Best Garden at Chastleton lives up to its name after restoration


Chastleton’s Best Garden lives up to its name after restoration.
Chastleton’s Best Garden lives up to its name after restoration.

Head gardener Rosy Sutton and her team have restored the Best Garden at Chastleton near Chipping Norton so that it is worthy of its name once more. Now officially opened, the four-year project returns the Best Garden to its original Jacobean format of concentric circles of beds radiating from a central sundial.

Within a circular yew hedge are now two bedding circles planted in calming, muted shades and gently mounded shapes to complement the cloud topiary. There are two wider concentric beds outside the hedge, flowering in pinks, yellows and apricots. A narrow path runs between the beds, and tall, scented borders gently lean in to create a tunnel effect and a secret garden feel.

Before the restoration, the Best Garden contained only the circular hedge and cloud topiary as the beds had been turfed over. The garden was well-looked after until the 1950s, then it went into decline as the family couldn’t maintain it.

Chastleton was owned by the same family for nearly 400 years, from the early days of the lavish house in the 17th century until the family became increasingly impoverished. Unable to update it as fashion changed, the house remained a Jacobean time capsule.

For the garden, this meant that instead of being swept away in the Capability Brown era, Chastleton retained its original layout. It is arranged in a cross shape around the house. The South Court is a calm space framing the façade of the house.

To the north are the games’ lawns – originally bowls, then tennis, now croquet, once again. The East of the house has the best light, and this is where the most used and most public rooms of the house are located. These overlook the Best Garden.

After the National Trust acquired Chastleton in 1991, a conservation garden plan was drawn up that reflected the Trust’s approach to the house, which was not to fully restore it to its shiny heyday but to retain and preserve its faded and romantic air of decline.

The plan for the garden was a slow and gentle ‘tightening of the reins’ whilst retaining its dreamy, blowsy air with billowing planting and ‘woolly’ edges.

The restoration of the Best Garden was in the long-term conservation garden plan, but the impetus to make it happen came from Head Gardener Rosy Sutton. She’d noticed that, given its name, visitors were expecting more from this area of the garden.

Rosy was helped in the research process as drought showed up the edges of the borders as parch marks, and there were plenty of historic photographs showing an Edwardian shape and structure of planting.

Rosy and her team broke ground in 2019, starting with the inner beds around the sundial. When the garden team was furloughed in 2020, Rosy tutored the duty manager over the phone on how to weed and use the ride-on mower.

The Best Garden is designed to be seen from Easter but comes into its own in July. Inspired by the Edwardian style, perennials are planted in large swathes with no space for weeds and need one big cutback in winter. Modern plant varieties were used for their disease resistance and better adaptation to climate change.

There is no bulb layer, but the spring planting was inspired by one of the last owners of the house, Alan Clutton-Brock. He was a professor at the Slade School of Art and generally started his paintings with an ochre wash to give a warm undertone to the artwork.

The Best Garden’s warm undertone begins with the acid green of giant euphorbias and wallflowers, followed by alliums and bearded irises, peonies and tree peonies, giant scabious and the June flowering shrub, deutzias. There are also weigela and philadelphus for the scent, grasses such as stipa gigantia Gold Fontaine for drama and structure, and then asters towards the end of the season.

Chastleton Head Gardener Rosy Sutton said: “We’re really excited for the Best Garden this year, it’s going to look so good. We’ve already noticed a real difference in how people use the space. Before the restoration, visitors would scuttle across the turf taking the shortest route to the exit. Now, people stay for ages, walking the full loops of the paths and admiring the clouds of butterflies on the buddleia.”

Restoring the topiary is an ongoing project in the Best Garden. Within the circular yew hedge, there are 24 topiary box shrubs. These were originally intricately cut into fantastical shapes, such as a fat hen, a Spanish galleon in full sail, a crown, a fan-tailed dove and a Chinese-style crouching lion.

The historic photos show that as the shrubs grew unevenly, the gardeners would tweak the designs. For instance, a slender thoroughbred horse became a pantomime horse, then (possibly because one of the legs failed) a knight chess piece. Another evolution was a bird on a nest, which got too big and was stumped back into an egg, and then as it grew back, it was shaped once more into a bird on a nest.

Mindful of the fragility of the box, the gradual ‘tightening of the reins’ approach is being applied to the restoration of the topiary, and Rosy expects the project to take around 15 years. The one she’s most excited about is restoring the shape of a cow looking over the hedge.

The official opening of the Best Garden on 11 July was a typical Chastleton affair with speeches in the forecourt and ribbon-cutting in the Best Garden, followed by a game of croquet and tea and cake served by volunteers in the church.

Trending news

Latest news

More from The Oxford Magazine