Formal garden at Herterton House
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The making of a garden is a curious sort of story. It has a clear beginning, but no inherent end. Gardens are never finally made. Bits of them perish and other bits flourish, suggesting new combinations and new ideas. More plants come on sale or into view and each new prospect leads to another. The story spans its owner’s lifetime, ending only in sale or death. Like life, it is a process, held together by those who actually garden the space involved.

In Northumberland, northern England, Wallington Hall was once the private home of the cultured Trevelyans and is now in the care of the National Trust. In their nearby farmhouse, Herterton, which is rented from the trust, Frank and Marjorie Lawley have been making and tending a deeply considered acre of garden for almost 40 years. I am one of the many admirers of its striving for unity without repetition and its exceptionally subtle use of shapes and colours. Now Frank has given us a full story of its making. He tells it with unusual clarity and aptness. His book, Herterton House and a New Country Garden, is unmissable, a simple but penetrating account of a home and garden’s formation and the Lawleys’ gradual realisation of both. It extends from Frank’s childhood as son of a worker in a bicycle factory in Staffordshire, a committed socialist, through art college and his meeting with his talented future wife, Marjorie, daughter of the stonemason on the Wallington estate. “After six weeks of urgent work in a sausage factory I had accumulated a capital of twenty-five pounds . . . ” As art students, the Lawleys cast around for the forms in which to work. To their surprise they hit on gardening, working and learning around their first home, a small cottage at Wallington itself. In 1975 they took on the tottering farmhouse at nearby Herterton and in a formative afternoon’s walk, conceived its basic garden design. Most of what the Lawleys have done is the result of principled planning and preliminary drawing. Their story leads on to intricate knot designs and a new stone gazebo, eyes alert to the patterns on carpets, the example of painters like Mondrian or Matisse, and then visits from Graham Thomas, busy at nearby Wallington, and, eventually, visits from an appreciative Christopher Lloyd. There is even a record of a lunch with the ageing Hardy Amies. As I too can testify, he had as skilled an eye for a garden’s design as for the design of a royal evening dress.

One theme of the book is “being in the right place at the right time”. After such a span, the Lawleys unite a tapestry which is unrepeatable: socialist beginnings, craftwork, college education and contact with the cultured milieu of the Trevelyans through that hospitable family’s days of open house. Nowadays they would probably begin by watching television programmes, succumbing, but only at first, to the presenters’ wound-up enthusiasm, buying colour magazines and engaging with photographs of ornamental grasses. Instead their watchword has been simplicity. The book is oblivious to the RHS and to fashions at the Chelsea Flower Show. It is partly formed by older writings, such as Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, or the 1931 book by Christopher Lloyd’s father, Nathaniel, titled A History of the English House. It is also an inspiring witness to the value of travel in England and visits to houses which open for the public. Frank observes that the late 1950s were still a time when free travel was possible for couples hitching a lift. The Lawleys gained from this freedom, a couple of young strangers who were never dangers. The book is a testimony to enduring values, to continuing self-education and a profit from houses grander than a visitor’s own.

Marjorie Lawley tending lovage

In the genre of garden-making books, a classic is still Margery Fish’s We Made A Garden from 1956. It recounts the making of her garden at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset with her partner, Walter, later her husband, whom she met and first loved while they both were working on the Daily Mail. The young Lawleys duly went south in their caravan on a summer holiday to meet Fish and visit her garden. Frank reprints Marjorie’s intriguingly annotated copy of Fish’s typed nursery list. It recalls how she would wrap up plants in brown paper, at prices from a mere one shilling and sixpence to an occasional three-and-six, and include extra pieces for visitors whom she wanted to encourage. When the Lawleys began their own nursery, all from their own homegrown stock, Fish’s style and her lowly pricing were models for their own. Plants bought at Herterton are still wrapped in brown paper. There were, however, differences. Frank rightly recalls that Fish’s garden was “incomprehensible”, a jumble of plants from many sources. Herterton is no such thing. Fish’s book also played memorably on the contrary taste and tasks of weekending Walter, despite whom Fish “dared” to make the garden in her style, not his. By contrast the Lawleys, without children, have worked as a team. Marjorie’s detailed planting plans are a mainstay of the book. Her wheelbarrowing and daily work are crucial to a garden that began from a farm field. Unlike Fish, she well sees the potential of a plant in isolation. Frank rightly insists that repetition of the same plants in each section of a tightly conceived plan would be “boring”. He never wanted the then fashionable garden “rooms”.

Herterton’s plan unites a twisted green knot garden, called the “fancy” after an old word for embroidery, another Lawley skill. Its home-designed gazebo “echoes” the style of the house on whose main axis it stands, in keeping with Renaissance principles. Its area of coloured flowers tracks the changing shades of the summer sky, through pearly poppies to a superb central sunny-orange Lilium croceum. To Frank’s sharp eye, the pink of the pink-flowered Aconitum is the “colour of nostalgia” and as we edge into August, the grey-mauve petals of the old roses “fall like tears, regretting the passing of summer”. Everywhere, the framing of a bed or formal pattern has been carefully planned, whether in blue-green box or the small Elliot’s Variety of pink-flowered London Pride. Frank has the painterly eye of an able watercolourist, the intricate eye of a connoisseur of Persian patterned carpets and the eye of an architect, formed by travel, reading and the National Trust. Throughout the garden, his design asserts an underlying control of all its subparts and gives it the unity that Fish could never achieve.

Could such a garden have been conceived and sustained in the strident, high-consuming south-east of England? I think not and, although it is a long trek from London, it is worth the excursion to see what critical thinking and principled design can sustain in only an acre. The garden, as Frank modestly explains, has evolved from an entire cultural tapestry of postwar England. As Simon Jenkins, the former chairman of the National Trust, exclaimed while visiting, it should belong in the trust’s care as a companion to nearby Wallington. Gifts to help its future would nudge the trust to take the final steps.

Frank’s book is also about “house and home”. The Lawleys look on their house through eyes formed by The Wind In The Willows, a shared passion of their youth, and especially the original drawings of genius for Badger at home. Furniture at Herterton is sometimes judged by standards set by Badger’s house. “In the autumn the studio begins to remind us of one of Badger’s storerooms . . . ” If only Badger built such thoughtful front doors and interiors in our gardens when he decides to tunnel an uninvited home.

‘Herterton House and A New Country Garden’ (2015) by Frank Lawley, published by Pimpernel Press, £30

Photographs: Val Corbett/Pimpernell Press

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