Monday, October 14, 2013

Back to the Cradle - Exploring Kiftsgate Court Gardens

Sitting at the end of Hidcote's driveway, but light years away in style and atmosphere, is Kiftsgate Court GardensIf Hidcote shouts, then Kiftsgate whispers. Both gardens share a stunning view of the vale of Evesham, but you'll find no grand displays of horticultural muscle here, instead you'll see gardening practiced at its highest level and on a human scale.

It is, without a doubt, a labor of love.

I first heard about Kiftsgate through its eponymous rose, mentioned in Rosemary Verey's books and which sent me on a not-so-successful search for species and old rose sources here in the United States.  One thing led to another, and I stumbled across this charming video about Anne Chambers, her family, and the garden's journey from private sanctuary to public space.

As you enter the gravel drive you get the feeling you are attending a small private party.  There is no fancy admission booth, just a card table set amongst a plant stall, within earshot of the tea room.  With guide in hand, you turn the corner and you come upon Kiftsgate's signature, the Four Squares and Terrace.  And while the choice of plants, their condition, and their presentation are impressive, what really strikes you is the superb relationship between the house and garden.  This is the space that must have turned Heather Muir, the matriarch of Kiftsgate, into a gardener with ambition.

The tidy Kiftsgate guide book recommends a route through the garden that brings you through the Wide Border, the Sunk White Border, and into the Rose Border - home to the whacking big Kiftsgate Rose.  All of these spaces are planted with care and are in harmony with the house and its environs.

It is when you reach the Water Garden that you realize that this is a garden with a special personality.  Bounded on all four sides by a mature yew hedge, the space feels vaguely familiar. Certainly the water feature with its philodendron-molded leaves is new to you and, in fact, the garden itself is an unexpected contemporary piece set within a traditional English garden. So why is it so comfortable?  And then it hits you, this is a tennis court, re-purposed as a garden room.  Somewhere the balance of power between being a country house with a garden has shifted to being a garden that contains a country house.  Kiftsgate charms because it sits right on this tipping point -- not quite public, not quite private.

You can just imagine the family, sitting around the breakfast table, hatching a plan for the new garden.  "Well, we certainly don't play much tennis these days, and it would be nice to add a modern feel to the garden," one might say. "I have been thinking about commissioning something by Simon Allison, to go with the Simon Verity in the North Border," another might add.  And it would be decided.  No committee, no petitions, just a garden growing alongside its owners.

Reversing course, you head through the Yellow Border and down through the spectacular Scotch firs that frame the best view of the vale.  Taking care along the narrow path, you arrive at a most well-placed small water feature (that I suspect doubles as a swimming pool for the family) perched on the hillside.  The garden reaches its crescendo at this spot -- surrounded by a summer house and a folly -- with a fine view of the village of Mickleton.

I think that if you like a a gardener. you will like their garden; I certainly left Kiftsgate with affection for both. Everything about the place takes full advantage of its setting and although you know that a garden like this requires a steady stream of income, it doesn't feel too far removed your own experience.  Money hasn't been thrown at every challenge, good taste and a measured pace has kept it human.   Above all, Kiftsgate still has scope, opportunities to grow some century after it was started.  And that is what we really wish for in all of our gardens.

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