Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the gardens at Kingston Maurward College near Dorchester in Dorset are such a pleasure to visit? As Head Gardener, Nigel Hewish, explains ‘it is a very unusual place. To have an Elizabethan Manor and an 18th century house on one site is unusual enough. But we also have an early 20th century formal garden and a Capability Brown-inspired landscape. I can’t think of anywhere else quite like it.’
Kingston Maurward College is housed in the grand Palladian-style building in the middle of the estate. Built in 1720 for George Pitt, it was positioned close to the Elizabethan Manor House that belonged to his wife. Within a few decades, the family had developed the parkland around both houses in typical 18th century style; incorporating clumps of trees, an impressive lake and a neo-classical temple.
At the start of the First World War the estate was bought by a man with impressive gardening credentials: Sir Cecil Hanbury. His father, Sir Thomas, created the famed ‘La Mortola’ on the Mediterranean border between France and Italy. It was here, after his father’s death that Sir Cecil set up an exchange programme for the students at Kew.
In common with many other estates of its size, Kingston Maurward was requisitioned during the Second World War. Inevitably, the gardens became overgrown, while the parkland was used to store fuel for the D-Day landings. When the War was over, Lady Hanbury sold the property to Dorset County Council for use as a Farm Institute. Today it’s a thriving College offering courses in agriculture and horticulture.
Nigel Hewish joined the Kingston Maurward team in the early 1990s. The College was looking for someone who could mastermind the revival of the Hanburys’ early 20th century garden whilst nurturing an educational link with the college. Nigel was ideally suited to the task.
The revival of the formal gardens was a gradual process and took place over a period of five years. ‘The structure’ Nigel says ‘was already there; it just needed a bit of t.l.c. We didn’t have any written documentation to follow so we used a set of black and white photographs from the late 1920s and 30s and slowly worked our way around.’
‘The design of the garden is excellent’ explains Nigel. ‘The Hanburys made really good use of the space. It works well for visitors too. They enjoy the fact that the gardens are divided up into rooms. They can see ideas here that they can take away to use at home.’ From the semi-tropical planting in the Balustrade Garden to the moisture-loving plants along the stream in the Japanese Garden, there’s certainly plenty to inspire, whether in the ‘Edwardian’ gardens or in the gardens beyond.
In the formal gardens, tall, neatly clipped hedges, enclose nine garden rooms, each beautifully planted and with an atmosphere all of its own. They are designed in a way that invites exploration. Despite the thick hedges that divide them, most include a tempting glimpse of at least one neighbour. From the Brick Garden, an area that Nigel considers to be the gardens’ hub, there are views in 3 different directions. Ahead, the wide gravelled walk of the Terrace Garden leads towards the Palladian House, while to the left lies the Red Garden with its tranquil lily pool and to the right, bursting with summer colour, is the double Herbaceous Border.
One particularly exciting view was discovered quite by accident. Nigel says that while walking alongside the yew hedge that surrounds the central Crown Garden, he caught a glimpse of people working inside. He peered through to get a closer look and spotted a metal frame hidden in the hedge. ‘ I took out my secateurs and snipped’ he says. There was a diamond-shaped hole: a perfect example of a claire-voyee. The gap in the hedge is now restored to its former glory and offers a view up the hill to the Temple of the Four Winds.
A must for any visitor is the short walk to the Temple. The mound upon which it sits was used to survey the estate during the construction of George Pitt’s house. It’s easy to understand why. From here there are views across the formal gardens and the lake and out into the countryside beyond.
As far as the planting is concerned, Nigel and his team use the old photographs as a guide rather than as a rule. Sometimes they have to be flexible. ‘For the last 15 years we’ve had low box hedging around the edges of the beds in the Brick Garden in keeping with the planting in the photographs’ Nigel explains. ‘Unfortunately, earlier this year it was hit by box blight and we decided to take it out’.
‘This summer we planted the beds with their usual argyrantheums, cannas and salvias’ says Nigel. ‘But without the box hedging, the balance wasn’t right. We’ve added some diascias to give them a colourful edge. It seems to have worked. It’s something we haven’t needed to think about for 15 years’.
Visitors don’t have to be too eagle-eyed to notice the large numbers of salvias and penstemons in the gardens. Kingston Maurward has National Collections of both plants. The soil is gravel over chalk, so it’s poor and free-draining. ‘We do have to improve it slightly to stop the penstemons drying out’ explains Nigel ‘but the salvias love the conditions’.
All the plants at Kingston Maurward are propagated on site and of course, propagation plays an important part in the horticultural students’ education. It’s worth walking to the walled garden near the Elizabethan Manor to see the learning material that is provided for them. The area has been used as a demonstration garden for several years but it is now open to visitors.
The revival of the Gardens at Kingston Maurward has evidently been very successful. Are there any sections with which Nigel and his team are particularly pleased? ‘It might seem strange as its something most people don’t notice, but the bit I like best is the metal edging we put in between the grass and the gravel paths’ says Nigel. ‘It was a big job and took a number of years, but it makes a huge difference both to the way it looks and to the maintenance.’
Visitors take note when wandering through these delightful gardens, that as much ‘t.l.c’ has been given to the small details as it has to the delicious planting. There is a lot to enjoy. Be sure to admire it all.