The English Garden, August 2010

English gardens.

13 October 2010

Five years ago, London-based designer Marcus Barnett was approached by the owners of an idyllic piece of countryside near the Suffolk coast.  The clients were a family with young children who would use the property as a weekend retreat, and were very aware of the natural beauty of this large, 18-acre site. ‘At first,’ says Marcus, ‘they only wanted to ‘do’ a small part of the garden, and other parts piecemeal later on. I always recommend that gardens of this size and importance have a master plan and be designed as whole, even if the work is done in phases and only part of the plan is implemented straight away.’

The clients had no firm idea of what they wanted, but as a starting point, they showed Marcus a contemporary painting that they loved. ‘It was modern work with lots of colour and geometry and they really emphasised how much pleasure it gave them and that they would like a garden to give them that same feeling, he says. ‘The artwork was asymmetrical, so that’s what I tried to pick up on. I ensured that the garden had this quality too, that nothing was too symmetrical.’

The starting point was the farmhouse – a mix of different periods dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries with newer parts that had been blended in seamlessly with old. ‘It’s a very quirky house, and I wanted to reflect that in the garden,’ says Marcus. There were also several outbuildings – the largest being an old granary building (now painted black), which was restored as a cottage for visitors and guests. There was a cart lodge and a long, low summerhouse building, all roofed in warm, terracotta pantiles, clad in timber and painted black.

The farmhouse sits in the ‘middle of nowhere’ and therefore the design had to be rustic in style, yet needed to avoid being ‘twee’. The clients wanted to keep that feeling of wildness and, taking into account the needs of a growing family, they didn't want anything too precious.

Marcus’ team spent 10 months on site, dredging and reshaping the existing ponds, linking the site with wooden walkways and then building and planting the ‘garden’ areas. The clients’ children are very young, and for a while the water areas have to be fenced off, but in a few years the temporary wire-and-pale fencing can be removed. There are lots of sitting areas, both around the house and the land, which is important in a garden this size to make sure that every part is used.

According to Marcus, ‘People often think that because land is ‘countryside’ or ‘wilderness’ that nothing needs to be done, but it is vitally important to know what you have on your land and which parts are protected. For example, this site had a field with rare orchids, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and we liaised with Natural England to make sure it was protected.’

Where this garden has been so successful is in linking up the ‘wild’ and ‘tamed’ areas of the site. There is a geometric design that is evident from the plan, but it is what Marcus calls ‘quiet geometry’. It doesn't shout or scream, but it underpins the garden as a whole, just where it is needed, while respecting the lie of the land.