An enchanted garden on the South Cheshire border
It was a bright spring day with a cool wind put plenty of strong sunshine when I was welcomed to the gardens at Combermere Abbey by Sarah Callander Beckett. We drank coffee, chatted and enjoyed home made raspberry cake as we sat on the decking outside The Pavilion. An hour later she bid me farewell and I began my walk, camera in hand.
The first of a trio of connected walled gardens contains a labyrinth, designed by the great labyrinthologist Randoll Coate, consisting of cordons and espaliers of fruit trees including apples, pears and quince. Fresh green leaves were just starting to emerge from the skeletal form of the maze and will soon cover the entire structure together with an abundance of fragrant blossom, followed by fruit which will eventually be transformed into delicious juice and jams.
The Glasshouse at Combermere Abbey, situated at the centre of the maze, is the perfect location for a fairytale wedding. I could imagine getting married here – my husband, the groom, navigating his way along the twisting and turning paths of the maze up to the elegant Glasshouse, in which I, his bride, await. After a beautiful ceremony tying the knot in the company of all our friends and family, I help him to find his way out through the labyrinth again towards a happy and fulfilling marriage.
The central walled garden is dissected by two main axes with a path adjacent to the north-facing wall. Yew pillars and pyramids, like sentry, patrol the pathways and provide structure and rhythm. Whilst the sunny south-facing walls boast sub-tropical plants such as Echiums, one shouldn’t dismiss the north-facing wall with its shade-loving specimens lighting up the border. Only by kneeling in the dewy grass could I fully appreciate their delicate beauty.
The third walled garden is split into two by a pathway flanked by an avenue of pleached hornbeams. To the left is an open an exposed space punctuated by yew pyramids which resemble pawns on a giant chessboard. To the right is a tennis court with seating amongst fruit trees, laden with blossom and humming with bees. Closing my eyes for a second I could imagine ladies and gentlemen taking tea in the twenties and thirties. I could almost hear the soft irregular beat of tennis ball against racquet and gentle clapping as a point is scored.
Beyond the warmth and comfort of the walled gardens lies The Pleasure Gardens, a cool and shady place with mown pathways leading down an incline to the lake. Specimen trees, planted a couple of hundred years since, now majestically tower up towards the sky.
Traditionally, the gardens here provided a relaxing and pleasant area for the family to enjoy after a hearty lunch. How wonderful to think of the family’s ancestors partying here on warm summer evenings with subtly lit pathways and secret places to sit and chat.
Next I set off at brisk pace to The Bluebell Walk. Feeling much cooler here than in the formal gardens and blown about by a brisk breeze, I began to discover bit by bit the treasures within the enchanted wood: a carpet of Hyacinthoides non-scripta, also known as English bluebells. Swathes of violet-coloured arching blooms like a soft mist filled pockets of open woodland. Children and adults alike stood in awe observing the display.
These graceful plants briefly take advantage of the sunlight filtering through the deciduous branches before the trees’ leaves start to appear and obscure the light. In a few weeks they will return to the ground ready for a repeat performance in a year’s time.
Refreshed, I returned to the walled gardens where the last pots of tea were being poured, cakes consumed and the very last Giant Jenga game concluded. The end to a wonderful day at Combermere Abbey.
The gardens at Combermere Abbey are open several times per year: www.combermereabbey.co.uk
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