Batcombe House: The ‘essential Somerset garden’ with a display of gloriously wild flowers, relaxed atmospheric scenery and an unexploded WWII shell in one of the borders


When Libby Russell moved to Batcombe House, Somerset, it was the countryside she fell in love with. For the past 17 years, she has drawn inspiration from this landscape to create a garden that is completely comfortable in its setting. Natasha Goodfellow reports. with photographs of Eva Nemeth.

As the niece of the 10th Duke of Rutland, Libby Russell is no stranger to beautiful landscapes.

Born Elizabeth Manners, she grew up on the Belvoir Estate in Leicestershire and Haddon Hall in Derbyshire and it was this sense of the beauty of her surroundings – a fusion of light, sights and the color of the stone peculiar to a place – which she and her husband, Alexander Russell, were looking for when they started looking to relocate around 2001.

“We lived near the coast in Kent,” says Ms. Russell, half of Mazzullo + Russell Landscape Design, “but the terrain there was very flat and the trees were struggling to grow. I wanted to find a beautiful, natural countryside, not too far from London, that we could afford and that I could fall in love with.

Batcombe Gardens. © Eva Nemeth

Their search eventually led them to Somerset, to a Georgian parsonage built on a 17th century farm with around 100 acres in the village of Batcombe.

“Before showing us the house, the seller dropped us off at the top of the land across the valley and suggested we walk back,” says Russell.

“We saw the fields buzzing with insects; the astonishing meadows of wild flowers full of bellflowers, daisies and yellow rattles; the beautiful stream crossed by a Doulting stone bridge – the stone used in Wells Cathedral. From the top of one of the hills we saw the view of Glastonbury Tor. Of course, by the time I got home, I had fallen madly in love – it’s such a beautiful part of the world.

Batcombe Gardens. © Eva Nemeth

The sloping garden behind the house, when they finally reached it, had less to recommend. Apart from an imposing cedar, “the Maserati of his time”, planted by the priest around 1785, there was a small space enclosed by a yew hedge and then “hardly more than two asymmetrical rectangles of lawn at the top of a hill ”.

Firmly believing that “as long as the setting is right you can make a house and you can make a garden,” the Russell’s made an offer.

Believing that a good garden should feel like it’s always been there, Ms Russell set out to design what she describes as a ‘essential Somerset garden’, with hoggin paths, wicker doors and local stones.

“Somerset is not all aligned and perfect,” she explains. “It’s hilly and gentle with winding roads and quirky charm. I wanted something that had that vibe and spoke to the landscape around it – connecting the garden to the other side of the valley, the wild flowers of the fields and the streaks of the limestone hills made by centuries of grazing sheep.

Rare white-legged crayfish, native to the UK, swim in the pond where foam tuff collects on lime deposits. © Eva Nemeth

There was a huge amount of hardcore to be removed – Nissen huts had been built on the land for the Americans stationed here during WWII. An unexploded shell was found while preparing the upper borders and the demining unit had to be called in.

The classified cedar limited the implantation of the retaining walls. But most of the tests were the vastly different levels and, of course, the drainage they required. “The whole garden was an exercise in how you go up a hill and the different ways you can do it,” she explains.

His solution was twofold. On one side of the garden, she built a series of gently curving grass benches that both echo the contours of the landscape beyond and act as a visual trick, shifting the axis to make the house feel centered. in space, “what is absolutely is not,” she laughs.

A relaxed mass of ammi, fennel and poppies contrasts with the fruit trees standing in the terrace garden. © Eva Nemeth

On the other, she opted for steps and a succession of terraces, starting with an herb garden outside the kitchen (a long-standing dream) and gradually revealing a vegetable garden, a swimming pool, a court. tennis court and an orchard with wild flowers.

The two sides were designed to satisfy Ms Russell’s passion for plants (she is a long-time member of the RHS Herbaceous Plant Committee), albeit in very different ways. The amphitheater garden bursts with large displays, or ‘whammies’, every six weeks or so, ranging from magnolias and daffodils in spring to asters and grasses in autumn, while the terraced garden is managed more intensive.

Here, deep borders burst with generous plantations of Rosa ‘Mundi’, Nepeta “Giant of the six hills”, Papaver somniferum‘Lauren’s Grape’ and mugwort. There are flowerbeds of a more delicate pointillist style, where digitalis and stachys rub shoulders with astrantia and agastache against a background of pyramidal yews.

Rosa ‘American Pillar’ and ‘De Rêscht’ make the old stables grow. © Eva Nemeth

A long espalier of apples (Malus toringo, a species she loves for its bloom and dark red, perennial apples) leads to the vegetable garden, where patterned flowerbeds compete for attention with cupped pears, strings of currants, sweet pea wigwams and a hazelnut tunnel smothered with gourds, borlotti beans or cobaea. “That’s how I like to design,” she reveals. ‘I like a solid structure and then I let the plants go crazy.’

Partly because the garden is open to charity and visits, it is designed to have a long season of interest. With the help of head gardener Tom Price and assistant gardener Sue McCardle, greenhouse-grown annuals and biennials are added to the displays, with dahlias and sage parachuting in and out of borders as the year is progressing. “We’re always trying to find plants that are good,” adds Ms. Russell, “especially since I’m often absent from work. “

Roses, of which the garden has an embarrassment, have proven to be such a plant – from ‘Climber Madame Caroline Testout’ (‘correctly up to a large facade’) or rambler ‘Ghislaine de Féligonde’ to shrub roses’ Felicia ‘and’ Buff Beauty ‘within the borders.

“I like plants that are happy in one place and roses do well here. They love the land, they love the sun and they give you this amazing punch, that first celebration of summer. ‘

Silver pears (Pyrus Salicifolia), Rose “Mundi” and Nepeta ‘Six Hill Giant’ flank the steps to the vegetable garden. © Eva Nemeth

Whatever plants she chooses, Russell is keen to make them fit into the relaxed and natural atmosphere of the garden. This could mean that the wildflowers themselves, such as ox-eye daisies and devil’s scab, are put to good use in the beautiful grass-framed plate on one side of the kitchen.

Or it could mean finding cultivars that have the feel of wild plants, but work better: umbellifera like ammi or orlaya, reminiscent of the clouds of cow parsley, or the beautiful Rosa ‘Lyda Rose’. “It’s wonderful with ox-eyed daisies,” says Russell. “It looks like the best wild heather rose, but it’s actually a repeat-flowering shrub rose. There is a harmony there, an ease, and I hope it is true to the essence of this place.

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