Stourton House Flower Garden

PUBLISHED: 15:28 31 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013

Manicured hedge

Manicured hedge

Author Jess Wynn visits a garden that doesn't conform to the norm.

Stourton Flower Garden may be overshadowed by its larger cousin at Stourhead, but it is by no means in its shade. But if you expect flowers and beds manicured to within an inch of their life, think again - it's a garden lover's garden with a wonderful tea shop to boot.

Wiltshire is a county steeped in history and renowned for its glorious countryside. It is also the setting for several of the UK's finest gardens. Famous 18th-century landscape gardener Capability Brown stamped his mark on the impressive gardens of stately homes Bowood and Longleat, and few could fail to be enchanted by the celebrated garden at Stourhead, with its tranquil lake and spectacular vistas. It may come as a surprise then to find that nestled right next door to this goliath of gardens is Stourton House - small, unobtrusive, and in danger of being completely forgotten.

Owner Elizabeth Bullivant notes that her tea rooms, with their incredible-looking cakes made using flower petals, and delicious cream teas, often tempt in Stourhead visitors. However, they are not always so keen to see yet another garden quite so soon and ignore this little four-and-a-half acre gem.

Whilst I'm not one to knock the spiritual and restorative benefits of a cream tea, it's impossible not to feel saddened that the garden rarely receives the attention it deserves, despite having featured several times on television programmes. Elizabeth is a leading authority on drying flowers, having also written books on the subject, and Stourton has so much to offer with plenty here that you are unlikely to see elsewhere.

Stourton House was originally a rectory with derelict gardens when it was bought by Anthony and Elizabeth Bullivant 45 years ago. The couple threw themselves into transforming the grounds, clearing two tennis courts and a chicken pen, and adding an unusual leylandii hedge (simply because it was quick-growing) and eight herbaceous borders. It can be folly to attempt to control the natural world as the pair were well aware, converting disasters into striking features such as the pond created out of the hole left when a huge beech tree fell.

Today the leylandii hedges, at over 12 foot tall, are magnificent and Stourton House has a real country garden feel with its delphinium and rose-covered walks. Despite its cosy atmosphere, Stourton House is a world away from its landscaped neighbour; you never quite know what to expect here. All sorts of curiosities are concealed in the nooks and crannies of this garden. Take one winding path through the woodland area and you might see rare camellias with two colours on the same bush, or flowers half one colour and half another. Delve deeper and watch out for smatterings of distinctive, chequered, snake's head fritillaries.

Elizabeth is endlessly knowledgeable about her garden, seemingly familiar with every inch of it, and conversant with the hiding place of every unusual flower, down to the smallest violet. Her horticultural anecdotes are not only informative, they make a visit to Stourton House all the more personal.

Her pride in the garden is obvious when she describes how, in the drought of summer 1976, her lawn remained green whilst those of other gardens were rendered brown and patchy. Her lawn thrived because it has a high ratio of natural plants (such as clover) to grass - another example of how Elizabeth works with her natural environment to get the results she wants. Buttercups and daisies are also allowed to adorn the lawn, and when they do, to the delight of visitors, it is Elizabeth's policy not to mow the grass. Indeed, she actively encourages the growth of wildflowers and her garden is full of very rare wild species. Teasel is one of her favourites. Again this plant proved its worth during that hot summer when everything else was dying. The leaves form a sort of cup structure, collecting the dew for bees, birds and any creature with a serious thirst in the morning.

Elizabeth specialises in spring flowers such as daffodils; the garden features many rare and RHS prize-winning varieties. Yet this is a garden with something of interest all year round. Late summer to autumn is the ideal time to see yet another of Stourton's specialties in full glory. Hydrangeas are a popular component of the beautiful dried flower bouquets that Elizabeth is famous for, and she has no shortage to choose from. With 270 varieties to be discovered, it's quite a collection, from mopheads to lace caps in a surprising range of colours. One of the strangest Hydrangeas on show is 'Ayesha' (also known as Silver Slipper), its flowers clusters of unusual cupped florets. Some have been developed at the garden itself, including a huge Hydrangea verlosa, named 'Anthony Bullivant', which never fails to impress visitors and top horticulturalists.

Every September a spectacular Hydrangea gala is held at Stourton's picturesque church, with over 1,000 flowers from the garden on display. Elizabeth explains. "When Anthony died it was at hydrangea time, and because they were his 'thing', we decorated the church with them. So many people told us it was lovely that it became a regular feature of the church's year."

The garden has many mature trees providing a fine autumnal display, a kaleidoscope of leaf colour. Laden with fruit, the two Kiwi trees, a male and a female, are another unusual feature. Aware of how large they can get, Elizabeth decided to grow them on a support; it looks attractively like a maypole, with the long, winding vines of the kiwi flowing and twisting out like ribbons.

Another highlight at this time of year is the Viburnum plicatum, which grows naturally in horizontal tiers, creating a dramatic layered effect and in September produces masses of berries. This particular variety was cultivated at the garden and has now been officially named 'Elizabeth Bullivant' in her honour.

Elizabeth admits gleefully that she faces all manner of preconceived ideas about gardens and gardening. As she says, "I daren't tell you what some people say about the garden!" Stourton House is not for people who are uptight about tidiness; it is certainly not overly manicured. Elizabeth realises that nature can be messy and she likes to work with nature rather than against it, to give plants room to reach their full maturity and, most importantly, to let them grow where they want to grow.

Stourton House Garden is open until the end of November, 11am until 6pm. (01747 840417

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