Serendipity at Newport House, Almeley, Herefordshire

Newport House and land art created by Kate Raggett

Newport House and land art created by Kate Raggett for the Out of Nature sculpture exhibition

Last weekend we experienced an exciting serendipity in garden visiting. Though knowing it would be a three and a half hour slog in the car and that we would probably pay for it with exhausted children by the end of the following week, we took a deep breath and trekked half way across the country this to visit the Out of Nature sculpture exhibition at Newport House in the deepest depths of Herefordshire. It never occurred to me that I might want to blog about it – I still have a backlog of sites visited in the summer to write about – but it was such a rewarding experience for the children that I felt compelled to allow it to leap the queue. We were drawn by the art rather than the garden, and it was also a very social trip – seeing three lots of friends – so I didn’t really have my garden head on, but the landscape stimulated in unexpected ways.

The kitchen garden at Newport House

The restored gardener’s cottage in the kitchen garden at Newport House

Newport House is a pretty, doll’s house sort of a place. It was built around 1718 and originally set in a typical formal early 18th century landscape with a square pool in front of the house and avenues through the park. What one sees today though owes more to the Victorian period when it was given an Italianate make-over by the designer W.A. Nesfield, who also designed part of the gardens at Castle Howard and was responsible for the mammoth fountain at Witley Court in Worcestershire, (which was apparently once coveted by Bing Crosby, but was too gargantuan to be moved to Hollywood). His efforts at Newport were slightly more modest though.

The present owners of Newport House are putting their estate to excellent use, co-running a project called The Cartshed which allows a wide variety of people, of very different backgrounds, to experience the therapeutic effects of interacting with the natural world, mainly through teaching traditional coppicing and green woodcraft skills, and working in the walled garden. As part of the fundraising to keep the project going, an eclectic exhibition of exciting nature-inspired art is being hosted in the garden and the pub next to the main house until 26th October.

The hot house at Newport House

Children inspecting the new tropical plants in the hot house

out of nature drawing by Kate Raggett

The land drawing by Kate Raggett (and us!) from above

Once kitted out against the grim weather, the children enjoyed zooming up and down paths, as ever; experiencing the contrasting senses of space a historic garden often gives. In places the juxtaposition of art and garden stopped them in their tracks and there were not-quite-smooth marble balls to stroke and pieces described by the three year old as like a stone skateboard to stop and look at, as well as a wacky construction with multicoloured paddles which reminded me of a rowing team up a scaffold tower. But best of all, there was art we could help make. On the lawn in the centre of the main vista between the house and lake, (which would not have been my first choice of location, though I can see why it was chosen), artist Kate Raggett invited visitors to help her create a vibrant, surprisingly colourful piece of land art. We grabbed large flower pots and filled them with our choices of a variety of different seasonal natural materials: slices of wood, pine cones, conkers, orange marigolds, multicoloured gourds, brilliant pink chard stalks, apples, potatoes, purple-grey sage and created our own patterns within sections of a flower shape sketched out by Kate and outlined with sheeps wool to create white(ish) lines. The children were engrossed and the result was stunning. At the end of the day a photo was taken from a cherry-picker and it was a great pleasure to open my email the next morning to find out what it had ended up looking like.

As well as the fun of discovering the garden and making land art, there is – set in a massive sweet chestnut which is probably contemporary with the house – a great tree house, complete with rope swings and a near vertical slide. Though there is very little time left to see the Out of Nature sculpture exhibition, I have a feeling it won’t be the last such event, and the garden is also open under the National Garden Scheme (this year in June and October).


A Visit to 1559: Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Despite the hint of a link with a famous designer (Humphry Repton – great East Anglian and contemporary of Jane Austen – may have worked here), the grounds at Kentwell are not what one might class as a Great Garden in the same way as Stowe or Kew, or to get nearer the period, Hampton Court; there are no grand design gestures here. But they do provide a perfect setting and backdrop for the red brick, moated Tudor manor house. What Kentwell doesn’t have in grandeur, it makes up for with variety: of forms, of textures and of age. Elements from every period right up to the present day are clear to spot; the late medieval service wing and ancient ponds next to Pottery Wood, the Tudor house, the Stuart canals which form the outer moat, the Regency cedars, and the Victorian shrubbery sit alongside modern elements.kentwell hall from lawns

What is wonderful about the gardens at Kentwell is the way that the present owners, (who rescued the hall and its setting from dereliction in the 1970s), have added idiosyncratic details entirely in-keeping with the more than five hundred years of garden history embodied in this site. To say it is whimsy at its best, is certainly not intended to be disparaging. Many features such as the carved cedar inspired by the Tower of Babel and the yew castle are indeed whims of Peter Philips, the owner. Perhaps my favourite contemporary feature is the Pied Piper topiary, created by his wife, Judith. I suspect it is unique and it works brilliantly when reflected in the moat. The gardens were in fine form when we visited at the end of June, at their best in fact. The inner moat, which entirely surrounds the house, and the outer moat that encompasses much of the rest of the garden, ensures that there is water almost everywhere one looks; and as the Georgians knew, water always ‘lends enchantment to the view’.pied piper topiary

My children would have been happy merely running around exploring the gardens, diving down little paths, impatient to see what delights and surprises awaited them around the next corner, following the cry of the peacock to track him down at last. But on this visit Kentwell provided more than a trip to an interesting and attractive place to explore, it gave us the opportunity to be Time Travellers.little path kentwell

I may be wrong, but Living History just did not exist when I was a kid back in the 70s and 80s and the Philips family at Kentwell were pioneers of this sort of experience. I must have been around ten when I first visited, which would make it early 1980s. It was captivating then, I think it is even more so now. The Kentwell Re-creations are so much more than a tableau vivant. With over 250 re-creators living out every element of Tudor life, from every strata of society, over a wide area, you can immerse yourself. You get to interact with Tudor life in all five senses and nothing is so evocative as smells and tastes. For me it was so powerfully real that I had no difficulty in slipping into Tudor English and the experience was so intense that I dreamt about it vividly that night. The children were captivated too. The seven year old enjoyed learning sword fighting skills and was entranced for far longer than I would have expected by the discourse of one of the archers on the different sorts of arrows and their uses. Both he and his younger brother loved the school room and interacting with the child re-creators. The multi-generational aspect is a truly authentic detail and I was charmed by four year old Alfie of the Cot, who was having some trouble remembering he was living in 1559 not 2013 and told me the best bit of the day was having chocolate for breakfast!kentwell butter making

I adore the elements added since I last visited in my teens. The fact that you must exchange your modern money for Tudor pennies and groats which you can spend with the peddlars selling plums, biscuits and marchpaine (marzipan) scattered around the grounds, as well as in the Turk’s Head ale house. This year the children were delighted to be able to play simple Tudor pub games chalked onto the tables, while munching their hot coffins (like pasties), or excellent bread and cheese and quaffing their apple juice, (ale for the grown ups). The ale house is part of a series of modern buildings, erected in recent years in a Tudor style by the Philips family as a back drop for the re-creations. As well as barns, hovels and cartsheds, the complex includes a cot, complete with 16th century cottage garden, which is probably more authentically Tudor than that around the house.

garden of the cotThis is the second year I have taken my second generation of Kentwell appreciators there. It is a very long trek for us, but it definitely has the makings of an annual pilgrimage.