Over the winter months I've reached the conclusion that it's a shame more gardens aren't open to the public. It cheers up the winter gloom to have somewhere to visit and it's a great opportunity to study a garden's structure without all the flowers there. After all, if a garden works well at that time, then the chances are it'll be good if not spectacular the rest of the year. Do click on the collage to see an enlarged view of what there is to see on a February day.
So when The Courts' Head Gardener announced at her talk at Bath University Gardening Club recently it was opening mid-February as an experiment, Threadspider and I thought we'd be mad not to avail ourselves of the opportunity to have a peep at one of our favourite gardens. It rained whilst we were there last week, but we both thought the garden was still looking good.
Until the 1880s the garden at The Courts was a woollen mill, so it would have been an industrial scene at that time rather than the tranquil place it is today. Then the UK woollen industry crashed (out-competed by Australia) and The Courts was sold to George Hastings, who created the first garden at the turn of the century (around 1901). He wasn't a professional, but his interest in form and structures such as hedges and statues led to the installation of the basic bones of the garden seen today. The remains of the mill also affected some of the garden's layout: the terrace area is out of line, but is actually the remains of a factory wall (the soil is full of slate and rubble, so tough as old boots plants are grown there) and a stone square in the lawned area covers an enormous capped well.
In the 1920s, the Goff family acquired The Courts and Lady Cecily added a soft, romantic planting to Hastings' garden bones. Her planting palette would have been limited to those plants available at local nurseries or from friends, so the Head Gardener restricted her planting to the kind of 'good doers' from that time using old photographs to see the kinds of plants used. It still means there can be hot borders and clashing purple and acid yellows as well as the more romantic mauves, purples and blues. It also means grasses are planted. These are usually considered to be a contemporary option, but apparently Lady Cecily used Fescues in her designs.
We saw hardly any of that on our visit (apart from the grasses looking like they were having a bad hair day which amused us greatly) but we did see the masses of early spring bulbs coming through. Snowdrops under hazels, thousands of crocus (though tightly closed owing to the dull day) and cheerful winter aconites. A few Hellebores told of riches to come. For me, the witch hazel was a surprising find because I thought they can't be grown in alkaline soil, but there was a magnificent specimen right by the orchard stuffed with carefully pruned heritage apples.
Even the mainly bare kitchen garden looked good and I seriously covet the terracotta forcers and of course the gossiping Yews on the lawn were as gigglesome as ever. Apparently they weren't trimmed for a while, so the prevailing winds helped to shape them the way they are today. A new discovery for us were the massed clipped box. Overlooked on summer visits, but a fantastic feature on a dull February day.
In the garden there were signs of activity everywhere: major pruning work was going on and someone was busy in the greenhouse. The entrance hut was being rebuilt so we found a new use being made of the pleached limes (a place to hang the glue gun) and we even had a rare glimpse inside the house because it was the garden's temporary reception area. The tenancy is available at the moment, so if you fancy living in a posh country house, now's your chance.
It was well worth the visit and we saw a few other stalwarts braving the weather on our way round, so I hope this year's experiment becomes a permanent feature. The cold drizzle meant our dethawing coffee and cake afterwards was thoroughly deserved: we even matched the turquoise decor of our table and crockery :)