Name Upper Sydling House. What A farmhouse with a romantic garden that connects with the surrounding landscape. Where Dorset. Size Three acres. Soil Stony brash with a high water table. Climate Temperate, with warm summers and mild winters. Hardiness zone USDA 9.
Nestled in a fold of hills in deepest, rural Dorset is the picture-postcard village of Up Sydling, where wisteria-clad, flint-and-thatch cottages straddle crystal-clear, fast-flowing chalk streams. It is here, along a lane edged with high earth banks, that you eventually reach a cobbled ford, whose joyful margins burst with yellow flag iris, beyond which lies the garden of Susanne and Alastair Cooper. When the Coopers arrived here in 2005, they had no links with Dorset, but were looking for somewhere with multiple habitats where Alastair could farm organically. A passionate conservationist, Alastair immediately began to convert the farm to organic status. It is testament to his vision and hard work that everything looks organised, productive and healthy.
The farmhouse Upper Sydling sits in a valley surrounded by curvaceous hills; the light here seems to have a verdant luminosity, where lines are lengthened, and detail exaggerated. The landscape is everything and all views reach out towards it. Layered hedges along field boundaries, copses tucked into creases and veteran trees standing isolated link this ancient landscape back to the house and garden.
Susanne has always been fond of flowers, particularly peonies. “I’m mad about them, even though the blooms are so short-lived,” she says. A garden style of loosely interconnecting rooms (but more relaxed than, say, Sissinghurst) provides her with the intimacy and shelter to indulge her passions. The garden was not always like this, however; the current Rill Garden was originally an indoor swimming pool, the walled garden the site of lambing sheds, and outbuildings for food processing occupied a concrete yard to the side of the house. The Coopers initially worked with designer Simon Johnson on a framework for the garden. The walled Cutting Garden was the first thing they built. Cruciform in layout, at its centre is a dipping pool and fountain with four clipped hornbeams. Very much the beating heart of the garden, the Cutting Garden provides the flowers for the creative workshops that Susanne hopes to resume this summer. A way of sharing the garden with like-minded people, these days provide the chance for participants to see the garden and learn new skills.
Although this sufficed in the early years, a visit to Hanham Court, the then home of garden designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman, piqued Susanne’s interest in gardening further and confirmed the kind of garden she and Alastair wanted – romantic and intimate, full of roses, peonies and scent. In 2011, the Coopers presented the Bannermans with a brief to do just that. Since then, Susanne, an accomplished colourist, has refined the planting palette, finding out what works well aesthetically and in keeping with the garden’s organic principles.
She is also experimenting with a sprinkling of rewilding in the borders, with feverfew, forget-me-nots, campions and honesty. “We’re using more annuals now, mostly grown here, to extend the season,”she says. She has also simplified certain smaller areas of the garden outside the original brief, with the aim of creating a contrast with the blousy and colourful herbaceous planting elsewhere. The result is subtle yet striking; muscular yet free-flowing.
The effect on entering the rose garden is one of tight design offset by loose and fluid planting. The Bannermans’ touch is everywhere, from the clipped yew balls, acidic-yellow euphorbia and bearded irises to the eryngium gently self-seeding in the gravel, adding a softness and spontaneity to the planting, and an oversized copper planter stuffed to the gunwales with tulips. The built structures are typically Bannerman too, with beautifully crafted flint walls topped with green-oak balustrade. Sixteen beehive yews stand guard, and scented shrubs such as lilac and philadelphus provide the structural framework for perennials, annuals and bulbs to foam in contented exuberance. There is a contrast of textures and materials, but all is restrained; informal uniformity is the abiding feel.
The spring layer of planting segues effortlessly into summer, when Susanne’s beloved roses take centre stage. Spilling from every nook and cranny, sometimes alone, sometimes in a huddle, but always spectacular, hundreds of plants explode into bloom through June and July. Reflecting on the process of making a garden, Susanne admits that it takes time: “Sometimes you have to accept that something won’t work where you want it to – this is the hardest lesson.” Not that you’d know it from seeing this garden, with its unerring sense of proportion and detail that takes nothing away from its surroundings.