When a new garden opens for the National Gardens Scheme in Thanet it’s a major event, principally because there are only three others, one of which is my own. And this year’s newcomer, situated in an isolated rural spot known as Thorne Hill, is a beauty. Created by Andrew Montgomery, The Chapel is a formal garden, divided into a series of “rooms”, arranged around a listed flint and brick building. Each room has a very private feel, and one immediately senses the theatrical personality of this intimate, stylish garden.
If I had to make a comparison, it would be to Tintinhull or Hidcote rather than Sissinghurst, such is the influence of classical garden style and decoration as opposed to the shaggier Kentish landscape. However, the vernacular is celebrated at The Chapel. The garden has been created in the midst of a working farm, which has allowed for some intriguing juxtapositions between utility and ornament. On one side of the estate fence there are handsome sheep; on the other, borders of lavender leading to a Lutyens bench. Generously proportioned livestock sheds have been repurposed for potting, disguised by Mediterranean figs and then occupied by swallows. And in the kitchen garden, steps have been fashioned from workaday concrete kerb stones. These agricultural references have all helped to keep this elegant garden grounded in its pastoral setting.
On arrival visitors are directed to a neatly lawned area in front of a traditional Kentish farm building. Here, excellent teas are served and a huge range of scented leaf geraniums offered for sale. I was immediately struck by a rectangle of yew hedge overflowing with pillar-box red Salvia “Royal Bumble”. The contrast between honey-coloured gravel drive, green foliage, red flowers and white weatherboarding is simple yet striking.
To the right of the building is a large pond, possibly a legacy of the site’s agricultural past, neatly edged with brick and plainly planted with yellow flag iris, Iris pseudacorus. Compared with the rest of the garden this is a delightfully relaxed, informal space which helps wed the garden to its surroundings. With chairs and tables ranged about it is also a lovely spot to enjoy one’s obligatory garden visiting tea and cake.
The garden proper is entered through a gap between two sturdy brick piers, capped with stone balls. This silhouette is repeated later on in yew hedging. To the right, an old flint wall and the border in its shadow are sheltered by a row of apple trees. They are neatly pruned so that their limbs are exposed with their canopies sitting flat beneath the sky. This is an unusual and rather Chelsea-esque contrivance that immediately suggests this is no ordinary garden. Underneath the trees, fading hellebores give way to an abundance of one of my favourite plants, Geranium palmatum. On our visit the blizzard of candy pink blossom surpassed anything I have achieved in my own garden, filling a gap before the roses bloom.
Another favourite plant of mine and seeker of footholds in stone, Erigeron karvinskianus, sprouts from the ancient pier caps leading to The Chapel’s lower floor. The Mexican daisy, as it’s commonly known, is a plant that lets rip if it’s happy, finding a home anywhere warm, dry and sunny. Once you’ve got it, you’ll never be without, but it can be tricky to establish if it’s not completely happy with its lot.
In front of the house a large rectangular lawn centres itself on an armillary sundial surrounded by tightly clipped box pyramids. Trees at the end of the garden cast a deep, elongating shade, creating the perfect home for ferns, hydrangeas and Japanese anemones. In the far corner of the lawn a narrow gap in a yew hedge provides access to a kitchen garden; an impeccably neat, no-frills area abundant with fruit trees, vegetables and flowers for cutting. The aluminium greenhouse is bigger than my entire garden, filled with tomatoes, marigolds, lettuce and benches of geraniums. Such luxuries as this are beyond my wildest dreams!
Tracing one’s footsteps back up the kerbstone stair and through the sundial garden, the next “room” is entered beneath a pergola dripping with Eccremocarpus scaber, the Chilean glory flower, already forming its fat, faintly testicular fruits in June. I like the way in which a yew hedge has been trained to create a window within the pergola’s structure, framing the view to a pair of more ancient yews in the next garden room. One can also see here that the garden has been planted for all seasons, with layers of plants carefully positioned to deliver colour and texture throughout the year.
The space that follows is more formal than the last, bounded by two parallel borders, constrained by hedges and brimming over with roses, alliums, lilacs and tall perennials such as thalictrum and Macleaya cordata. A beautifully maintained lawn is punctuated by two rows of conical yews, leading in one direction towards a small figurative statue and in the other towards a beautiful space which I’ll call the pond garden.
Entered between two lichen-clad stone obelisks, the pond garden is full of incident and must be a lovely place to sit in the morning with a paper, or in the evening with a gin and tonic. The pond itself is planted only with waterlilies and there are no fish; we suppose because the open location is a clear lunch invitation for herons. If the owner’s passion for geraniums is not already apparent, in this part of the garden it becomes clear. There are deep borders packed with hardy geraniums in shades of pink, magenta, mauve, blue and white, mingling with roses, ferns, foxgloves and more frothy thalictrums. This is where Him Indoors found a suitable bench on which to sun himself whilst I continued my tour.
From a quiet corner of the pond garden one can explore a small, sheltered courtyard, entered through an old flint outbuilding which has one side open into the space. Here specimens of Fatsia japonica are pruned to create a tall, high canopied trees. Underneath there are box balls surrounding a gently bubbling fountain. A wonderful place to shelter during a rain shower, or in the heat of a hot summer’s day.
Andrew’s garden is blessed with some lovely pieces of garden ornament: A lead tank is planted with deep blue lavender and deep orange nasturtiums and the brim of a stone urn flows over with Thymus serpyllum, Oxalis triangularis and Euphorbia myrsinites. I especially enjoyed discovering a “Wise Monkey” sheltering beneath an acer in the pond garden, his brow furrowed by all that thinking.
At the end of the tour the garden opens into an orchard and finally an extensive open meadow. Running along the back of the pond garden wall is a lavender walk leading to a small Lutyens bench. Espalier pear trees are neatly trained against the brickwork, promisingly laden with young fruit.
The garden’s main focal point was perhaps my least favourite feature at The Chapel. I never feel attempts to shrink features which rightly belong in a landscape park work, and this domed rotunda in the manner of Studley Royal did not much for me. I could not work out if the stone was real or reconstituted, but the effect was a little manufactured. Sitting inside, the way the supporting columns broke up the view bothered me too. No matter, this is not my garden. All that should concern us is that the owner enjoys it, and I am sure he does as a spot from which to survey the fruits of his labours.
Until one has done it for one’s self, it is impossible to imagine the hard work and pressure that accompanies the opening of one’s own garden for the first time. Andrew had pulled out all the stops and presented his garden in immaculate condition. Hedges were neatly trimmed, the grass was mown into stripes, flowers were carefully deadheaded and I could swear there was not a single weed to be found, even if I were looking, which I was not. We had a splendid afternoon at The Chapel and came away full of admiration. Thanet is lucky to have this fine addition to the National Gardens Scheme and I hope there will be more opening dates next year.