Oh to be at Endsleigh in the summertime!
As the heat of the summer takes hold and seemingly everyone heads down to the south west to join the throng on the beaches or the herds trooping through the various picturesque fishing villages, there is one corner of Devon that offers blissful respite from the hordes. Set on the banks of the Tamar, Endsleigh is an oasis of calm, where one can while away the long hot summer days in timeless fashion, lunch on the terrace, a game of croquet, a walk through the picturesque Repton designed gardens or perhaps a siesta beneath the long border, disturbed only by the bewitching scent wafting down from the rose walk.
Endsleigh was built by the 6th Duke of Bedford and Duchess Georgina and was conceived as a fantasy escape for them, their large family and a few select friends. They would decamp here several times a year, to escape the outside world and enjoy the simpler things in life, albeit with plenty of fine food and wine. The Duchess played at being a dairymaid in her thatched dairy in the dell and the Duke surveyed his domain from his Swiss Cottage high on the hill. The landscape was played upon by their imagination with shell grottoes and souterrains, waterfalls and cascades creating a romantic playground. The gardens are largely unchanged from the original design and through the passage of time and the influence of mother nature, are perhaps even more romantic than at their inception.
A wander through the bottom of the dell in the height of summer can both soothe and stimulate in equal measure. Walk past Repton’s waterfall, below the rockery and one can imagine oneself in a player in a Claude Lorraine landscape painting, then a change of mood as one is dwarfed by a verdant tunnel of huge, primeval, Gunnera manicata emerging at the other side to a gentle primula lined cascade tumbling down the slope. All the while the Edgecumbe stream provides a soundtrack to one’s adventure, one minute gushing through a narrow aperture in the rocks, the next gently burbling its way over the flat stones towards the Tamar.
The planting along the cascade in the dell is developing well, candelabra primulas are still flowering alongside Primula viallii and the beautifully scented Primula florindiae. Astilbe japonica is now pushing forth its feathery pink plumes, Iris ensata is in full flower and the Hostas have largely escaped the predation of slugs and snails. The success of this area has encouraged us to develop it further and hopefully the area will improve year on year, adding more colour to the dell in the summer.
The long border is looking glorious at the moment backed as it is by the 100 metre long rose walk in full flower. Last year I gave the Delphiniums and Lupins a final warning and told them if they didn’t perform this year they were coming out, it’s worked a dream, they both started flowering early and are still going strong, giving the best show ever. The border is reaching its mid-summer crescendo at the moment, in shades of blue (Catanache caerula, Salvia ‘Carradonna’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’), pink (Persicaria, Digitalis, Dierama, Geranium X thurstonianum) and deep red (Cirsium rivulare, Knautia macedonica) with occasional yellow spires of Verbascum and Kniphofia, it is looking almost tasteful at the moment. This however will not last long, we added bright magenta flowered Lychnis coronaria a couple of years ago, to add a little energy, this has self seeded a bit too close to the orange Helenium ‘Moorheim Beauty’ which is just coming into flower, a colour clash is inevitable.
A colour clash in the border however is the only thing likely to upset the peace and tranquillity in this bucolic idyll, so if battling the crowds at the beach is not your idea of a relaxing break why not head for Endsleigh and truly get away from it all.
The far reaches of the estate
Spring is well and truly underway here at Endsleigh and is fast approaching its brilliant best. The Rhododendrons and azaleas are beginning to produce their dazzling colours, the Magnolias, somewhat more sophisticated, are blooming as well as I’ve seen them, untroubled by late frost (touch wood), and a few camellias are hanging on to join the party. The banks along the drive are covered in daffodils and primroses. Bluebells, wild garlic and wood anemones are about to burst forth in the dell and the trees are suddenly enveloped by that intense spring green. The border is brimming with promise: tulips, scilla, ipheon and muscari are dotted through the mounds of perennials racing for summer dominance, the flower buds of the alliums, camassia and asphedoline are swelling, soon to take over, the paeonies are stirring and the Euphorbias echo the iridescent green of the surrounding trees.
