster remained there for a number of years. We have him to thank for this Calamagrostis which he found in the Hamburg Botanical garden listing it in his catalogue of 1939 and describing it a decade later in his garden book, The Use of Grasses and Ferns in the Garden.
There are several varieties of ornamental grass at Sandy Lodge. The house has substantial decking on two sides and from here you can survey the 3/4 acre garden created over the past 5 years. A high standard of horticulture is maintained, neatly mown lawns, razor sharp edges and not a weed in sight.
The double borders in front of the decking were created just last year. Inspired by the great Dutch nursery man and designer Piet Oudolf, they are planted in the prairie style and in addition have a generous covering of stone, more for aesthetics rather than as a mulch.
We head out across the lawn to the ‘Winter Wedding Border’ so called because when the garden owners Emma and Rick married in December of 2014 they asked for Garden Voucher wedding presents. A fun idea and now they have a living memory of their special day.
My friend and I haven’t seen each other for awhile; we usually meet in a cafe but what better way than in a garden in the presence of nature where the background music is bird song. We had to stop our flow of chat for a moment to admire the all-essential compost bins; sturdy and neat they endorse the gardening skill practised in this garden.
We wander along the woodland path which runs across the bottom of the garden, late spring flowering shrubs at their best; broom, lilac and varieties of pittisporum.
We emerge through a small group of silver birch, their leaves flitting in the sunlight. The grass around the trunks has been left to grow and with some blue camassia growing through it gives contrast to the expanse of newly cut lawn.
Those mown stripes with that runway feel draws us up to top of the garden passing the house on the sunny left hand side. Bushes of bright photinia hide the barbecue standing in place of a once derelict greenhouse.
When Emma and Rick came here over seven years ago this corner was overgrown with brambles and that delightful sense of shabby chic remains, a nod to how the garden once was.
But this is not the only reason we have walked up to this point, it is near the kitchen where refreshments are served. The cakes are sublime, home-made with generous portions,
and we find comfortable chairs on the decking, so inviting with freshly picked flowers,
and finding a spot of shade from the bamboo rustling in the breeze,
we admire the view over Halstead, the factory chimney and the the church tower,
and are drawn back to thinking of the marathon runners.
If you missed it there is another opening in September but if it is the marathon you are after you will have to wait another year. I know which I would choose…….