Herterton House, Cambo, Northumberland

To my great shame I have never visited Northumberland before, although I once pretend to for a school project on organic farming. Sorry Mrs Truelove, I told a lie! What a pity that I didn’t discover this sprawling, green and little-populated county back in my teens, although somehow I doubt it would have had the same appeal to me as it does now. Looking beyond the weather, which is cooler than in the south of England, Northumberland deserves to be more appreciated, possessing as it does wonderful castles (including Alnwick of Harry Potter fame), spectacular coastline and the remains of Hadrian’s Wall.

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We’d been planning a trip to Durham for some time, but an article in Country Life magazine featuring the little known garden at Herterton House piqued our interest. We decided to combine our visit with a walk around the National Trust property at Wallington – more of which anon. As a result I have not one but two new favourite gardens.

Herterton House lies just a few miles from Cambo in Northumberland, the village where Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was born. In this pastoral setting it’s easy to appreciate where Mr Brown found his inspiration. Whilst Herterton embraces the same landscape with the views from its gazebo, it’s largely an inward-looking garden divided into five compartments in the manner of Hidcote or Sissinghurst.

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It was a warm but blustery day, and as we rolled into the carpark, deep with crunchy red-grey gravel, we were greeted by Frank Lawley. With his wife Marjorie, Mr Lawley has created this beautiful garden over almost four decades. At only an acre in size it packs an amazing amount in and will be a inspiration to any visitors who themselves have smaller gardens.

The garden-making began 1976, when the Lawleys took the lease of a range of tumbledown farm buildings from the National Trust. Originally there had been a farmhouse, but this had fallen into disrepair. The farmyard had been covered with hardcore and rubble in the 60s, all of which had to be removed before any work could start on the new layout. This took three years. To illustrate the scale of work the Lawleys had to undertake, I only need recount that 700 tonnes of walling stone were required simply to create the boundaries. In an age when instant results are expected, this garden is a lesson in the greater rewards that patience and time can bring.

The garden’s design is inspired by early English gardening books as well as the owners’ love of 20th century artists such as Klee and Mondrian. To the layman the early English references are much plainer to see, especially in the physic garden which lies between the main house and the granary. The stone arches of the barn both frame the garden, planted with herbal medicinal plants, and support the sheltering roof above. A wonderful place to sit and watch the rain come down.

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And so it did, with reckless abandon! When the sun re-emerged, the beds of traditional herbs, poisonous and dye-plants sparkled in the northern light. Especially attractive was the section of the garden pictured below, edged with lavender and anchored by a handsome clump of Veratrum album, the false helleborine, one of my favourite architectural plants.

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In the flower garden the bold use of colours favoured by Mondrian and Klee is more easily appreciated. As in all the gardens we visited last weekend, the foliage was high and the flowers plentiful. The palette of plants used was staggering and the quality of the plantsmanship humbling. No-one can imagine this sort of garden is easy to create, but to keep it looking as strong as this over a period of time is a real skill. Structure was provided in the form of neat hedges and well clipped topiary, golden foliage playing a significant role.

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Quieter and more reflective was the fancy garden, inspired by Tudor ‘fancywork’ patterns and best appreciated from the gazebo at the farthest point from the house. From this vantage point the setting of the garden can really be appreciated, looking one way towards the formality of the gardens and the other towards verdant Northumbrian farmland.

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What I liked most about this garden is that it made very few concessions to visitors. Yes, the five garden ‘rooms’ were well signed and there was a small selection of excellent plants for sale, but the layout was decidedly domestic, with the narrowest paths often blurred at the edges by exuberant planting. It was also a pleasure to meet the owners, who were both to be found in the nursery garden, working the sandy loam soil and preparing plants for sale. These they sell in substantial clumps, wrapped in moist newspaper and plastic bags for the journey home. Of course there was no chance of us leaving empty-handed. I’ll treasure my white Tradescantia and unnamed fern all the more for knowing they were nurtured by such accomplished gardeners in such a lovely setting.

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Herterton House is open April to September, every day apart from Tuesday and Thursday 1.30-5.30 and is easily combined with a visit to Wallington Park, just the other side of Cambo. A book about the creation of the garden is planned for publication in 2014.

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