This year as the garden slumbered through the winter, the garden team decamped to the further reaches of the estate, opening up paths and rides in the as yet unexplored areas. We became heroic adventurers scrambling our way through the Himalayan foothills, fighting our way through impenetrable jungle, discovering rare exotic plants, eventually emerging to breathtaking views across a Caledonian valley. What became apparent was that the garden was once a miniature tour of the new worlds opening up to the owners. Whilst our work is by no means complete, there are now many more walks for the more adventurous visitors and much to explore. A path on the far side of the valley leads up behind the rockface through a tangle of Rhododendrons offering romantic glimpses of the house, rockery and waterfall. The beech wood at the top of the valley should be a sight for sore eyes in a couple of weeks, carpeted as it is with bluebells and the transition as the Duke’s drive moves from woodland to open country at the top of the valley is truly breathtaking. The areas that we have cleared throw up little surprises, as long-forgotten clumps of daffodils and orchids awake after years hidden in the shadows of bramble and the ubiquitous rhododendron ponticum. We also imagined ourselves Victorian plant hunters as we came across Podocarpus, Fitzroya and Cunninghammia trees amongst the undergrowth and peeled back blankets of ivy from swamp cypress. We explored from Chile to China via the swamps of southern USA all without leaving this little corner of Devon.
The garden was created in the early 19th century as a pleasure ground for the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, where they could live out their fantasies. There is a picturesque dairy in the gardens where the Duchess used to play at being a dairy maid as well as a grotto and shell house. As you can see, it still inspires fantasy in the staff looking after it, but probably more so for those coming to stay as they can experience the magic of the garden whilst enjoying the luxurious hospitality and live out their own fantasies whether it be as dairy maid or peer of the realm.
Autumn is always the most atmospheric season here at Endsleigh but I have a feeling this year is going to be better than most, as all the autumn colour seems to be happening at once. Acers, Persian Ironwood, Tulip trees, Gingkos, Swamp cypress, Liquidambar, deciduous Azaleas, Aralias, Enkianthus, Fothergilla, Witchhazel, are all glowing with their autumnal colour and when the low autumn sun shines through the trees the whole garden blazes.
Haws, hips and berries abound this year. Hollies, Viburnums, Hawthorn and Euonymus limbs hang low under the weight of berries. Fir trees are thick with cones and acorns cover the ancient Oaks and the floor beneath them making some of the paths treacherous. Folklore would have us believe that this is a warning of a harsh winter to come but may just be the bounty of the long hot summer.
The long border is still looking good and will be flowering until the first frosts: the colours are a little more muted than that of high summer but none the worse for that, this is the time after all for the trees to have their place in the spotlight. The blues and purples of asters, perovskia, ceratostigma, verbena and salvia are set off by the burgundy sedum and ruddy pink persicarias, with the arching, hip tipped rose branches adding to the autumnal scene and reminding us of the glories of the summer now gone.
The leaves falling from the trees throw up a sweet smell of burnt sugar and mixed with wood smoke the scent hangs heavy in the air, leaves crunch underfoot and the thud of wood being chopped echoes across the valley. Autumn mists swirl around the dell- lurking amongst the garden ruins and hidden by the mist- one feels the ghosts of the past. The gardeners who once tended this ‘sequestered valley’, the houseguests who cavorted in the grottoes and follies are all somehow palpable yet just out of reach in the brume. Paths lead off into the woods and offer tantalising opportunities for further discovery: a mysterious tunnel here, a hidden waterfall there. The Duchess’s dairy framed perfectly across the valley could be an illustration from Grimm’s fairytales the waterfall opposite from a painting by Claude Lorraine.
Having explored the gardens and successfully navigated yourself back to the hotel what better way to recover than by retiring to the drawing room for afternoon tea by the log fire and perhaps pick up a book from the library to get to know the ghosts, you have just fleetingly met, a little better.
