I just paid a visit to Compton Acres, now regarded as one of the most important historic gardens in the UK. Located just outside Poole in Dorset, on the south coast of England, it is blessed with a mild and favoured climate, enabling the cultivation of a wide range of hardy and not so hardy plants.
I have visited several times before, but not for a number of years. Despite its importance Compton Ares was a garden in decline, almost lost and on the verge of being submerged under modern development.
The garden was created in the early 1920s by Thomas William Simpson, an entrepreneur who had made his fortune from margarine. The original house was surrounded by a classic English Arts and Crafts garden, and beyond that a ring of themed gardens in late Victorian Mixed Style.
These included the best known Italian and Japanese gardens, the latter being perhaps the most authentic Japanese garden in the whole of Europe, created by Japanese craftsmen and horticulturists.
During the 1920s and 30s Simpson is reputed to have spent around £220,000 on the gardens, on construction, plants and a vast amount of authentic statuary and ornamentation. Simpson died in 1944, followed soon by his head gardener.
The gardens were cared for by the chauffeur until sold. J Stanley Beard, a London architect bought the gardens and opened them as a tourist attraction in 1952. This involved various alterations to accommodate the large visitor numbers.
Since then they have undergone different ownerships and have coasted along, areas becoming choked by the advancement of existing planting, particularly Rhododendron ponticum. They have also been nibbled at, as areas of land have been sold off for development; not all bad as this has undoubtedly been a lifeline for the garden.
The original mansion was demolished in the 1960s, along with it the Arts and Crafts English garden. This area was sold for development into flats, leaving the themed gardens as the Compton Acres of today.
New owners have invested and developed the ten acres of gardens over the past eight years, under the guidance of horticultural advisors, Mary Payne and Peter Thoday, and with the able hands of a great young gardening team of three.
There is no doubt that a garden of this type cannot survive on admission charges. Sophisticated catering arrangements, a superb wedding venue, plant centre and gift shop provide the real revenue streams, and help to boost visitor numbers from the holiday makers at Sandbanks and Bournemouth, beach resorts nearby.
However, horticulture is still at the heart of the gardens and the team have added over 1,000 different new plants “to recapture the genius of the original gardens”.
The clever aspect of Compton Acres is the maintenance of colour and “wow” factor, alongside a rich palette of plants to appeal to the plantsman. With the wedding venue and all year appeal of the garden there cannot be a down time, so enduring colour is essential. The advisors take great care to select varieties that perform.
Begonias are at the fore for summer in the Italian Garden and Palm Court. They are also really useful where colour is needed in shaded areas. The dark leaved, red flowered Begonia Whopper is a good example of a seasonal plant that performs.
The Italian garden offers the ultimate in wedding photo opportunities with its fountains, colour and classical statuary. Some may consider it rather “Vegas” but one thing the owners have done well is the building work: architecture is in-keeping and impressive and colours are superbly chosen.
The Wooded Valley is a total contrast to the formality of The Italian Garden and Palm Court. Here pine trees and beech trees form the canopy: a growing environment that has become more challenging over the years as the trees have matured.
Here clearance of rhododendron and other overgrown underplayed has presented lots of planting opportunities with the introduction of more hydrangeas and interesting shrubs such as Clerodendrum trichotomum.
These provide more colour and interest later in the season, when there is the potential for more visitors. Pools, steams and dramatic waterfalls complete the picture, along with well-placed sculptures.
The garden already contained a remarkable collection of statues and sculptures but these are added to by the loan of pieces from various artists and the display of some of the present owner’s acquisitions. Some of these are really well used to add elements of drama and surprise.
The rock and water garden may be the largest of its kind in private ownership in the UK, however I expect this may be disputed. This features a vast range of plant material and here again clever use of pockets of seasonal colour maintain the interest for the less enthusiastic plantsmen.
Here so called dwarf conifers have reached dramatic proportions and the landscape has undoubtedly been improved by selective removal.
The heather garden is a wonderful rocky dell with views of the harbour before you descend into it.
A clever mix of winter and summer blooming heathers with grasses and plants from the Southern Hemisphere; including acacias and callistemons, there is interest throughout the year. I would like to see this in early spring when I think the colour would be at its best.
The Japanese garden is the real star with its amazing Kurume hybrid azaleas, Japanese maples and collection of authentic stone and bronze ornaments bought by Simpson in the 1920s.
The Japans teahouse, draped with wisteria and the thatched summerhouse are constructed to authentic designs and sit perfectly in association with beautifully proportioned water and stepping stones.
The real charm of this garden is that you can get totally involved in it and thee is a different vista with every step. The illusion of space is sensational.
Compton Acres is a great example of the evolution of an historic garden to secure its future and preservation. Gardens cannot stand still but if they are to survive sound horticultural practice has to remain at their heart. Long may it continue.