When I lead garden tours, people often ask me which is my favourite garden. It’s a question I have come to fear and dodge around, because in all honesty I don’t have one. I have loads! Different styles for different days and moods – a bit like the clothes I choose to wear each day.
But there is one garden that could really be my favourite and that’s Coleton Fishacre in Devon. I first visited it over ten years ago with all of my family (a rare event) and on a late August visit it still sparkled with the same magic for me.
Now owned by the National Trust, the Art Deco house and gardens were designed by Oswald Milne in 1925 for Rupert and Lady Dorothy D’Oyly Carte. Everybody loves the opulence and modernism of the Art Deco era and the Trust has sensitively recreated the rooms guided by a Country Life article of 1930. As Rupert had successfully turned around the fortunes of the Savoy Hotel and later the Opera company, he and his wife needed a weekend “bolthole”. From the handmade carpets to the wind dial and sunken baths, this is a thoroughly modern house but with its roots in the Arts and Crafts era which is what makes it so welcoming. (And fun – I loved the dressing up room!)
Out in the gardens, the fun continues with glimpses (possibly these should be cut back to reveal a little more) of the sea, terraces for seating and walking including the wonderfully named ‘Seemly Terrace’ and a wide variety of planting. The structure of the garden with its locally quarried grey stone was the work of Oswald Milne, who trained under Edwin Lutyens whose style is very apparent in the concave pool on the middle terrace. But it sits well here and was a device that Milne would go on to use at other gardens in Somerset and Gloucestershire.
Both Rupert and Lady Dorothy were excited by the prospect of carving out a garden in the declivities of the combe, but very sensibly first planted shelter belts of trees under the direction of Edward White of Milner & White. Once the garden was suitably protected from the ravaging winds, they went on to create meandering paths and garden areas filled with lush and tropical specimens from around the world. Lady Dorothy planted lavishly in the steamy, sheltered garden and Rupert indulged his passion for water features, each one with its own musical note. What they created in a relatively short period of time is astonishing and beautiful (of course it has been added to and altered slightly by successive gardeners), and who knows what else they might have created if the family tragedy (no spoilers here) hadn’t driven them apart.
One always thinks of late summer gardens as being full of hot colours and at Coleton there are plenty of firecracker reds, oranges and yellows in the borders along the terraces, but the real surprise comes in the arrestingly calm Rill Garden. It is unusual to find a mixed border of soft pinks, blues and purples at this time of year, and so the Trust’s gardeners’ must be commended. It is a delight and full of bees hovering around the Salvia leucantha, Saxifraga stolonifera ‘Maroon Beauty’, Pleactranthus zuluenthis and Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’.
Lost in this world of dreamy colours and humming insects, a sudden cloudburst made us run to the car for a culinary sin of a picnic lunch with fresh Devon crab washed down with red wine. Rupert and Lady Dorothy would have done it with so much more grace, retiring to the covered loggia for their lunch (prepared by the servants of course).
Back out again and as the paths descended, the character of the twenty or so garden areas subtly changes and become classically more woody and wild further down the valley, but always with trees and shrubs of surprising interest. The view back along the swathe from the Gazebo is one to emulate, although I don’t think the woman munching away on numerous chocolate bars was taking garden notes (let alone aware of her presence in everyone’s classic vista photo). I felt like issuing her with a timed ticket!
Onwards down to a summerhouse, along Cathedral bank, and across streams to the lonesome pine tree above Pudcombe Cove, looking like an Ionian island in the sudden brilliant sunshine. Numerous children have sat on its branches, part of a family time capsule on every return visit. But the walk ends here and loops back past the ferns and streams. If only it could continue, down, down …… to the salt water bathing pool the D’Oyly Carte’s had built on the beach below. Now if the Trust could reinstate that, it would definitely be my favourite garden, for now ….