Gardens to visit: Hinton Ampner: A masterpiece of 20th Century Design

By Andy McIndoe

I recently paid a visit to Hinton Ampner, Hampshire, England a beautiful National Trust property on the edge of the South Downs National Park. This is the epitome of the quintessential country estate rebuilt and restored in the last fifty years. Hinton Ampner is the vision of Ralph Dutton, the 8th Lord Sherborne who inherited the house in 1935. A devastating fire in 1960 forced its rebuild and restoration to its former Georgian glory. Neo classical interiors house a fine collection of Georgian furniture and 18th Century paintings. The elegant gardens and parkland surrounding the house command vistas over the National Park beyond.

Toiary and formal beds

Features of the garden include magnificent topiary, a walled garden with restored Victorian greenhouses, a lush, secluded Dell Garden, formal bedding schemes, terraces and some wonderful trees, legacy of the Georgians and Victorians who were so good at planting for future generations.

The church

Entering the garden you pass the exquisite 13th century parish church, the last resting place of Lord Sherborne and his ancestors. In contrast to the mature trees which tower above the pathway is flanked by immaculately trimmed hedges and topiary, only a hit of the stunning vegetable masonry that awaits in the rest of the garden.

My next stop was the walled garden with vegetables to make any gardener green with envy. Superb onions had been lifted and laid out to ripen and dry at the feet of a scarecrow. Glowing golden pumpkins peeped out from beneath a rough blanket of foliage. Perfectly trained apples displayed a fine crop of ripening fruit, just ready for picking.

Drying onions

the scarecrow

I was particularly taken by a tunnel of runner beans. This is a great way to grow beans because it makes picking so easy and turns a humble vegetable into a real feature. The tunnel featured a range of varieties both for continuity of supply and a range of flower colours from white, through salmon to scarlet.

Runner bean tunnel

Like all traditional walled gardens flowers for cutting are a feature; dahlias, sunflowers, amaranthus and the first traditional garden chrysanthemums. I love the see these and smell their aromatic leaves on the cool autumn air; we see them so rarely these days and I have happy memories of selling them as named variety rooted cuttings as a boy.

Yew walk

The formal terraces behind the house step down to the rolling landscape beyond. The mushroom yews in the sunken garden punctuated bright beds of formal bedding that border a neat grass walk through avenues of tall, dark fastigiated yews. The effect is dramatic and inspiring; I long to see it in winter without the distraction of colourful flowers and cheery as they may be.

The formality and seasonal colour are reminiscent of my recent visit to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. This was to film part of my series on Heritage Gardens for BBC South.

Osborne House was the private country retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Although Hinton Ampner does not have the same Italianate influence the trends of the era are just as evident.

Exotic garden

Another similarity between Osborne and Hinton Ampner was the use of exotics in the planting, although at Hinton Ampner I found it in a more naturalistic setting. Leaving the formal terraces the path leads to the secluded Dell Garden, a sweep of informal lawn surrounded by luxuriant planting, catalpa, paulownia, trachcarpus and other subjects with striking foliage with highlights of brightly coloured flowers. Cannas always add a shot of tropical colour and texture, as do the pendent blooms of brugmansia, Angel’s Trumpets.

Fuchias below terrace

Visiting gardens in late summer and early autumn is a really good way to identify those subjects that keep the season going rather than those which still have colour but are fading. In this garden on shallow chalk (alkaline soil) hardy fuchsias excelled and they looked particularly fine alongside the Russian sage, Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’. Hardy hibiscus have liked the warm summer weather and the lovely Hibiscus ‘Lavender Chiffon’ was particularly good. I would like to see this with the sedums that make such a statement in our borders at this time of the year.

Hibisus 'Lavender Chiffon'

Hinton Ampner is not a garden with an incredible wealth of plant material, but it does have a great heritage of garden style. It also has magnificent mature trees. I have enjoyed by encounters with trees while filming the Heritage Garden features for BBC South. The first episode was from Exbury Gardens, Hampshire. This has a wealth of plant material introduced by Lionel de Rothschild and mature trees that date back three centuries.

Hinton Ampner is currently undergoing restoration work on the south side of the house that faces the South Downs. I was pleased to see that the two purple cut-leaved Japanese maples that grace this terrace are carefully protected during the work. These thriving specimens dispel all myths about maples hating direct sun and needing acid soil. The steps below them showcase one of the great survivors in classic gardens: Erigeron karavinskianus which neatly trims the old brick steps. Isn’t it amazing how simplicity so often steals the show in any garden, even with grand design and so many years of history?

Disy steps

Andy McIndoe

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