The Gardens

ntroduced by Veronica Mackinnon

I can never quite decide whether I would rather be standing in the gardens of West Woodhay House looking out over the stunning views of rolling chalk downland and the mirror-calm lake, or whether the vista from the church looking down to the house is a better option for it is surely one of the most handsome in England. Either way, it is not only a stunning spot, but from a gardening point of view, a rare combination of free-draining chalky soil and a belt of acid clay that allows a vast range of plants to be grown in the extensive and diverse gardens.

Today, the gardens are beautifully tended by head gardener Pete Jackman and his team but they have not always been so well manicured. After the war, the lawns had turned to hayfields when the house was occupied by the army. In 1950, owner Johnny Henderson employed famous plants man James Russell from the Sunningdale Nursery to advise on the restoration work. Scented azaleas were placed in the mature woodlands and drifts of Iris kaemferi planted round the lake. The gardens were loved once more.

Johnny’s son Harry (and wife Sarah and family) moved into West Woodhay House in 1995 and the gardens have been enhanced and improved greatly from that time. First, the little courtyard outside the kitchen on the east side of the house was rearranged to incorporate a statue obtained locally, and some colour was added by planting up this previously gloomy space.

Harry’s next project was somewhat more ambitious. The existing lake was fed by a small stream that ran from a wood down to the lake in a straight ditch. With immense foresight and after several years spent seeking the appropriate planning consents, the garden was extended to include this stream which was dug into three new lakes.

Because of the existing clay, no liners were needed and a pump circulates a good flow of water from the main lake to the top of the new pools which cascade and gurgle from one into the next. Around has been planted an Arboretum stuffed with interesting trees and shrubs, based on the theme of ‘Bark and Berries’. Unusual species include snake-bark and paper-bark maples, yellow-berried hollies, several varieties of birch and many more. Harry continues to add to this fascinating collection.

The walled garden had produced fruit and vegetables for the house for many years but was re-designed some four years ago to incorporate new borders, rose beds and shrubberies as well. Two ornamental fruit cages were constructed and the existing layout ‘tweaked’ to allow easy management of what has become one of the largest cutting gardens around. The shrub borders contain varieties that have interesting flowers or foliage and will be eventually used by florists as well as for the house. The central herbaceous borders that run much of the length of the garden are for show and are planted with pink, mauve, silver, plum and washed out violet colours, backed by lolly-pop whitebeams and Hydrangea quercifolia. A central glass sculpture by Neil Wilkin adds a twinkling dimension to this part of the gardens.

The most recent restoration has been undertaken in the rose garden to the west of the house.

‘Iceberg’ roses and catmint complement another Wilkin glass sculpture – This one is blue and white to correspond with the planting scheme.

There is much to see and delight in at West Woodhay House. It has something for everyone of all ages, for the amateur gardener or the expert horticulturalist alike. You cannot fail to enjoy the lovely gardens, and to marvel at the captivating beauty of the house and its situation.