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Top Topiary at Rodmarton

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"Rodmarton Summer House, Cotswolds, England" by Julia Maudlin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

David Wheeler hails the gardens at Rodmarton

In 1989, writing a book about Cotswold gardens, I interviewed Mary Biddulph, widowed chatelaine of Rodmarton Manor near Cirencester, a mere five miles from where I grew up.

Born in 1909, Mary was no longer the sprightly gardener long responsible for the magnificent upkeep of the garden at what Ruskin- and Morris-influenced architect Charles Ashbee described as ‘the single best example [of a house] of the Arts and Crafts movement’.

It was built in the early-20th century by brothers Ernest and Sidney Barnsley and completed by Ernest’s son-in-law Norman Jewson – a trio of virtuoso architect-craftsmen whose fingerprints are impressed upon many a fine Cotswold building.

Poor Mary was laid up, unable to walk, suffering severe effects from a horsefly sting. Nevertheless, she was sprightly of mind and was her usual, thoroughly competitive self. When I told her we’d just come from spending the morning with Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House, she demanded to know what Rosemary had in flower that Rodmarton hadn’t.

I’ve revisited Rodmarton several times since, and I was there again before Christmas, planning an Arts and Crafts garden tour of the Cotswolds later in 2020 for readers of the gardening quarterly Hortus. The Manor remains in the Biddulph family, run now by Mary’s grandson John and his wife, Sarah. And it remains outstanding.

Ernest Barnsley memorably stated, ‘One of the most important elements of ornamental gardening is the dividing-up and diversifying [of] a given area … by grouping trees to form retired glades, open lawns, shaded alleys and well-selected margins of woods.’ (Echoes there of that Rothschild fellow who once began a speech by saying, ‘No garden, however small, should contain less than two acres of rough woodland.’)

But there were acres aplenty at remote Rodmarton in the early-20th century. Barnsley’s garden design details were executed by William Scrubey. Scrubey’s name lives on at Rodmarton. Chiselled into stone above a gateway are the Latin words ‘W SCRUBEY HORTORUM CULTOR [head gardener]’.

Burnished now by a 90-year-old patina and a maturity of trees and yew topiary, the garden remains faithful to Barnsley’s original concept. Those retired glades, open lawns and shaded alleys continue to excite present-day garden-makers and allow visitors to scrutinise a blueprint central to the Arts and Crafts ideal: formality and a harking back to Tudor and Jacobean design principles.

Ernest Barnsley’s own garden at Upper Dorval House can be glimpsed from nearby Sapperton’s St Kenelm’s churchyard. The Barnsley brothers and Ernest Gimson (‘the greatest of the English architect-designers’, said Nikolaus Pevsner) are buried there. You can see the same signature components – the same finely-cut yew topiary that distinguishes Rodmarton – and you can imagine a perhaps tired Mr B traipsing home after a long day’s slog at the Manor to create a bit of the same for himself.

Yew – and, where it survives, box – topiary was essential to Arts and Crafts garden stylists. It endures in our own garden on the Welsh border, planted a decade before Rodmarton’s. While we don’t exactly fight to see which of us can best maintain its elegant forms, we nevertheless insist on its preservation and meticulous appearance.

Classical or whimsical, these living sculptures animate a garden like nothing else. At Rodmarton, they reign supreme.


This story was from February 2020 issue. Subscribe Now