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Godinton House and Gardens, near Ashford: home to the longest yew hedge in south east England

Probably the longest yew hedge in south east England, if not the whole country, ensures visitors to Godinton House and Gardens, near Ashford, know they are entering a garden of special significance, writes Lesley Bellew.

The clipped dark band of green with raised gables that echo the architectural features of red-brick Godinton House was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield who is perhaps best remembered for designing the Menin Gate, in Ypres – the Memorial to the Missing in Flanders Fields during the First World War.

In 1898, the architect and designer came to Kent and laid out the formal garden at Godinton, with vistas over the ancient parkland now graced with majestic oaks and chestnut trees. It is little changed although the planting is now in a softer, romantic style.

While the house has seen centuries of interior change, Blomfield’s terraced lawns and topiary box remain as a tranquil haven just three miles from Ashford and its international train station.

Head gardener Viv Hunt says she feels that passing the house to enter this formal part of the garden is always the best start to the garden tour because the area is so ‘meditative and quiet’.

Pretty pink blocks in the Walled Garden Picture: Keoghan Bellew
Pretty pink blocks in the Walled Garden Picture: Keoghan Bellew

This summer, a moment’s pause to consider that the house has stood for 600 years through wars, riots, plague and now Covid-19 is rather sobering – beauty endures despite all ravages.

Now re-open to the public, the gardens are dripping in summer colour. The original herbaceous borders are ablaze with asters, sedums, roses and look out for the Burning Bush, Dictamnusalbus, a herbaceous perennial that gets its name because their resinous seed heads are flammable.

Viv has been head gardener at Godinton for 21 years. When she arrived the gardens had been ‘somewhat neglected’ so during the past two decades she has overseen a vast amount of planting.

She said: “First, the garden structure needed sorting because the garden had been quite neglected – but that made it a lovely project. When I arrived the yew hedge had already been cut back on the outside so the following year we cut the tops and shaped the gables. Two decades later it is looking magnificent.”

Grey wagtail at the formal pond at Godinton HousePicture: Keoghan Bellew
Grey wagtail at the formal pond at Godinton HousePicture: Keoghan Bellew

Viv has allowed a 100-year-old box garden to grow organically; its soft, wibbly-wobbly shape contrasting with the sharp lines of the yew, flowing around the statue of Pan.

Visitors can also enjoy what Viv describes as a ‘wonderful year for roses’.

She said: “The roses are beautiful this year and Open Arms, a soft peach-pink single rose with a really long flowering season and so good for pollinators, is doing well in the borders. Delphiniums are coming into their second flowering and the late clematis are climbing over walls. There’s lots to see.”

The large formal pond at the end of the terrace is also part of Blomfield’s original design.

Sweet peas fill air with perfume in the Walled Garden
Sweet peas fill air with perfume in the Walled Garden

Viv said: “It was probably a swimming pond. There are steps down and it’s rather shallow,so at this time of the year we have to go in once a week to remove the algae. It is lovely to see the wagtails skimming across the water.”

The area that brings Viv most pleasure is the wildflower garden where bee, pyramid and spotted orchids have appeared naturally.

Wildflower meadows are notoriously labour intensive so Viv’s top tip is to use yellow rattle to help decrease the grass and increase the wildflowers.

She said: “Yellow rattle has made all the difference, it connects itself to the roots of the grass, reducing its vigour and giving other wildflowers the space to grow.

“When we started adding yellow rattle seed to the three-acre meadow we were a bit concerned because it worked so well at reducing the vigour of the grasses that it created bare patches.

Godinton House head gardener Viv Hunt
Godinton House head gardener Viv Hunt

"I visited Highgrove in Gloucestershire, and the gardeners there said they had the same experience but found it worked in a seven-year cycle with the yellow rattle reducing as the grass weakens.

“We mow the meadow in late summer, taking away all the cuttings, and keep it short over winter so that the snowdrops will show up well.

“Because we have a such a big wild garden area we couldn’t seed it all so we have simply allowed plants to naturalise. The year starts with a fantastic show of daffodils, anemones and fritillaries followed by the orchids and oxeye daisies and other, later,wild flowers are appearing including a really good mix of knapweed, hawkweed and rosebay willowherb by the pond.

“There are also so many more birds, butterflies, insects and wildlife. Alongside the duck pond we have seen a kingfisher recently.”

In fact, the garden is alive with wonderful birdsong, from blackbirds in the walled garden to house martins and little owls, green woodpeckers and jays near the car park.

Godinton is home to probably the longest yew hedge in south east England
Godinton is home to probably the longest yew hedge in south east England

The newest part of garden is the long border which has benefited from plenty of compost made within the gardens. Look out for the hydrangeas, jasmine, ‘Mermaid’ rose, ‘Margaret Hunt’ clematis, and Glycyrrhizayunnanensis – known as the liquorice plant which haslarge orangey red seed heads.

Marvel at the small but perfectly formed Italian Garden and the highlight for many, the large walled garden which is bursting with blocks of dahlias, delphiniums, Antirrhinum, salvias and sweet peas alongside artichokes, lettuce and tomatoes.

While visitors cannot enter the Ornamental Greenhouse due to the prevailing health and safety rules, the Fern House is open for visitors to walk through to admire the Chilean glory vine, streptocarpus and ferns.

In the middle of the garden is a lily pond framed by four umbrella-shaped Crataegusx lavallei ‘Carierrei’, the broad-leaved Cockspur Thorn, and trained apple trees above swathes of lavender.

Cut flowers are not needed while the house is closed for the 2020 season so Viv and her team of gardeners have sown far more vegetables.

The Walled garden at Godinton is bursting with colour
The Walled garden at Godinton is bursting with colour

Viv said: “It may be a coincidence but this year rabbits and pigeons, to put it politely, have been making our lives very difficult.”

And if the rabbits and pigeons are kept at bay do visit the Stables, a takeaway area for visitors where Kim O’Connor and Sara Milesare serving treats made from garden produce including gooseberry cake, blackcurrant flapjacks, chocolate and beetroot brownies and courgette cake.

Visitors to Godinton from July 25 to August 16 can enjoy the Sculpture in the Gardens event.

The annual exhibition of local sculptors’ contemporary work features Simon Probyn, Jane Richardson, Wendy Rainthorpe, Richard Cresswell, Renee Kilburn, Rob Leighton, Paul Harvey, Joe Tzabo, Ptolemy Elrington, Ronnie Dongo, Sarah Davis, Christine Baxter, Angela Farquarson, Martin Duffy, Gavin Roweth and James Dalywho will add more attractive elements to the 12-acre gardens – and give a visitors an opportunity go home with a new piece of art to grace their own garden.

Take a seat by to admire the lily pond framed by four umbrella-shaped Crataegus prunifolia Picture: Keoghan Bellew
Take a seat by to admire the lily pond framed by four umbrella-shaped Crataegus prunifolia Picture: Keoghan Bellew

FACTFILE

Godinton House and Gardens are three miles from M20 Junction 9 at Ashford. Follow the signs from the A20.

The estate covers 900 acres of historic parkland, farmland, forestry and cottages with footpaths across the grounds being part of the Countryside Steward Scheme while the River Stour runs through the estate.

Open Tuesday to Sunday until November 1, 1pm-6pm

All tickets must be booked in advance at godintonhouse.co.uk

Fill in the web form stating your preferred date and entry time. You will be sent confirmation of your visit with guidelines and a map showing a one-way route in and out of the garden.

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