Light the touch paper
Country Life UK|October 28, 2020
Tiffany Daneff visits a garden that comes alive as others begin to fade, where inspired plantings heighten autumn’s natural brilliance
Tiffany Daneff

AS the strength of the sun fades with each shortening day, the blaze in the garden at Spilsbury, near Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire, only burns brighter. On the slopes that run around the edge of the meadow, beacons of liquidambar, cercidiphyllum and acer beat back the gloom, as orange willow wands and scarlet dogwood stems gleam out of the wild grasses. Wherever one is, whether from the vantage point of the house at the top of the garden, on the far side of the pond at the bottom of the hill or walking the mown paths through the meadow where summer’s perennials collapse in the falling temperatures, the enchantment is complete.

When Tania and Jamie Compton moved to Tisbury 20 years ago, the house came with three fields that sloped down a clay hill to a small stream that runs along the bottom of the garden. The fields were grazed in succession by sheep and, every year, they were sprayed. One pond had been dug and there was a horse shelter, but not much by the way of a garden other than three mature boundary oaks, a strip of woodland bordering the stream and a large manna ash. The slopes ran with water from springs that rose in the chalk uplands nearby. ‘You’ll never make a garden there,’ the farmer told them when they asked him to stop spraying the land.

With both of them working—Jamie is a botanist and author and his wife a writer, textile dyer and garden designer—and two young children, they did nothing much to the garden for four years other than watch and wait. It soon became obvious, however, that the ash needed to go, as it blocked the view of the nearby hill fort, and Tania quickly identified two key sightlines that would become the foundation for the planning of the garden.

That first winter she made her mark: a circle of willows that would be pollarded annually to create a ring bristling with fiery stems. The idea came after lunching at Cock Crow, the Dorset farmhouse at Crichel that the designer John Stefanidis rented from Mary Anna Marten. ‘The late Mollie, Lady Salisbury, had made a circle of Crataegus laevigata in the walled garden and John had planted a twin circle of limes in his garden where we had lunch.’ Tania’s Ring of Fire was underplanted with Dutch iris and, originally, the children’s trampoline stood in the middle. The children are now grown up and the trampoline has gone, but the blues of the iris are supplemented by red-hot Crocosmia Lucifer and Hemerocallis Stafford interspersed with creamy puffs from self-seeded meadowsweet.

The first summer after the spraying ceased, the fields turned yellow with buttercups. The second season brought a sea of thistles, nettles and dock, but the grass prevailed and, in time, the worst weeds diminished. Tania was ready to start mowing paths through the grass, lining up her sightlines on an old willow and a large oak.

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