The Endless Summer
This summer has reminded me of the long, hot, languid and quite possibly imagined summers of my childhood. The holidays lasted forever and there was nothing to do but concentrate on the finer things in life, like lying in the long grass next to the river, listening to the buzzing of insects, hurling ears of corn at my friends, damming streams to make swimming pools, climbing trees and building dens in the woods. Whilst I haven’t done much den building this year and there has been so much watering to do I haven’t had a chance to lie by the river, I have relived my childhood by building a few dams to redirect water to where it is most needed.
The summer already seems to have lasted forever and we are only just into August. The lawns at Endsleigh are looking parched and I hang my head in shame every time I see them, though I hear from guests that they look positively verdant compared to the rest of the country. The long border however is looking fantastic this year: the combination of sun and redirected stream water has led to lush growth and a profusion of colour, some of it as planned and some of it accidental. The sheer quantity of sunshine has brought the late season flowers out early and the border has mixed its early season subtlety with the rambunctiousness of the late season performers creating some oddly energizing combinations. Lupins have hung on to flower with Helenium, Delphiniums have collaborated with Persicaria and Perovskia has surrounded everything in its path in a beautiful haze of blue. The border is a veritable sea of colour along its entire 100 metres, which is certainly a relief after the panicked filling of frost induced gaps during the spring.
Last autumn I took a risky decision to bed out the parterre almost entirely with statice (Limonium sinuatum), inspired by a trip to the Alhambra many years ago. 2500 plants were duly planted and I prayed for a decent summer so that they could perform at their best but could not have hoped for the almost Andalusian summer we have been experiencing. Sitting in the shade of the loggia looking out over a sea of colour, the gentle splashing of the fountain in the background and the water trickling from lions’ heads into the surrounding rills, one is reminded of the islamic gardens of the Alhambra. The parterre at Endsleigh however is not enclosed and the views continue outwards over the river Tamar and Repton’s glorious picturesque landscape.
Within the landscape itself the dell provides a welcome relief from the summer heat: waterfalls and cascades rush down the valley to the Edgecumbe stream and on to the Tamar below. The backdrop of hidden grottoes, exotic trees and carpet of monstrous gunnera manicata provides a perfect setting for childish adventures. The outside world does not intrude at Endsleigh – there is no traffic or aircraft noise – and walks around the grounds offer occasional glimpses of buzzards, otters and kingfishers. Here one can step back a generation or two, into an idyllic imagined past and experience life as it probably never was.
Springtime for Repton
A week ago I was eagerly anticipating the onset of spring, brimming with enthusiasm and the unrealistic optimism only spring can bring. The snowdrops had been and gone, the daffodils and primroses were in full flower and the valley was taking on the pungent springtime aroma of the wild garlic which fills the valley at this time of year. Today winter has returned with a vengeance, the valley lies under a blanket of snow, the waterfalls have transformed into elaborate crystal sculptures, the daffodils hang their heads, the primroses have shrivelled and the wild garlic is deep frozen.
The scene is stunningly beautiful and a few weeks ago I would have revelled in it but now I am feeling cheated as I had persuaded myself that winter was over and was looking forward to a new growing year: a year in which every flower planted performs as gloriously as in the show gardens and catalogues; a year in which pests and diseases miraculously pass over the garden and a year in which the weather does what it’s supposed to when it’s supposed to. Now sitting in front of the fire, trying to rekindle my spring fervour, it is hard to imagine spring will ever return but of course it inevitably will, just as my hopes for predictability and control will inevitably be shattered. Sometimes that will be disappointing but more often than not it will be exciting, exhilarating and throw up something my tiny brain could not have envisaged: the self sown flowers that throw up unimagined but brilliant combinations; the wind felled tree whose absence, though keenly felt, allows long forgotten orchids to reappear; the atypical variant that becomes a next big thing. Unpredictability is in fact the lifeblood of horticulture and is what makes it so thrilling.
