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The garden of a former monastery, with casual planting and religious symmetry

Bruern Abbey in Oxfordshire is a really interesting spot, with layers upon layers of history sculpting its environment. The location was the foundation of a Cistercian monastery in 1147, marking the start of the tale. Documents reveal that under a string of dishonest abbots, the monastic community battled bankruptcy until the abbey eventually experienced prosperity in the fourteenth century. However, the monastery was demolished with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. The current residence, which was constructed on the grounds of the abbey between 1710 and 1720, is unrelated to the old monastery. After housing the Hon. Michael Astor for a considerable amount of time starting in the 1940s, the American attorney Sterling Stover took over as the school’s director. This was transferred to another location and the home was given back to private ownership in the 1990s when it became too large for the original location.

The current proprietors of Bruern are Martin Ritchie and Lord Glendonbrook, who were formerly Sir Michael Bishop. They bought the land in 2012. In under eighteen months, they completed a thorough renovation that “de-institutionalized,” as they described it, and at that time a new garden was designed. They selected Angela Collins, commonly known as Angel, from a shortlist of designers, and she is still in charge of managing the grounds’ growth as they become older. According to Lord Glendonbrook, “We decided we wanted someone who knew the local terrain.” “Angel has designed gardens in this area for 25 years, and we were recommended to her.”

With the exception of two rows of Irish yews that led to a canal at the far end, the most of the garden’s original features had been lost to time and it was mostly composed of grass. The 42-meter-long canal seems little when seen from the home and terrace, but as you go closer, the perspective causes it to enlarge. As there were no documentation of the previous garden and no archeological hints in the terrain, Angel could make her own interpretation of the area.

Unfazed by the expansive six-acre site, she starting jotting down ideas for the structured gardens that extend beyond the commanding Georgian front, as well as for the many smaller garden rooms around the residence. “I was presented with this amazing area,” she explains. “I have created a typical symmetrical baroque layout with repeated planting motifs,” as per my requirement, which I also believed was just the proper thing to do. You really must give the garden classic underpinnings with a home like this, but you may add a more modern feel with the vegetation.

A straightforward nod to the location’s religious past, 16 domed hornbeams were arranged in a double avenue on the cross-axis, complementing the Irish yews. Giant yew “cushions” were used to give further green structure, denoting the boundaries of the quadrangle beds, which total sixteen. According to Angel, “this number is a symbol of love in the Bible.” “It adds a pleasing balance to the garden, which is why I used it everywhere.” Every bed has the same planting scheme, with perennials strewn in for their lifespan. Angel says, “I chose very good, easy plants that hold their color or structure for a long period.” The planting comes to a peak in the late summer, when Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low,’ Sanguisorba ‘Pink Tanna,’ and the graceful white spires of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Diane’ contrast with those of Echinacea purpurea.

A robust backbone of shrubs, such as Euphorbia x pasteurii “Phrampton Phatty,” Phillyrea angustifolia, and Pittosporum tenuifolium “Golf Ball,” which Angel characterizes as “a good alternative to a box ball,” soften the broad terrace that skirts the main façade of the house. The aptly called “Rose des Cisterciens” is one of the rose varieties found here; it’s a stunning, fragrant flower with fluted pink and yellow flowers. “It was pure serendipity—I found it at a local nursery.”

There are more surprises to be discovered around the garden, so it’s not only about the impressive display in front of the home. Steps leading from one side of the front patio reveal an unexpected sight: a field of wildflowers growing up onto the roof of the old school swimming pool, which has been converted into a secret garage. With its amazing elevated perspective over the formal garden, this amazing top terrace is a favorite place for nighttime events. The monk’s garden, which runs across one of the house’s single-story rear wings that have an almost cottage-like character, and a fruitful area with step-over apples and espaliered “Evereste” crab apples are the two modestly sized enclosed gardens on the opposite side of the terrace. In contrast to the formal gardens in the front, which are grander in size, this area is more intimate and smaller.

The Spanish garden, nestled between the house’s two rear wings, is usually the highlight of every garden tour and is always saved for last. After passing through a passageway that resembles a cloister, one enters the most magnificent area: a courtyard with long rills and vibrant vegetation that resembles the Alhambra. The domed Ligustrum lucidum also serves as a visual connection to the other, more formal garden, echoing the forms of the hornbeams. The rills imitate the canal at the front of the house and have sixteen fountains spouting water. Nestled within a froth of hydrangeas and Rosa ‘Boscobel,’ the courtyard provides shelter and warmth to a variety of exotic plants, including the pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana) and Lobelia tupa. The owners make good use of this lovely room, which has the kitchen opening immediately into the patio. “I don’t own a competitive garden,” grinned Lord Glendonbrook. “Angela has definitely given us a garden that we love and enjoy. That’s all I want.”

In the parterre, mauve Verbena bonariensis stands in stark contrast to Rosa ‘Morning Mist’ under espaliered ‘Evereste’ crab apples.

The 42-meter-long canal lined with lilies is the focal point of the breathtaking view of the formal garden that can be seen from the home. Dredged and refilled, it was one of the few remnants of the old garden that was still there. The cerise blossoms of the waterlilies, which are conserved to the greatest extent feasible, provide a stunning spectacle.

The front York-stone patio has Salvia x sylvestris ‘Mainacht’ and Rosa ‘Burgundy Ice’ in the foreground.

Beside the terrace stairs are decorative yew spirals surrounded by purple salvia, red roses, and Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’.

Herbaceous plants flourish under the domed Ligustrum delavayi in the Spanish garden, which has two central rills with sixteen fountains (below).
Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ borders the rills, supported in the shaded Spanish garden by coral-pink Rosa ‘Boscobel’ and Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Madame Emile Mouillère,’ which supports more exotic species, such as Lobelia tupa.

In the herbaceous borders of the formal garden, light strikes the spires of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Diane,’ where a simple color scheme of robust, easy-care plants is repeated to great effect.

On the roof of a concealed garage—once the school swimming pool—grows a field of wildflowers. It was sown from a combination of Pictorial Meadows and requires yearly reseeding.

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