The River Test in Hampshire is one of the world’s finest chalk streams, renowned for the quality of its dry fly fishing. I am no angler, but it doesn’t take an expert to see that the water is as fresh and clear as anything that ever came out of a tap – probably cleaner too.
It was on the wooded slopes above this crystalline river that the retailer John Spedan Lewis decided to make his home. First at Leckford Abbas (where were lucky enough to be staying, in JSL’s very own bedroom) and latterly across the valley at Longstock Park. Both properties now sit within the Leckford Estate, which is farmed by Waitrose and specialises in the production of mushrooms and apples.
Hosta ‘White Feather’
Spedan Lewis chose an area for his garden which had once been used to extract gravel for the estate’s roads. This left a shallow lake, which previous owners had already turned into an ornamental feature. However the gardens as visitors enjoy them now only came into being around 1946. With the help of a botanist called Terry Jones, Spedan Lewis trebled the garden in size, adding lots of features to main lake, including sixteen islands linked by bridges. It was painstaking work, as the water-logged soil could only be dug by hand. It took ten years for the project to be completed, but the result was, and still is, extraordinary. In recent times the International Water Lily Society voted Longstock “the finest water garden in the world.”
Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’, a vigorous, moisture loving perennial.
Visitors enter the garden through a gap in a long, neatly clipped hornbeam hedge, approaching the lake through a dark tunnel of evergreen foliage. The effect on reaching the light is impressive, a beautiful vista of water, lush foliage and bright flowers ahead of you. This was Spedan’s idea of paradise, and he spent a great deal of time here, away from the stresses and strains of running his chain of department stores. He even had a telephone line installed in the thatched summer house so he could manage his affairs without leaving the garden. His head water gardener was originally his butler, Jim Saunders, indicating just how seriously Spedan took this project. Jim carried on gardening at Longstock until he retired in 1983.
Pieris japonica ‘Variegata’
Much of the work in the lakes is carried out by hand. The water is nowhere deeper than two metres, so the three full-time gardeners spend hours in their waders, using floating zinc baths as wheelbarrows. Clumps of waterlilies (over eighty varieties) and other floating aquatics must be carefully controlled to keep the clear water flowing freely.
When not in the water the gardeners are often to be found planting or mowing the grass paths – a luxury only allowed by the very few visitors the garden receives each year. I am always blown away by the quality of the planting – everything in large, verdant drifts, creating a tapestry of foliage textures – and by the standards of maintenance, which are exceptional. There is three-quarters of a mile of edging to be done and never is one blade out of place. The sward runs right down to the water’s edge – I always wonder how they manage to keep it so immaculately trimmed without getting clippings in the water or ending up with the mower at the bottom of the lake!
In autumn, many plants are cut right back and silt has to be pumped out from the bottom of the lake to prevent it filling up. The banks of the lake also have to be protected from erosion by the garden’s busy community of water voles.
Primula japonica ‘Postford White’
Matteuccia struthiopteris, the shuttlecock fern
Although the soil in this part of the world is mostly alkaline chalk, there is a small area to the east of the lake which is acid peat. Here banks of brightly coloured rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias flourish, underplanted with vast swathes of hostas and ramsons (Allium ursinum), our native wild garlic. They were in full bloom on our visit, the loud pinks, purples and yellows all clearly reflected in the still water.
Acid loving rhododendrons appreciating a peaty spot under oak trees
Most impressive of all at this time of the year are the candelabra primulas – some 5000 of them in every shade of pink, purple and red, with one or two in white and peach woven in for good measure. These herbaceous perennials demand moist conditions and were finding the cool, drizzly weather very much to their liking. I could easily have photographed them all afternoon – so fresh and pretty in the muted light.
Also accomplished is the wider planting of the garden, which has some contemporary twists, such as a grove of multi-stemmed silver birches. The garden could so easily become a series of water garden cliches, but great attention is given to creating pleasing contrasts in foliage colour and texture as well as to delivering a long flowering season.
There are many choice plants to be found, including extensive collections of hostas, dodecatheons, astilbes, irises and lobelias. In autumn, the trees come into their own, particularly the liquidambers and swamp cypresses, the latter with their curious gnarled roots poking up above water level.
Dodecatheon meadia, or shooting star
Longstock Park Water Gardens are worth a visit at any time of the year, but are only open to the public on behalf of various charities on the first and third Sunday of the month, April to September inclusive, from 2pm – 5pm. The entrance fee of £5.00 for adults and £1.00 for children all goes to the nominated charity. The maintenance of the garden is paid for by the John Lewis Partnership.
A short walk or drive away is Longstock Park Nursery, set in and around Spedan Lewis’ pretty brick and flint walled garden. The nursery is home to the National Collections of Buddleja and Clematis viticella, as well as the Gilchrist collection of penstemons, so well worth a detour….with an empty boot of course!