Springtime at Endsleigh is always stunning with the rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias flowering throughout the garden. In the dell the aforementioned daffodils, primroses and ramsons are joined by campion, wood anemones and bluebells to create a carpet of wildflowers – and this year the recently planted cascade garden will we hope, look spectacular with its collection of candelabra primulas. The further reaches of the grounds find early purple orchids colonising shaded valley slopes. The more formal areas of the garden are filled with spring flowering bulbs: tulips; ipheion; chionodoxa; camassia; allium; fritillaria and asphedoline jostle for position amongst the emerging shoots of the summer stalwarts. In the parterre tulips will soon be pushing their brightly coloured goblets through the smiley faces of the violas.
Wandering through the dell at this time of year one could be forgiven for believing its beauty is wholly natural. Thereby lies the skill of Humphry Repton, whom the 6th Duke entrusted with improving the garden: for all the cascades; waterfalls; rocky crags and trees clinging precariously to ledges are not there by chance but are the product of careful consideration and artistry. Spring is possibly the best time to experience the dell as Humphry Repton imagined it, with the wildflowers clothing the banks of the streams, cascades and waterfalls and complementing the picturesque details, whilst the surrounding foliage has not yet obscured the views of the layout of the garden. As this year is the 200th anniversary of Repton’s death, what better time is there to experience one of his last major commissions?
Stay for two nights (Sunday-Thursday) from £700 including Champagne on arrival, a candle lit dinner each evening, Afternoon tea in the library one day and tickets to The Garden House.
Legend has it that the duchess Georgiana, feeling homesick for her Scottish homeland, had the landscape at Endsleigh remodelled to remind her of home. Looking out over the valley in midwinter there seems some truth in the story, the Tamar has transformed into an ethereal river of mist snaking along the bottom of the valley. The mixed woodland that covers the hillside opposite is now dominated by the Scots pines as the indigenous ash, oak and beech shed their foliage leaving only a delicate tracery against the low winter sun. Conifer silhouettes line the ridges beyond and the tors of Dartmoor fade away into the swirling mist. Perhaps comparing Dartmoor to the highlands is a little far-fetched but the scene hints at something altogether more Caledonian.
Winter brings a pared down clarity to Repton’s original design, in the summer it is easy to lose oneself amongst the lush foliage, in the winter the structure of the garden becomes clear and the dramatic combinations of rock and water come to the fore. The streams, rills, cascades and waterfalls which during the summer bubble gently down the valley have become raging torrents and crash over boulders and roll over rockfaces to the Tamar beyond. The rockfaces themselves denuded of their verdant summer covering take on the dramatic role in the landscape that Repton originally intended. Even some of the deciduous trees standing naked against the winter sky exhibit their true form, the branches of the champion weeping beech cascade elegantly from the heights into the stream below like a sylvan fountain and the skeletal sillouhette of the Gingko, only recently relieved of its buttery yellow autumn coat, looms large over the garden.
Much of the garden at Endsleigh was planted during the Victorian era and contains many of the conifers which astonished and fascinated the Victorian plant hunters. The giant sequoia towering above the garden at 230ft is a mere child at 150 years old, in its native habitat it can live up to 3000 years, Douglas Firs throughout the garden dwarf the surrounding trees in both their height and their sheer bulk and the monkey puzzles climb out of the canopy rather incongruously, perhaps puzzled at the lack of monkeys. All of these are seen so much more clearly without their summertime competition.
The rarity of flowers at this time of year makes them so much more precious, and the lack of insects means they have to work that much harder to attract pollinators. Some of the winter scents are spectacular and often the perfume hits before the flower is in view prompting a manic search for the source. Mahonia, winter honeysuckle and wichhazel are all plants that advertise their presence long before they come into view. Coming across a Pieris in full flower in December is a site to behold and the New Year is hailed by the snowdrops poking their little white heads out of the ground, a beacon of hope for the new season.
Whilst exploring the grounds it pays to keep your eyes peeled, with the leafy camouflage removed there are glimpses of some of the follies and hideaways which once covered the estate, like the Swiss Cottage on top of a ridge looking down on the Tamar, once the 6th Duke of Bedford’s bolthole, the boatman’s cottage now in ruins on the other side of the river and built by Repton purely to provide a plume of smoke from the chimney to ‘animate the landscape’ or the shell house on a bastion at the end of the lawn not so hidden but in winter offering the views of the river that were originally intended.
