Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Coleton Fishacre, Devon, England

Devon is a fantastic place to visit gardens, and Coleton Fishacre is another one of its treasures. I loved this garden for the simple reason that it has a strong central theme, which is supported and reinforced through every element in the garden. I know this is a well-known design principle, but I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of having one unifying principle – it truly makes for the best, most powerful gardens.

Coleton is set on a sloping hill, and the chosen focal theme is a stream that runs along a narrow valley all the way from the house and straight down to the sea below. It starts as a small spring at the top of the hill, which feeds into a stone canal that forms the central axis of the formal gardens around to house. At the end of the linear canal, the water cascades over the edge of the upper gardens, breaking free of formality and starting its winding trek down the valley. Along the way, it goes through a series of increasingly larger ponds, under bridges and past lush plantings which get wilder and wilder lower in the valley. Everything sits so comfortably in the landscape, even some of the more tropical-looking plantings, that it just feels right. You are guided by the stream through the garden, with no need for maps or explanations.

Libertia - one of the stars of the garden with fantastic white flowers and amazing foliage. Wonder if it would be hardy in Canada?

The original owners of Coleton Fishacre, which is now a National Trust Property, loved tropical plants and new introductions, many of which thrived in the protected climate at Coleton, including the tree ferns.

Even the banks on either side of the stream support the central focus on the valley. They are steeply sloped, thus never letting you forget the valley at the bottom. The planting is mainly woodland, and works to perfectly frame the stream below. There are some impressive tree specimens to be found here, such the massive, glowing, purple beeches (Fagus sylvatica purpurea) below. The wild onions roamed free lower in the valley and were beautiful at this time of year, though they can be quite invasive.

The house itself is also well worth a visit, though we didn’t have the time – the garden was the priority. It sits perfectly in the landscape, and the main terrace provides spectacular views over the garden and the sea below. It was designed by Oswald Milne, formerly an assistant to Edwin Lutyens, perhaps explaining the strong link between house and garden. Not everyone has such a wonderful natural landscape to work with, but Coleton Fishacre sure makes the most of it.

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