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Media Coverage

Media Coverage.

The text from a feature in Cumbria Life magazine July 2012.


Text: Tim Longville.

Sometimes downsizing can be painful. Sometimes it can be a positive relief. Sometimes it can even produce its own new and quite different kinds of pleasure.

Helen Holmes’ previous Appleby house, for example, was Castle Bank, whose garden was the subject of a Cumbria Life article some years ago. That was a big house with a big garden. And its three acres were so densely planted and so oddly shaped that when she had the local band playing in the garden on Open Days, ‘Visitors only knew they were there because they could hear them!’ In 2006, however, she decided that both house and garden were simply too big for her to cope with any longer. So she swapped imposing Castle Bank for a pretty but modest eighteenth century stone cottage, Church View, opposite the church in Bongate, and three acres of garden for a quarter of an acre, ‘at most.’

There is a small front garden but most of the land rises steeply behind the house to the boundary stone wall running along Back Lane. There were some good perimeter trees including a pair of purple leaved Prunus, a variegated Norway Maple and a dawn redwood, planted by Beechcroft Nurseries, which specialises in trees and shrubs. But those apart the rest was just, says Helen, ‘rough grass and a large patch of rhubarb’

There was terracing behind the house, ‘but not a plant in it,’ and along the right-hand boundary was a huge overgrown Leylandii hedge.‘Everything felt enclosed and airless,’ she remembers. ‘Looking out of the kitchen window you felt as though you were in a prison.’ And originally the grassy slope was so steep and slippery that she couldn’t walk down it without serious danger to life and limb!

Fortunately, help was at hand. Plantsman and landscape gardener Ian Huckson, of English Country Gardens Cumbria, who had previously worked to rescue the garden the garden at Castle Bank, took on the complete re-design of her new garden at Church View. She jokes that in fact, ‘He’s sort of adopted it or at least taken it under his wing!’

It was only in 2007, though, that work could begin. Then, out went all the grass and weeds, the slope was regraded, the Leylandii hedge reduced to a sensible size, a new sandstone wall, 22 metres long, was built by Andy Nelson, and finally roughly diagonal gravelled paths were constructed across the regraded slope, running in effect from bottom left towards top right, in order to make going up and coming down much easier. So much for the‘bones’ of the re-designed back garden. But if Helen was pleased with those bones, and she was, she was even more pleased with the ‘flesh’ Ian has since put on them. ‘He’s a good designer anyway,’ she says, ‘but above all I like the fact that he designs with the plants in mind, and chooses places for them that they will enjoy and in which they will flourish.’

The whole idea of the garden, she says, was that it should feel like ‘a cottage garden’but ‘a modern cottage garden.’ So it is clearly ‘designed,’ which a traditional cottage garden wasn’t. On the other hand, its dense and layered planting-style (‘There are just so many plants here now,’ was Helen’s delighted comment) is in effect a sophisticated form of cottage garden planting.

And, as in a traditional cottage garden, there are no big gestures, such as formal hedges or ‘single colour’ borders. Instead, there is an almost endless series of intricately designed ‘little episodes,’ not of a single colour but of related colours and tones, or involving different interestingly varied foliage-forms, all of which knit together into a colourful and intriguing patchwork. The idea, as Ian himself puts it, was to create‘coherent layers of colour, texture and interest.’

But at the same time he has also managed to create views and vistas, despite the small enclosed space he had to deal with. The secret, he insists, is that ‘the planting must be bold!’ That means not being afraid to use sizeable plants, repeating key plants in different parts of the garden, and sometimes using smaller plants in sizeable blocks.

So bold grasses, such as Stipa gigantea and the variegated reed grass, Calamagrostis ‘Overdam,’ are used to tie together parts of the main central bed. That, incidentally, is given added interest by being divided in two by a ‘river-like’ gravel path, which widens mid-way to allow the planting of a new specimen of the 19th.Century, dual-purpose apple,’ James Grieve’, in homage to the elderly apple-trees surviving from the garden’s past as a traditional cottage garden.

For the same ‘tying-together’ purpose, that fine old bearded iris, ‘Jane Phillips,’ pops up here and there in several of the borders, while at lower levels there are multi-coloured pools of astrantias, from white to deep red, and rivulets of small geraniums, in pink and red. Even at the lowest level, there are bold little splashes of colour and texture to catch the eye. Beside a left-hand path from the central bed, for instance, is a run of the prostrate golden grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ while beside the right-hand path from the same bed is a similar run of the equally prostrate black grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens.’

If all this sounds as though the garden is ‘all Ian’s creation - a perception Helen sometimes seems positively anxious to encourage - he has, on the other hand carefully catered to her own particular plant passions, which is why the garden has what she gleefully describes as ‘whole piles’ of daylilies and poppies. And just as certainly the garden now provides what she initially asked for. That is, ‘Colour and interest all the year round.’ In fact, she adds, ‘When visitors come round the corner into the back garden, they just can’t believe it.’

Soon they’ll have even more to be astonished by, since Helen has decided that down-sizing can go too far! So she’s bought the cottage next door and by the time you read this Ian will be hard at work not only transforming that garden but also joining it to the one at Church View. Definitely a case of ‘watch that space’ – which, knowing Ian, won’t be ‘just a space’ for very long!

A news article from the NGS website 2010


Helen moved to Church View 4 years ago and, with pride and respect, says that her Landscape Gardener, Ian Huckson is a very talented and knowledgeable plantsman. Ian has transformed the half-acre garden in just 3 years. Ian said, “It took one year of clearance and hard-landscaping followed by two years of planting and cultivation”. The garden belies its youth in providing fullness, variety and an abundance of floral display. Ian takes particular pride in the design and quality of his plantings. Church View garden provides lovely views from meandering gravel paths as well as from within the house. Helen and Ian have worked together for many years and as Ian says, “we have similar garden tastes, which is great.

This garden demonstrates what can be done in a very short time and it does so delightfully. There are lots of plants in flower but evidence of many more to come throughout the summer. Indeed Ian adds,” visit us on 20th June but return when we open on 12th September to enjoy a riot of late summer colour”.

Appleby Garden Open for the NGS: Sunday September 11 th. 2011

The latest NGS private garden opening in Cumbria this year.

The Gardens at Church View, Bongate, Appleby in Westmorland, home of Mrs. Helen Holmes, will be open to the public on Sunday 11th. September 2011.

This will be a chance to see a Cottage Garden in which special attention is paid to providing and maintaining a grand display of flowering plants well into late Summer/Autumn. Hardy herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses form the core of this array of colour, texture and interest, augmented by a few select half-hardy annuals/perennials. Here we believe the colourful exuberance of late flowering plants to be immensely valuable and the excitement generated to be solace for the soul as the Summer season moves on and the nights begin to draw in. The vibrancy and joy gladdens the heart, and for a time, defies the dreary winter time that lies ahead! Come along and meet the gardener, experience the plants bees and butterflies, enjoy a cup of tea and cake, or maybe relax with a Pimms and luxuriate in a late summer glow!

The National Gardens Scheme (NGS) raises money for charity each year. In 2010,thanks to garden owners and visitors, the NGS was able to make a record annual distribution of £2.6m to its beneficiary charities, which are predominantly in the nursing and caring sector.