It is surprising how much there is still to enjoy at Endsleigh in midwinter and after a long winter walk what better way to reward yourself than a delicious afternoon tea next to a roaring fire or perhaps even a dram of single malt in honour of the Scottish duchess?
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Season of Mists &
By Ben Ruscombe-King
Whilst I’ve been waiting for summer to start autumn has rather crept up on me. This morning it had well and truly arrived – with hints of red berries and yellow leaves peeking out from the swirling Devon mist, the drive lined with crisp autumn leaves and squirrels scurrying in and out of view as they collect their winter horde with a sudden urgency. I love autumn and would definitely elect it as my favourite season but for it being the precursor to the dark months of winter. Far from being the end of the growing season, autumn in the garden heralds several weeks when the senses are almost impossibly overloaded: flowers are still abundant, trees and shrubs still hold their form but added to the mix are the golden hues and fiery tints and – with the sun lower in the sky – everything seems to glow. The sound quality of autumn is somehow different as well, with sound carrying further and reverberating longer and – whilst spring and summer are certainly not short on scents – autumn has a smell that is unmistakable, all its own and a little heady and invigorating, just enough for the final push before curling up for winter hibernation.
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Wandering around the dell the first little hints of autumn are beginning to creep in, the acers have touches of their autumn hues when viewed with the sun behind, a little hint of the neon-like display still to come. A few Darmera peltata leaves have started to redden, the Euonymus too are colouring up – they are covered in their peculiar fruit and await the ‘second flowering’ when the pink pods open to reveal the bright orange seeds beneath – a daring combination that faint hearted gardeners would never contemplate but when witnessed works so well. One Enkianthus in the rockery has already hit full firepower but we still have much to come with Liriodendrons, Taxodiums, Aralias, Gingkos, deciduous azaleas, not to mention numerous Japanese Acers, all about to produce their dazzling displays.
The long border is as good as I’ve seen it at this time of year and is positively bursting with flowers: the late season stalwarts Sedum, Aster, Perovskia and Ceratostigma make up the backbone of the border through the end of the season but Gaura, Eupatorium, Persicaria, and Kalimeris are still flowering strongly – while Salvias, Verbena, Knautia and Ammi pop their heads up here and there to add height and froth. The blues, purples and burgundies give the border a regal air but Alstromeria and helianthus appear at intervals to stop it becoming too affected. In the rear, the roses on the rose walk are still valiantly flowering – though not in the vast swathes of high summer – and are now joined by rose hips to remind us that our dead heading left a little to be desired.
Predicting autumn colour is notoriously difficult with so many climatic and cultural factors to take into account, it took me several goes to catch Westonbirt arboretum in its full glory but it was certainly worth it when I did. At Endsleigh we usually expect the best colour as October ends but I have a feeling it’s going to be earlier this year as things are certainly happening already.
Autumn is certainly the most atmospheric and perhaps romantic time of year and in a garden already as romantic and atmospheric as Endsleigh a visit at this time of year will certainly offer a bounty for the senses.
The Rose Walk
Takes Centre Stage
By Ben Ruscombe-King
As the summer approaches at Endsleigh the long border comes to the fore. All through the spring it has waited and watched as the wilder areas captivate visitors with their dazzling displays of wildflowers, bluebells, orchids, wild garlic, campion and all, knowing that soon its turn will come and as the spring wild flowers fade, it will be the belle of the ball.
Already the Alliums, Asphedoline, Geraniums, Campanulas etc. are bursting forth and as we move into June they will be joined by Verbascum, ‘yellow’ hot pokers, Agapanthus, Tradescantia x andersonia hybrids, Anthemis tinctoria, Penstemon, Salvias, bearded irises to name but a few. Then of course there are the prima donnas in the form of Paeonies, fabulous but fleeting, one sometimes wonders why one gives them space given such a short flowering period, then they flower and all is forgiven. This is all set off against a froth of annuals such as Ammi majus with its white umbels and spreading perennials like Knautia macedonica and Gaura lindheimeri. The borders are not too tightly controlled and some self seeding is allowed, foxgloves and red campion creep in, but are (not too) ruthlessly culled before too much seed is dropped, annuals are also added to the gaps left by Camassias and the like, who annoyingly leave the party just as it is getting going.
