As I turn off the busy main road south of Usk, into the country lane which, the directions promise, will lead me to Allt-y-Bela, the Monmouthshire house of garden designer Arne Maynard, my courage begins to waver at the edges.
I am driving down a very long, isolated country lane, negotiating potholes and the leaves of eight foot tall native hedges that brush both sides of the car as I edge my way forward gingerly, round bends and curves that make me hold my breath.
And then suddenly I see it. The parchment coloured 16th Century tower and farmhouse are revealed behind a row of yew obelisks, heralding my arrival, separating the Welsh wilderness from the imposing homestead.
I think back to a paragraph in one of Arne’s articles, written in the June 2011 edition of Gardens Illustrated magazine, where he writes a monthly feature:
“My topiary trees are like characters at a party. Some congregate in small groups, some stand alone; but they are all doing what I want them to do: acting as sentinels at entrances or markers at particular points. The house is a tall Elizabethan tower house, and it is important for me that the topiary gives its connection to that period.”
The physical importance of this entrance is clear, and I am still thinking about the notion of journey and arrival as I sit drinking coffee with Arne and his partner of 27 years, the dental surgeon William Collinson.
They describe to me the journey that brought them here, from having renovated Guanock House, a manorial property in Lincolnshire, replete with 15 sprawling acres that Arne designed, planted and nurtured for 15 years. While living in their flat in London, in the City, where William’s dental practise is located, a serendipitous flicking through Country Life magazine brought to their attention the sale of the Welsh hall house that the Spitalfields Trust had saved from dereliction between the years 2001-2005.
The 15th Century single story house, with its cruck frame, mullion windows and leaded lights, along with its Renaissance Tower, granary, outbuildings and five acres of land, were bought by Arne and William four years ago, and they have dedicated a prodigious amount of energy working on their most ambitious landscaping, planting and interior design challenge to date.
“It is only just now that the garden and the house have really begun to feel like home. We absolutely love living here, we never want to move and we love sharing it with friends, guests and students but it has taken a great deal of hard work to feel so settled”, confessed Arne. The journeys of life, at times, are best viewed from the benefit of peaceful hindsight rather than the drama of present toil and quest.
Once they had secured the purchase of Allt-y-Bela and moved in, the plan of attack on the garden schedule of work began at the back of the house. Here the land bank came right down to the actual walls of the house, sloping from the back hill on a continuous gradient, bringing surface water to rest by the back elevations.
“The house could not breathe,” explained William. “We had to excavate the soil and remove tons of soil, securing the bank which now forms this sinuous grass curve. It could almost be an outdoor theatre now.” In fact there are plans to stage arts weeks, plays and maybe even operatic productions in the future.
Arne is the master of creating gardens that connect houses and landscapes, looking at the setting of vernacular architecture and framing it within a holistic composition, always leading the eye beyond the immediate and into the natural landscape that contextualises the narrative of the house. This common theme also informs the philosophy of the courses he teaches at Allt-y-Bela, from “Creating a sense of place” to “A kitchen garden in depth” and “Orchards and wild flower meadows”. He works in an idiom that is, at times, traditional and classic, and at other times very individual and personal.
An archaic shepherd’s drove weaves its path from domestic lawn to wild pastures, oxeye daisies, tall grass, medlars and quince trees rising in the distant land. In the mid vision he has planted the culinary engine room of Allt-y-Bela: the raised kitchen garden.
Enclosed by willow panels, and set out in long rectangular raised beds, the dark red, rich clay soil of the kitchen garden has been mixed with horticultural grit and compost, for improved aeration and drainage. We stop to look at standard gooseberry bushes, heavy with fruit. Arne says that by using standards you can maximise space, as well as introducing height and punctuation. Redcurrants, tree onions, fresh herbs, salads, beans, chard, and spinach are all in their prime, and we are all thinking about our lunch.
Arne says that to be a truly organic gardener you should only buy organic seed or save your own, as this is the best way you can guarantee the genetic purity of what you are eating. He has plans for an outdoor oven for making breads and grilling meat, as well as more meadow and orchard planting, dry stone walls and rambling roses to clamber and spill over the trees that flank the driveway.
Jackie and Ian, the two part-time gardeners that help manage the garden, are talking about how the colour combinations of the young cutting garden seem to be working successfully. The velvet red and black oriental poppy heads dot the subdued canvas as we meander across the billowing rose, peony, lupin, allium and campanula paths, which criss-cross their way to the steps that lead down to the auricula theatre and a long wooden workbench lined with serried rows of terracotta long tom planters. Arne has filled them with martagon lilies, and when in flower they will be brought into the house to rest on window sills.
Allt-y-Bela offers Bed and Breakfast accommodation, and cut flowers are placed in every room when there are guests staying, or when Arne is teaching a gardening course in his newly renovated granary studio in front of the house.
On the back elevation it is difficult to believe that the planting is so young, the feel is one of maturity and establishment. The Elizabethan thread of reference from the house to the garden continues by planting structured box framed borders that are then filled with a profusion of soft, delicate flowers juxtaposed with striking architectural perennial planting. Towering Valeriana Cannabinum shoots its ivory flower heads to the heavens, while the David Austin rose “The Generous Gardener” fills the middle canvas with arching foliage and cupped blush pink petals. White fox gloves and blue aconitum are in bud, pearlescent Geranium Phaeum “album” is in flower and Euphorbia Palustris provides a shock of lemony green clusters amidst a more sombre, darker backdrop. A trellis of hazel branches, tied together with cables and secured to guttering clamps, provides a nail-free climbing frame for roses.
