Cotswold Cottage Style
A handkerchief sized cottage garden showing clipped and freeform plants in perfect balance. The double-layered topiary piece is Euonymous fortunei 'Silver Queen'. Photo - Michael McCoy
Michael McCoy says the charm of its private gardens bolsters Bibury’s reputation as the most beautiful village in all England
Gardens speak volumes about their owners. If they’re owned or gardened by a committee or Trust, they’ll show it, often with bland non-individuality. When they’re owned and gardened by one only, they’re free to express all of that owner’s strengths, weaknesses, preferences and pure prejudices. This is gardening at it’s most personal, and most articulate.
England is full of such gardens. These aren’t the gardens with the big names. They are the countless cottage gardens, which though mostly nameless, are full to overflowing with character.
Arlington Row, perhaps the prettiest collection of cottages anywhere in England. The row started life as a monastic wool store and was converted to cottages in the 17th century. Photo - Linda Ross
All the better when they’re in a setting of such unselfconscious appeal as those in Bibury, in the Cotswolds. Bibury embraces Arlington, including Arlington Row, a row of 16th century weavers’ cottages that are unbelievably - almost absurdly - picturesque. William Morris, the great guru of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century described Bibury as ‘the most beautiful village in England’. All the cottages are made of stone of that warm, honey colouring typical of the Cotswolds, and most are roofed with stone from the same source. The result looks as if it’s just grown there, or as if it’s emerged, spontaneously, from underground. And this setting of delicious visual unity is bulging with tiny cottage gardens.
Photo - Linda Ross
Ross Garden Tours visits Bibury each year on its tour of England, and has privileged access to a few of the oldest gardens in the area. But as we’ve walked about, from one to the other, or onto our lavish and quintessentially English afternoon tea in the village hall, we’ve peered over walls, around corners and down lanes to spot countless tiny gardens, all brimming with bloom, and all speaking of devoted, doting owners.
Photo - Linda Ross
There are gardens that are meticulously tended, the edges all crisp, the vegies in perfectly straight rows. There are free-spirited gardens, frothing about with romantic abandon. There are gardens in the prime of life, young and strong like their owners, and there are gardens moving quietly into gracious and characterful decay.
These gardens are the perfect ‘in-the-moment’ counter-point to a scene that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. In this phenomenally stable setting, plants come and go, great planting schemes are dreamt up and succeed spectacularly, or fail dismally, then just fade as the next generation moves in. Ancient stone sits in perfect balance with ephemeral annual.
A peek over a garden wall reveals a happy combination of flower colour and stone colour. Photo - Michael McCoy
We’ve not yet made it to the gardens around the trout farm, which look so enticing from the height of the coach windows, the lawns threatening to disappear beneath the luxuriant foliage of giant rhubarb (Gunnera sp), carpeted with candelabra primulas. But we’ve wandered along the back lanes and discovered miniscule gardens with eccentrically clipped shrubs, draping with clematis. We’ve ambled, by sheer chance, through the yard surrounding the Saxon Church (with parts dating back to the 8th Century, and more ‘modern’ additions from the 12th and 13th), to stumble on the long herbaceous borders, and eventually the impossibly lovely Jacobean facade of the Bibury Court Hotel. It’s all achingly beautiful, and all best seen on foot.
Photo - Linda Ross
It wouldn’t matter what time of year you visited, there’d be plenty to see. On a weekend towards the end of May several of the gardens are open for inspection and the Bibury Flower Show occurs in July each year (check www.cotswoldevents.com/biburyevents.asp for firm dates). If you land there in mid-winter, you could stick around for the Boxing Day duck race. Hundreds of individually sponsored rubber ducks are released into the crystal clear and rapidly flowing waters of the Coln River. The sponsor of the winner gets to choose which charity receives the proceeds. It’s a chilly event that thaws in the abundance of community warmth.
‘The most beautiful village in England’ is a big call, when villages of breathtaking beauty surround Bibury. Move on through the Cotswolds and you’ll find nary a cottage in the district without it’s attendant, idiosyncratic and quietly inspiring garden.
A closer look at a combination of plants that would be just as happy in Astralia as in England: a lemon -coloured dwarf bearded iris with Vinca major 'Variegata' and a euphorbia, probably E. hyberna. Photo - Michael McCoy
Not far away is Hidcote Manor
The Cotswolds is home to many renowned gardens, the best-known being Hidcote Manor where Major Lawrence Johnston pioneered his ‘garden’ room design philosophy. We love the way this complex series of garden spaces is revealed as you explore: at no one point can you see it all. The garden progresses through the seasons like the movements of a symphony. Layers of plantings in are revealed in sequence. The famous red borders, said to be the first single-coloured borders in England are a good example. In early spring red tulips are followed by red-flowered rhubarb, then red geum and poppies, followed by red roses, then cannas, salvias and daylilies, and finally dahlias. While you swoon over the heart-stopping intensity of the colour against the contrasting deep green hedges, you also admire the outstanding standard of the horticulture.
From Gardens of the World, by Graham, Sandra & Linda Ross (New Holland)
Photo - Linda Ross
See for yourself
The Costwolds is a range of hills in the Gloucestershire district of south-west England. The main town in the district is Cirencester. Bibury is about 10km from Cirencester. You can take the train from London, about 1 ½ hours, but it’s easiest to drive yourself so you can explore the other villages in the area, and head out just our of the region to Stratfrod-upon Avon in the north, Oxford in the east and Bath to the south-west. For more information, go to www.bibury.com and for details of other gardens you can see in the Cotswolds go to www.cotswolds.info
Mmmm. Time for a cuppa with the Bibury Garden Club.