Watergate House, Fordwich: A Modern Romantic Garden

The town of Fordwich has the distinction of being the smallest in England. Situated on the River Stour, which connects Canterbury with the English Channel, it was to Fordwich that the Normans shipped tonnes of pale Caen stone to build the city’s cathedral. At Watergate House the precious cargo arrived safely on English soil after the long journey from France. In those days Fordwich was a busy town with a lucrative river trade and competing quays. Nowadays it’s a quiet yet desirable backwater, no larger than a village. There’s a town hall, Grade I listed Church of St Mary the Virgin (now redundant) and two excellent public houses known for good food. Fordwich is packed to the gunwales with character homes, but few could rival the style, position and stature of Watergate House. Dating from the 16th Century, it was once the family home of John and Gregory Blaxland, early 19th Century pioneers of Australia. Current custodians Fiona Cadwallader and Patrick Heren have spent the last eight years sensitively restoring the house and creating a new garden. The result, as you may judge for yourself this Saturday, is a characterful property in complete harmony with its unique setting.

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Fiona Cadwallader started her career as an interior designer but quickly found that clients wanted her advice on their gardens too. Fiona’s natural style is relaxed, updated classic, a handwriting she’s successfully extended beyond the back door. At Watergate House she’s combined all the elements of an English Country garden in a relatively small space. Pale flagstones echo the chunks of mellow Caen stone that pepper the garden’s ancient walls. Many of these are pieces that didn’t make it as far as Canterbury: they may, quite literally, have fallen off the back of a cart. Constructed in generous widths, Fiona’s paths and terraces fill the garden with light, inviting hardy geraniums, astrantias and alchemilla to spill over and soften the edges.

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A handcrafted oak pergola straddles the roughly-square main lawn, floating like a covered causeway, slightly above ground level. Oak supports sit on staddle stones fashioned from concrete but skilfully finished in the likeness of limestone. Fiona wanted each section of the pergola to represent a perfect cube. At first she was horrified by the timber’s monumental scale, but once a second section was completed she could see her instincts were right. The whole thing is as muscular and purposeful as a cathedral cloister.

From late spring the pergola is swathed in roses, becoming a focal point for the garden. Fiona has a passion for roses and knows them well. Through trial and error she’s discovered which varieties flower well on tricky north and east-facing walls. For north-facing situations she advocates Rosa ‘Dortmund’ (single, crimson, hipping), R. ‘Rural England’ (soft-pink, repeat flowering) and R. ‘Leverkusen’ (double, lemon-yellow) grown in combination with Clematis ‘Maidwell Hall’ (double, lilac). For east-facing situations Fiona speaks highly of R. ‘Louise Odier’ (double, pink-shaded-lilac) and R. ‘Aloha’ (rose-pink, repeat flowering). If you appreciate roses, be sure to put Saturday June 16th in your diary as they should be looking splendid for the garden’s second opening of the year.

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An enviable Alitex greenhouse is positioned to one side of the main lawn, adjacent to a small kitchen garden. Here, box has been replaced by an edging of blight-resistant teucrium. At this time of year the greenhouse is brimming with tibouchinas, marguerites, osteospermums and pelargoniums, each desperate to get out into the open air. Fiona is rightly cautious about being too hasty and is keeping her tender plants under cover for now, watering diligently every evening. Fiona confesses she’s struggled with seed germination this spring. Even with state-of-the-art heating it’s been a little too chilly for the likes of cleome and cosmos. Thankfully there’s still ample time to begin again.

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The planting in Fiona’s capacious borders is dense and carefully ‘layered’. Schemes have been devised to provide colour from the dawn of the year through to its end, beginning with hellebores and snowdrops, followed by daffodils, hyacinths and tulips. In the woodland garden a peppering of Tulip ‘Lasting Love’ cuts a dash among a sea of sulphur-yellow erythroniums and pale-blue forget-me-nots: Fiona dislikes the emergence of pink forget-me-nots so hoiks out any interlopers promptly. Later there will be peonies, delphiniums, Geranium palmatum and roses, followed by a collection of tender salvias perpetuating the display until autumn draws to a close.

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My favourite spot in Fiona and Patrick’s garden is a small, undulating patch of lush grass situated between the oak pergola and one of the gates opening directly onto the River Stour. Here the grass is peppered with crocuses, snowdrops, narcissus and fritillarias – F. meleagris, F. persica and F. imperialis. The walls which shield the garden from the river are constructed from a random mix of brick, flint, pudding stone and abandoned Caen stone. Five pollarded limes loom over lively clumps of narcissi like ancient mother spiders protecting their unruly spiderlings.

Across the river Fiona and Patrick have aquired two small plots of meadowland which they are improving by planting trees and wildflowers. Fiona has replanted the four plateau-cut lime trees she used in her ‘Poetry Lover’s Garden’ at Chelsea in 2017, a design for which she won a silver medal. Though separated from the main garden, these riverine plots ensure that views out of the garden are both protected and enhanced. Standing on a pontoon, gazing at them through weeping willows, Fiona confides that the only plants she’s succeeded in growing at the water’s edge are yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) and swamp lilies (Crinum powellii). One could do worse. The Stour still being tidal at this point, it’s not unusual for these plants to be inundated for a few days at a time.

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As an advertisement for Fiona’s talent, which this garden has invariably become, it’s an appropriate one. The garden at Watergate House is professional enough to impress, yet sufficiently relaxed to feel replicable. The relationship between house and garden is both sympathetic and complementary. There’s attention to detail but no airs and graces. Fiona confesses that many of her clients would like her to create something similarly effortless and romantic for them. After just a single visit, it’s easy to appreciate why. TFG.

Watergate House, King Street, Fordwich is open 28th April and 16th June, 2-6pm, with teas. Visit the National Garden Scheme website for details and directions.