Chance encounters Posted on August 10, 2015

I should know the Cotswolds better. My two lifelong favourite gardens, Rousham and Hidcote, are there, or at least en route. But I am always confused by the tourist-board names. This on the Wold, That on the Water, One on the Hill and Another in the Marsh. High-hedged lanes wander dementedly between clusters of cottages, all buff stone, many thatched, all painted in Farrow & Ball colours. One gets lost.

This excursion started at our favourite pub, the King’s Head at Bledington, with few clear objects, turning aside when a church tower, an intriguing signpost or a Garden Open sign hove into view. Sezincote and its Indian gardens were shut, as we learnt at the gate, but at Bourton the Hill we found Bourton House garden open. I had missed its election as HHS/Christies Garden of the Year in 2007 and was caught unawares by its quality, its mastery of palettes and idioms, from some of the coolest to quite the hottest borders I have seen, from severity in topiary to a box parterre like a nest of serpents, from placid pastoral to hothouse exotic. Does a bird of such bright plumage in the calm of the Cotswolds conform to the rule that gardens should reflect and interpret their surroundings?

Another chance encounter was Minster Lovell. The name on the signpost was somehow familiar, but at first the sign seemed a wrong steer; the lane led only to an isolated church – if a fine one. Behind the church, though, was a revelation: the pale ruined towers of a medieval mansion on the green riverbank of the Windrush. How rare it is to find an important monument these days uncluttered by signs and gift-shops, not a teapot in sight. This is the mansion the Coke family left behind to establish themselves in Norfolk at Holkham. It is not a violated abbey, just a great house left without a roof. Why?

English Heritage deserves a prize for its sign, a brief history of the house with Opening Times: “Any Reasonable Time”. Nowadays such a non-prescriptive notice is a rare sight.

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