Tunnel vision

Country Life UK|May 13, 2020

Tunnel vision
The Private Gardens at Petworth House, West Sussex The home of Lord and Lady Egremont The making of a secluded garden within the landscaped acres has been managed with great charm and panache, reveals Non Morris
Non Morris

WHEN Caroline Nelson married novelist and biographer Max, 2nd Baron Egremont, in 1978 and came to live at Petworth House, she knew little about gardening. She was, however, clear that she wanted both to celebrate the extraordinary position of their garden on the private side of the 17th-century house and to create a sense of privacy and intimacy.

‘At night when I look out onto the park, I can see the deer snoozing below my window,’ she says of the view over 700 acres of Capability Brown parkland. Stands of oak and a glittering stretch of lake extend right up to the house, with only the slimmest of terraces and a rounded bastion-shaped ha-ha to separate public from private.

‘The scale of everything here has been very influential. The vast landscape that reaches out from the house as far as the eye can see comes right up to the windows, but the real garden, the walled flowery garden, is out of sight 250 yards away. I wanted to give the sense of the park sweeping over the ha-ha onto the South Lawn and to make here a garden of simple walks, vistas and green glades.’

Caroline became friends with the garden writer Laurence Fleming when he came to Petworth to film for a series called The English Garden with Sir John Gielgud. Together, they started to think about ways to soften this part of the garden. ‘It looked a bit like a golf course crossed by a wide gravel path like a drive. My mother-in-law used to back her Jaguar down to a turning circle by the William Kent urn and drive across the lawn to load up with fruit and flowers from the kitchen garden to take to her house in London.’

The severe expanses of gravel were replaced by curving lawn paths, softly edged with scalloped glades of long grass brimming with wildflowers, thousands of which were home-grown from seed and planted as plugs. From her childhood on the west coast of Scotland, Caroline brought a deep understanding of trees and when it came to selecting new oaks, chestnuts and limes to extend the parkland atmosphere to the South Lawn, she sought further advice from her brother, tree expert Lorne Nelson.

Once the new framework was in place, the magic could really begin. Two further carved stone urns were placed and encircled by planting to create the gentlest of invitations and half-hidden views. The original Kent urn now emerges from a carpet of meadow cranesbill and ox-eye daisies and a stone Pope’s urn marks the centre of a circle of yellow-fruiting Malus transitoria. The unpruned branches of the crab apples swoop gracefully to the ground, where an underplanting of sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) forms improbably perfect discs of lacy white under each tree. Looking back to the house from this spot, the trees filtering the haze of the Petworth sunset so loved by Turner, you can just see the bottom two windows, the foreground draped in green.

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May 13, 2020