Article in ‘Cumbria Life’ magazine. July 2012 ‘A COTTAGE GARDEN WITH STYLE’

A feature in Cumbria Life magazine July 2012.


Text: Tim Longville.

Sometimes downsizing can be painful. Sometimes it can be a positive relief. Sometimes it can even produce its own new and quite different kinds of pleasure.

Helen Holmes’ previous Appleby house, for example, was Castle Bank, whose garden was the subject of a Cumbria Life article some years ago. That was a big house with a big garden. And its three acres were so densely planted and so oddly shaped that when she had the local band playing in the garden on Open Days, ‘Visitors only knew they were there because they could hear them!’ In 2006, however, she decided that both house and garden were simply too big for her to cope with any longer. So she swapped imposing Castle Bank for a pretty but modest eighteenth century stone cottage, Church View, opposite the church in Bongate, and three acres of garden for two fifths of an acre, ‘at most.’


There is a small front garden but most of the land rises steeply behind the house to the boundary stone wall running along Back Lane. There were some good perimeter trees including a pair of purple-leaved Prunus, a variegated Norway Maple and a dawn redwood, planted by Beechcroft Nurseries, which specialises in trees and shrubs. But those apart the rest was just, says Helen, ‘rough grass and a large patch of rhubarb’

There was terracing behind the house, ‘but not a plant in it,’ and along the right-hand boundary was a huge overgrown Leylandii hedge.’ Everything felt enclosed and airless,’ she remembers. ‘Looking out of the kitchen window you felt as though you were in a prison.’ And originally the grassy slope was so steep and slippery that she couldn’t walk down it without serious danger to life and limb!

Fortunately, help was at hand. Plantsman and landscape gardener Ian Huckson, of English Country Gardens Cumbria, who had previously worked to rescue the garden  at Castle Bank, took on the complete re-design of her new garden at Church View. She jokes that in fact, ‘He’s sort of adopted it or at least taken it under his wing!’

It was only in 2007, though, that work could begin. Then, out went all the grass and weeds, the slope was regraded, the Leylandii hedge reduced to a sensible size, a new sandstone wall, 22 metres long, was built, and finally roughly diagonal gravelled paths were constructed across the regraded slope, running in effect from bottom left towards top right, in order to make going up and coming down much easier. So much for the ‘bones’ of the re-designed back garden. But if Helen was pleased with those bones, and she was, she was even more pleased with the ‘flesh’ Ian has since put on them. ‘He’s a good designer anyway,’ she says, ‘but above all I like the fact that he designs with the plants in mind, and chooses places for them that they will enjoy and in which they will flourish.’


The whole idea of the garden, she says, was that it should feel like ‘a cottage garden’ but ‘a modern cottage garden.’ So it is clearly ‘designed,’ which a traditional cottage garden wasn’t. On the other hand, its dense and layered planting-style (‘There are just so many plants here now,’ was Helen’s delighted comment) is in effect a sophisticated form of cottage garden planting.

And, as in a traditional cottage garden, there are no big gestures, such as formal hedges or ‘single colour’ borders. Instead, there is an almost endless series of intricately designed ‘little episodes,’ not of a single colour but of related colours and tones, or involving different interestingly varied foliage-forms, all of which knit together into a colourful and intriguing patchwork. The idea, as Ian himself puts it, was to create ‘coherent layers of colour, texture and interest.’

But at the same time he has also managed to create views and vistas, despite the small enclosed space he had to deal with. The secret, he insists, is that ‘the planting must be bold!’ That means not being afraid to use sizeable plants, repeating key plants in different parts of the garden, and sometimes using smaller plants in sizeable blocks.

So bold grasses, such as Stipa gigantea and the variegated reed grass, Calamagrostis ‘Overdam,’ are used to tie together parts of the main central bed. That, incidentally, is given added interest by being divided in two by a ‘river-like’ gravel path, which widens mid-way to allow the planting of a new specimen of the 19th.Century, dual-purpose apple,’ James Grieve’, in homage to the elderly apple-trees surviving from the garden’s past as a traditional cottage garden.

For the same ‘tying-together’ purpose, that fine old bearded iris, ‘Jane Phillips,’ pops up here and there in several of the borders, while at lower levels there are multi-coloured pools of astrantias, from white to deep red, and rivulets of small geraniums, in pink and red. Even at the lowest level, there are bold little splashes of colour and texture to catch the eye. Beside a left-hand path from the central bed, for instance, is a run of the prostrate golden grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ while beside the right-hand path from the same bed is a similar run of the equally prostrate black grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens.’


If all this sounds as though the garden is all Ian’s – a perception Helen sometimes seems positively anxious to encourage – he has, on the other hand carefully catered to her own particular plant passions, which is why the garden has what she gleefully describes as ‘whole piles’ of daylilies and poppies. And just as certainly the garden now provides what she initially asked for. That is, ‘Colour and interest all the year round.’ In fact, she adds, ‘When visitors come round the corner into the back garden, they just can’t believe it.’

Soon they’ll have even more to be astonished by, since Helen has decided that down-sizing can go too far! So she’s bought the cottage next door and by the time you read this Ian will be hard at work not only transforming that garden but also joining it to the one at Church View. Definitely a case of ‘watch that space’ – which, knowing Ian, won’t be ‘just a space’ for very long!

See also: 

Church View Gardens will be open to the public under the NGS  charity on

the third Wednesday of each month, June to October inclusive, 2014

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