Garden design Bristol, Somerset & London
On a cold and grey February day I visited Hanham Court Gardens, Bristol, for the first time. Created over a twenty year period by designers and former owners Julian and Isabel Bannerman, it is a magical place full of beauty and eccentricity. And it set me to pondering what it is that turns an ordinary garden into a place of enchantment.
The art of storytelling begins with a device that transports listeners out of everyday reality into a place where anything is possible. We hear the phrase 'Once upon a time...', or 'A long time ago, there lived a ....', and we recognise a signal to suspend ordinary perception and be prepared for the magical. We are, in storytelling terms, walking through a portal into another world.
The creators of enchanted gardens take those concepts and re-fashion them on the ground. As with story, the entrance is key. It may be a door, a tunnel, or a gate; overhead there will be climbers and boughs. It may allow an irresistible glimpse of what lies within. As you to cross the threshold you enter a different realm, leaving the ordinary world - the traffic jams, deadlines and everyday stresses - behind you.
An enchanted garden doesn't give up all its secrets at once. Having stepped inside you still can't see the extent of it: you have no idea how big it is, or what it holds. Instead you embark on a journey, never knowing what's around the corner or where it might end. And what better way to do this than with a twisting path that disappears off ahead.
The most immersive stories are richly layered, and even relatively small gardens can have multiple themes within them. Archways are useful in creating transitions between one area and the next. Built into walls, hedges or follies, by obscuring what's beyond they draw you deeper into the garden. This visual separation makes possible the juxtaposition of distinct styles - delivering lovely sensory surprises - without feeling jarring or unnatural.
After all that adventure you're going to need a break. A comfortable seat, just big enough for two and tucked away into the planting, provides peaceful privacy. Style and materials are important: not only should the seat look lovely but it also needs to be comfortable, encouraging you to sit for a while. This gives you time absorb your surroundings, and immerse yourself in the moment.
Every culture, in every corner of the world, shares traditions of storytelling and enchantment, and water features in many of them. Ponds can be of regular or uneven shape, formal or informal, in various materials and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: from the moment they are created, they will begin to attract life above and below the water line. And whether we're 7 or 70, it's irresistible to peer in.
When lushly planted with aquatics and marginals, with surrounding planting that occasionally conceals a full view, a pond becomes even more magical. Water is the cradle of life, and every garden is richer for it.
The motif that weaves itself through this particular story from beginning to end is, of course, the planting. There is no end to the list of which plants we individually find enchanting. We might fall in love with the scent, texture or colour of a leaf or flower. Or perhaps its the motion and rustling of the plant in a breeze, or the way its form causes the light to play, that will suspend us in time. And sometimes it is the way that plants combine and contrast that makes you stop and stare. Here are just a few, seen over the last year, that captivated me.
Plants seem to be a good way to end the story. There are of course many more elements that can be used to create the feeling of enchantment in a garden. Steps, topiary, trees, sculpture and ornaments, pergolas, bridges and historic crafts can also create magic and mystery. But I'm going to leave those for another chapter.