Despite the almost ascetic, monastic feel of the house, there is a celebratory, gentle, English patio garden feel to the planting at the front: pleached fruit trees provide a screen from the driveway and are underplanted with species tulips, alliums, Souvenir de la Malmaison and Cardinal Richelieu roses, violas, pasque flowers and self seeded volunteer valeriana bonariensis between the paving cracks. Hazel wigwam structures add support and a sense of repetition amongst the planting.
The winters in this part of the English-Welsh borders are bitterly cold, with temperatures reaching as low as minus 19 degrees Celsius. Arne has given up trying to grow lavender and rosemary, and believes that a greenhouse would not sit comfortably in this landscape.
As you step into the kitchen flagstone threshold, your eyes are already attuned to the muted, earthy palette that underpins the aesthetic continuum linking garden and house. Indoors woodwork has been painted a matt, leathery brown, with pale limewashes, mirrors and bare oak wood beams adding light and softness. Both Arne and William are self-confessed collectors, and throughout the house the testimony of their eclectic buying tastes and prolific decorating activities can be seen: a stone urn from Clifton Nurseries, where Arne used to work, artisanal lamps and shades from Marianne Kennedy’s workshop in Spitalfields, a naïve mural from Cornelia O’Donovan, Delft hand painted plates and tiles, artwork and sculptures.
When Bed and Breakfast guests come to stay their preferred room is always the snug: with book lined walls, magazines on coffee tables, roaring log fires and squashy, deep sofas it is easy to understand why. Guest bedrooms are all spacious and comfortable, evoking the Elizabethan love of needlepoint, botanical imagery, dark furniture and carved wood. The bathrooms are particularly striking, with elegant claw foot bath tubs, old taps, ceramic bowls and books to read while you relax in the bath.
From each window the landscape draws your vision out and over the rolling, long vistas, nowhere more so than going up the mast newell staircase, which held the entire tower together when part of its walls and ceilings collapsed during the decades when the house had been abandoned. Swallops dart and swoop in front of the windows, nesting under the eaves, their call and the lowing of distant cattle the only sounds you hear.
Without doubt the undisputed heart of Allt-y-Bela is the kitchen. When the garden’s harvest is over Arne and William visit the farmers’ markets in Usk and Monmouth, and talk vividly about their local suppliers and favourite places to eat. In a back corridor an entire wooden shelving rack pays homage to their preserving prowess, and on kitchen dressers, on book shelves and in drawers are the familiar tell-tale signs of keen cooks.
William has made bucatini pasta with his Kitchen Aid attachment ring: “I am now going to give you serious Kitchen Aid attachment envy!” he declares, opening a drawer which is filled to the gunnels with every possible grater, cutter, roller and extruder.
The works of Marcella Hazan and Yotam Ottolenghi have proved to be inspirational, as have the years of travelling round the world and meeting a whole myriad of foodie gardeners from all nationalities and walks of life.
We sit down to a lunch of pasta with pan fried garlic and spinach, baked tomatoes with basil and a balsamic dressing and a fresh salad from the garden.
The most poignant part of the day was listening to Arne talk about his career and influences. He studied architecture at Oxford Polytechnic, but just before he was due to take his last exams he decided that this was not his true calling. He always had “an eye” for beauty, and spent his formative childhood growing plants and gardening in other people’s gardens. It was the early years working for Clifton Nurseries in London that persuaded him to try to carve a career in garden design, but getting commissions early on proved quite challenging. An early patron, David Abbott, saw the potential in him, and to this day has been one of his most longstanding and loyal clients.
“Most of my clients have been with me throughout my twenty three year career,” said Arne. “Clients sometimes move house, or decide to buy another property abroad, but my team and I are always asked to re-design their new garden, because we already know what they like, and what works for their lifestyle. The garden is such an important and personal extension of the home, it is a common language that unites everyone and it forms part of the unfolding biography of a person as well as the story of their house. Nowadays, growing food is at the very top of clients’ lists when they commission a garden. When you take a new client, who has never felt any association with the soil or engagement with nature, and you show them the cycle of the seasons and how easy it is to grow radishes, salads, new potatoes and young broad beans, you so often set someone on this new path of discovery and passion. You create a connection, which often lasts for the rest of their lives.”
He is quite adamant that in order to be a good garden designer, fluent in the creative prose of form, colour, function and structure, you need to be a gardener first and foremost.
“If I had to give advice to young people who are interested in entering the professional world of horticulture, then I would say this: get gardening. Practise and work with plants and with the soil, preferably by working in a plant nursery, or volunteering to work in other people’s gardens. Of course you could go and do a design course, for example, at the Chelsea Physic Garden, The English Gardening School or the Royal Horticultural Society, but above all you must focus on the practical side. Learn about plants: they are, and always will be, your vocabulary.”
Arne Maynard Garden Design Ltd: www.arnemaynard.com
Allt-y-Bela Bed and Breakfast: www.alltybela.co.uk