In the latter half of June and into July the Rose Walk takes centre stage. To the rear of the long border, a hundred metre long arch bedecked in scented roses offers a sensory overload, and once again the hours of pruning and cosseting are forgiven as the heady scent and plethora of blooms attracts admiration from all.
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The parterre will be stripped at the beginning of June which always seems rather ungrateful, as the wallflowers will still be valiantly flowering away. This year it will be filled with some 2000 Salvia harmonium for the summer display, this fits very well with Repton’s original intention for the parterre as a children’s playground, as the salvia will soon outgrow small children and turn the whole parterre into a miniature maze. Add to that the fountain, rills and lions’ heads and there are hours of fun to be had, of course for the more mature visitor it is also the perfect spot for a long lazy breakfast or afternoon tea.
During the summer months the dell undergoes a transformation from picturesque English valley to seething jungle as the gunnera turns the open walks at the bottom of the valley into ominous tunnels for the adventurous guest to explore, its huge and somewhat menacing leaves tower over the paths, blocking out the sun, the garden staff have to patrol with machetes in hand to keep the paths open, the picture is very different to that of the spring.
At this time of year the rills, cascades and waterfalls have to be carefully managed to keep them all flowing and I get to relive my childhood as I leap into the stream to build a dam here or divert a channel there. We have recently cleared a cascade on the east side of the dell and have unearthed a set of steps and walkway through it, which again ignites my childish curiosity. We hope to reinstate the path at some point when we have more detailed evidence, so that we can do it sympathetically to the original plans and have already started to replant the area with primulas and other moisture loving plants. The collection of some thousand plants looked huge in our yard but now in situ looks sadly insignificant, they’ll increase in time and we’ll grow on some more for next year. As people keep reminding me there’s more than one lifetime’s work in the gardens at Endsleigh.
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‘Now is Pretty Good’
By Ben Ruscombe-King
The gardens at Endsleigh are now reaching their spring crescendo, with everything bursting into life so fast that every day offers a reunion with an old friend forgotten over the winter months. The Dell Garden is breathtaking with bluebells, ramsons, primroses and red campion battling to fill every available space (and early purple orchids if you know where to look). The Rhododendrons and Azaleas are now reaching full throttle with their colour saturation well and truly turned up to eleven and many of the Magnolias are in full bloom in their far more understated way. And the scent, oh the scent… the only word is intoxicating.
The Gunnera are starting to push forth their primordial leaves, whilst Osmunda regalis (the Royal Fern) unfurl their croziers and the giant Bamboo shoots burst from the ground with an almost unseemly energy, one begins to get a glimpse of the jungle that will unfold into the summer months.
The whole garden has taken on the spring green hue that is only experienced at this time of year and is so energising and just as well it is, as it also heralds that time of year when all the jobs that need to be done around the garden need to be done immediately. We are currently renovating a cascade in the dell and have some 500 primulas to plant out but currently have no prepared ground in which to plant them, they are all bursting into bloom in our yard where no-one will see them.
In the formal garden the tulips are still hanging on and whilst the border is not yet at its best the promise of what’s soon to come is tantalising. Camassia, Euphorbias, Asphedoline are all in flower and the buds of the alliums are swelling ready for their May firework display. The rose arch is covered in buds ready for the summer flowering and the Clematis montana is in full flow.
The parterre is looking fantastic, with the green and white flowered tulip ‘Green Star’ and cream wallflower ‘Ivory White’ set against the backdrop of the floriferous white flowered Wisteria, it is a sea of vestal purity and makes the bedding out of 3000 plants and bulbs seem well worth it.
This is certainly a magical time at Endsleigh with so much bursting into life, however whatever time of year I’m asked ‘when is the best time to come to Endsleigh?’ I invariably hear myself saying ‘now is pretty good’.