The Woolton oak
‘I’ve bought a tree, with a house thrown in’ was Charles Brown’s announcement when he bought Woolton House – and indeed the oak makes a bigger first impression. It stands on the lawn, almost a caricature of The Mighty Oak, in silhouette a perfect dome, in close-up and craggy grey tower spreading into a vast green cloud. It must have been planted, perhaps five centuries ago, on a mound of earth thrown up for the purpose – and so was another oak, only slightly less huge, a hundred yards away. Why, no one can say, but the planters knew what they were doing; in a region of rich soil with grand trees everywhere, the Woolton oak seems like a deliberate monument.
The Browns were Hong Kong pioneers, buying a house on the Peak in the days when Hong Kong meant textiles rather than international banks. Charles was an architect, Rosamond Brown a painter of spacious landscapes. What they have created together in Hampshire is one of England’s most original gardens.
The oaks came first, but there were the relics of a pukka Edwardian garden: spreading lawns, sheltering walls, greenhouses, orchards, space for leaf mould and compost on the grand scale. The rose garden surrounds a great square stone reservoir of a pool, sunk below stone balustrades of the kind favoured in the 1900s. The Browns consulted one of France’s top designers, the late Pascal Cribier. Together they have produced a positive playground of original ideas that is somehow coherent, one enclosure leading to the next in the approved manner of garden rooms, but each room a painting so powerful it comes as a shock.
After the rose garden comes the potager, a huge space that may well be trapezoidal – you’d have to ask Euclid – painted in the manner of Mondrian, with blocks of colour separated by straight lines. Mondrian used the primary colours, which nature doesn’t. Vegetables, though, have a pretty pungent palette, from beet red to leek blue and marigold yellow. Cribier’s cunning is in the repetition of tramlines, parallel lines in mediums so different that it only dawns on you slowly why it all feels coherent. The choice of plants and their colours is Rosamond’s, with her two gardeners, Ian and Yvonne. They don’t do timid. One walled enclosure is red; red trellis posts, red brick floor, red roses – all under ropes of green vines. Another is tramlines of cacti in paving; another, tramlines of scarlet geums in a perfectly level lawn. The rose garden round the pool has no inhibitions of any kind; Bengal Crimson roses dip down into the water, agapanthus and verbascums swamp the paths and steps, an anaconda of a wisteria is busy destroying the stone balustrades. Hostas and daylilies are the sober elements in a maelstrom of colour surging round the roses. Nearer the house, though, on a higher level, the palette is limited to yellow and the black grass, ophiopogon, and the only pleached ginkgos, I wager, in Hampshire.
It’s strong stuff, intoxicating for a conventional gardener like me, lying like a rug from the East in a green setting of parkland and meadow, great oaks and preoccupied sheep. Go when it’s open for the National Gardens Scheme; you and your garden could have a change of mind.