Vita Sackville-West advised holing oneself up in January and remaining inside to choose seeds for the coming season, so on that basis, I am happy to oblige. Eschewing New Year newspaper supplements on health, style and travel, which give me a creeping sense of anxiety, my mind has been running over my summer trip to Hestercombe and so I have picked up my Mother’s old copy of Gertrude Jekyll’s ‘Gardens for Small Country Houses’. My parents did not have a small country house and I am not sure the Castle deserves such an accolade, but it is such an inspiring book when considering hard landscaping and its balance with planting and the importance of not letting the former overpower the latter.
Thumbing through, I have come across a solution for the top lawn. This rectangular space sits in the L at the back of the house and has always been the place for tea drinking, thanks to the lovely view of Bembridge Harbour and Southerly aspect. At one time, two horse chestnuts afforded the shade to do so and one dying, the final specimen was nicknamed the ‘Tea Tree’ by the Baldwin family.
But now there are no trees near the house and no shade. A weedy gravel path separates house from lawn, which itself jerks awkwardly across gradients created by the installation of the pond. Another drawback here, now the kitchen will be in the 1905 extension, is the lack of terrace. This never bothered the Castle’s former occupants, who heaved chairs out onto the lawn when the weather was clement and with stiff upper lip, ignored the considerable gradient and the fact that the tea in the cups almost certainly slurped to one side. But I, like most of us who have grown up since John Brooks’ idea of ‘The Outside Room’ became common currency, like to perform as many tasks as possible outside, from tea drinking to pea shelling and I don’t like to be stopped by the table sunk into turf.
Resolving to keep my terrace to a minimum and adopting the idea of Gertrude’s planted pavement, the existing gravel paths will disperse into wide laid slabs, interspersed with low planting of sage, thyme, small varieties of Alchemilla and the insuppressible daisy-like Erigeron karvinskianus. Ultimately wide gaps narrow and are pointed only where the table and chairs will sit before the terrace rambles off again, dissolving into planted gravel and ultimately stone steps set informally into turf, such as those I photographed at Christmas at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. Then close to the house we could plant a new tree for shade. An elegant small Celtis I thought.. but there is so much choice. I wonder what Gertrude would chose?