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An abandoned Cotswolds garden brought back to life with charming, realistic planting

It’s human nature to eye a dilapidated barn as a possible home, especially if it’s on a hill with unobstructed views. This kind of event is normal in the Cotswold borderlands, where the wolds can no longer support large numbers of sheep. One day, while riding her horse, a friend of landscape gardener James Alexander-Sinclair saw a lonely barn across a field. This quickly gained the nickname “shack up a track” as she and her husband converted the land into a home with James’ assistance.

The course itself is somewhat steep in a vehicle, so it might be easier to handle on four legs. But in other respects, it resembles a classic drive through estate grounds, with eye-catching native trees at strategic locations and a profusion of wildflowers suffusing the tall grass. Instead of a hut, a three-sided neoclassical loggia that overlooks the vista from east to west is perched on the hill. Instead of parking, guests go via a formal herb garden situated under very large kitchen windows.

The first landscaping was designed along with the construction of the home. “This is always the best course of action,” James asserts. “People usually feel that they need plumbing before they need plants, so the garden usually comes in second.” The former sheep pasture, exposed to strong winds and situated at an elevation, was planned as a sequence of garden shelters. Meanwhile, a home gradually surfaced from a cluster of structures, which included the old barn, and seemed to have coexisted for more than a dozen years.

“Almost everything here is artificial,” remarks James, pointing to a pond to the east that seems to be entirely natural and is surrounded by native plants like purple loosestrife and blooming rush. The pond, which seems to be “like an infinity pool in the Maldives,” is perched on the brink of an escarpment, reflecting the sky. At this time, it should be mentioned that the property was sold by the original owners a few years later. The garden has been developed by their successors, who aimed to create a more ordered and less informal herb garden, pond, and tree-rich environment. James was clearly the collaborator of choice, and he was lucky to discover in his new customers a family that take pleasure in their garden and are eager to expand it.

James notes that “people buy places, then become frightened of the garden and turf it” much too often. A large view, if poorly planned, may also be quite frightening. Here, the effectiveness of the property’s often quirky vernacular—part French rustic, part barnyard, and part rectory—is supported by the tranquility of the garden and the surrounding landscape. But the true spirit of the garden lies in a secret courtyard that is surrounded on four sides. This gently humming micro-climate is unexpected and hypnotic when the hefty oak doors are closed against the weather.

Gazing at it from the elevated northern tip, the design of the courtyard emerges as a gravel garden, characterized by symmetrical planting spaced by pea gravel pathways. With alliums and Geranium phaeum hanging above euphorbias and the growing leaf of persicaria and Geranium ‘Brookside,’ it’s a brisk symphony of mauve and chlorophyll green in the spring. Later on, “like a mountain goat on a mission,” the magenta geranium “Ann Folkard” would climb over its neighbors. Right now, shoving your way through the garden is the only way to get around it.

“The goal was to create a garden that appeared as though it had just blown in off the hill—a mishmash of plants that would just go about their business,” explains James. Consequently, you will find a wide diversity of naturally coexisting plant communities here, including at least three varieties of persicaria, monarda, and nepeta. With so much life, form, and texture by late summer, color is not a problem. However, the vivid crimson and brilliant yellow of the daylily Hemerocallis ‘Stafford’ should look terrible next to the fluffy pink Sanguisorba obtusa. A fog of Sanguisorba officinalis roughens up the semi-formal note made by many corkscrews of topiarized yew, which is conspicuous in the winter and spring. Purple fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’) leaves behind its juvenile froth to become another wild character.

It’s a heated garden where the sun sets next to a stone fireplace from the Dordogne that gets lighted sometimes at night. The enchanting ambiance is enhanced by a charming colonnade embellished with fragrant Trachelospermum jasminoides and “Madame Alfred Carrière” roses. This section of the courtyard resembles a medieval Périgord-style structure with its low, steep roof. Given that it was purchased in its whole and transported from France, it’s possible that it is.

On the left, a spinney with the first trees planted twelve years ago can be seen, as can a basic wrought-iron gate in the dry-stone wall that offers a view of the wilderness beyond. Some old, gnarled apple trees quickly followed them. Procured from the wind-untouched broad girths of the native equivalent of statement olives, Toti Gifford, the local gardener and former circus master, sources them. Since then, James has planted dozens of oaks, rowans, and clusters of amelanchiers surrounding a swimming-pool garden that lies on the next layer above the courtyard, along with espaliered fruit trees (maintenance assistance provided by Oxford Lawns and Gardens’ Alex Calado).

James has grown to love this garden, and he is overjoyed to see a flourishing tree that he has known since it was only a stick. “Planting trees is the first thing to do when starting a new garden,” he advises. “You will have to live another year to see them do anything if you give it a year.” He adds, “The second best time is not just now but this afternoon,” citing a Chinese saying that states that planting a tree is better done 20 years ago.

James removed gorse from the area, which had been used as sheep grazing pasture, and planted hundreds of natural trees, including oaks and rowans, in their place.

Clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ is housed in an open loggia with a taste of southern Europe. Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’, trimmed holly, and geranium ‘Brookside’ border the stairs.

Overlooking a walled gravel garden is an old structure that was imported from France, with beautiful ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ roses hanging from its wooden columns.

Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album,’ purple monarda ‘Scorpion,’ and soft pink Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Rosea’ are abundant throughout the network of walkways.

Sliding open, the ancient barn’s doors provide views of the Cotswold Hills; in front of the barn, orange Hemerocallis ‘Golden Chimes’ are framed by allium seedheads.

A spiral of yew emerges from clouds of pink S. obtusa and maroon Sanguisorba officinalis, accompanied by scarlet Hemerocallis ‘Stafford’ and yellow-flowered purple fennel that flies to the sky.

Yew topiary and a profusion of herbs are surrounded by a formal herb garden consisting of box-edged beds between the road and the kitchen.

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