How to add rural appeal to a contemporary garden design

Self-taught garden designer Sean Swallow has reused and cleverly referenced historic features in his sleek, new vision for his Gloucestershire garden.


The garden of an old yeoman’s house in the Wye Valley once boasted, according to its owner and garden designer Sean Swallow, a box parterre with a wishing well, a splayed hornbeam avenue. Five years later, it has transformed into a collection of calm, open garden rooms where soft, sometimes wild, vertical planting juxtaposes nicely with the horizontal lines of sculpted grass terraces and geometric stone walls.

The garden also has two ponds (formal and natural), a walled garden, a courtyard, a ha-ha, and a new (intentionally) irregularly spaced hornbeam walk – all elements of the traditional country garden to which Sean and Max have given a subtle contemporary spin.

To help settle the new garden into the landscape Sean and Max were determined to reflect, reuse and recreate materials already present. Here, you can see how some of the original features have been recycled to add some rural appeal into the contemporary design. 

Mounting block
A block of stone once used for a rider to mount a horse – a leftover from the original garden – seemed to fit where it was: planted randomly in the lawn and making no sense. This is Sean’s favourite part of the garden – he can spend hours gazing at it and the landscape beyond.

Existing stone walls
The stone walls had collapsed or had virtually disappeared and it took two dry stone wallers two years to fully restore. In keeping with the area, additional stone was sourced locally and walls built without capstones.

Rusty iron gate
Sean found a gate in the original garden. “We reinterpreted the design and made it our own,” he says. The resulting strong and simple lines were achieved by Thomas Forge in Fownhope, Hereford (Tel 01432 860262).

Ancient apple tree
One of the few original natural features remaining from the old garden and the starting point for Sean and Max’s design. “It was really lovely making a garden around a tree such as this,” says Sean. The formal pond was carefully placed to reflect the tree’s silhouette.

Top of a cider press
This mighty stone doughnut takes two strong men and a large digger to move, which Sean has done several times. He thinks he has finally found its rightful spot. Much relief all round.

Sean is constantly moving and replanting a collection of pots from the Hode Pottery ( Made from stoneware clay, they have an unusual silver-grey colour wash and are exceptionally strong yet light to move around. They are impervious to frost and can be left out all winter.


Words Camilla Swift

Photographs Fiona McLeod

This article was taken from a longer feature in the September issue of Gardens Illustrated (issue 238). 

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