Gardens Illustrated
Old Rectory Garden
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

Colour and personality in an old rectory garden

Published: July 25, 2022 at 8:00 am
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In a garden that was once only about looking out, James Alexander-Sinclair has brought colour and personality close to the house through abundant planting. Words Kendra Wilson, Photographs Britt Willoughby Dyer

When James Alexander-Sinclair began working on this rectory garden four years ago, most of the area used by his clients and their family faced north, with a vast open sky to the east. By lunchtime, the sun had moved to the other side of the church behind the house, shining on a field of nettles.

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He was tasked with connecting the whole garden, which wraps around both the house and the church. Northamptonshire villages are peculiarly feudal, often still dominated by the ancient set-up of manor, vicarage and church. At this old rectory, the church is so close to the house that it is in the back garden.

Newly rationalised, with terraces for maximum sun as well as a variety of views, the garden has the appearance of being quietly at peace with its surroundings, as inevitable as Northamptonshire stone or the ridge-and-furrow fields just below.

IN BRIEF

What Rectory garden that surrounds a church on three sides. 

Where Northamptonshire. 

Size Two-acre garden within an 18-acre site. 

Soil Clay. 

Climate Exposed hilltop, which can get very windy. 

Hardiness zone USDA 8.

“James gave us terraces and a way of navigating different areas around the garden,” comments owner Victoria Bridgeman, while pointing out that previously the garden was mainly about the view and little else. Instead, there is focus in the foreground: a rill joins the two terraces, with the pale inflorescence of Eremurus ‘Joanna’ picked up in the creamy effusion of several Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ in deep borders, backed by billowing roses.

Old Rectory Garden
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

James' appreciation of colour and refinement comes across in plant choices, such as a duo of vanilla and raspberry sweetshrubs, Calycanthus ‘Venus’ and Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’, and in the great number of roses, including Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’, which James has been using for a long time. It flowers repeatedly in myriad shades, “from a rather elegant dark pink to a pale, laundered apricot”. Turk’s cap lilies make themselves known all around the terraces, as well as salvias in the ground, in pots, and anywhere they will fit.

The landscape relaxes down the bank from the terraces and rill, with tough but beautifully scented rugosa roses in grass. They are probably the best roses for exposure and many more are being added. This area signals the next part of the journey around the property: at each stage, the view is represented, with different angles seen from pausing places that are also being added with enthusiasm.

Old Rectory Garden
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

The traditional vicar’s lawn has been rationalised for use in the 21st century, with sections of long grass and high-spirited herbaceous borders, which include dark stemmed Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’. New trees – constantly being added at different sizes – bring life and height to the garden while filtering wind, along with the mature trees around the garden’s edges.

Old Rectory Garden
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

Along the wall separating the house and garden from the church, a 2.5m- deep border runs parallel to a rill that James put in to point towards the view over Northamptonshire. Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ clothes the house wall; Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ mingles with fennel, near Agapanthus africanus and more raspberry colour from Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’.

Old Rectory Garden
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

A long and tall east-facing wall is used to best advantage, supporting clouds of roses that mix with honeysuckle, the clouds continuing with creamy Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ in the deep borders. Making further incursions across the lawn by the rill, salvias include Salvia ‘Royal Bumble’ and Salvia yangii. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ holds the near corner along with Penstemon ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’.

Old Rectory Garden
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

Another section of the view is framed by two ancient oaks, with a line of beech trees planted by ‘Capability’ Brown strung out along the horizon to the left. In between, a growing population of rugosa roses, including Rosa ‘Blanche Double de Coubert’ occupies the long grass by an allée of fastigiate yews tumbling down towards a gate into the deer park.

8 key plants of the Old Rectory Garden

Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’

Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

Designer favourite, with single flowers that open yellow then age to pink and crimson. As it’s long-flowering, there is myriad colour on one plant. 2m x 2.5m. AGM

Eremurus ‘Joanna’

Eremurus ‘Joanna’
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

Sun-loving, vigorous perennial spires on stout stems that need no staking, sometimes growing in a way that is not straight. Very tall. 2.5m x 30cm. AGM.

Rosa Scepter’d Isle (= ‘Ausland’)

Rosa Scepter’d Isle
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

English shrub rose from David Austin, repeat flowering over a long season, strongly scented. Happy in sun or part shade. 1.25m x 1.25m.

Achillea ‘Summerwine’

Achillea ‘Summerwine’
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

A perennial that has much appeal in borders and is also highly attractive to pollinators. It has divided foliage that is a good foil to its handsome crimson flowers. Happiest in full sun. 90cm x 50cm. AGM.

Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’

Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

Velvety, tender, perennial sage with aromatic leaves. Long-flowering, very attractive to pollinators, needs shelter and full sun. 75cm x 50cm. AGM. Don't miss our plant profile on the best salvias for your garden.

Rosa Lady of Shalott (= ‘Ausnyson’)

Rosa Lady of Shalott (= ‘Ausnyson’)
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

English shrub rose. Repeat flowering and lightly scented, the big draw is the flower shape and petal colour of a glowing, peachy-orange. 1.5m x 1.25m. AGM.

Eryngium x tripartitum

Eryngium x tripartitum
© Britt Willoughby Dyer

An excellent choice for exposed areas, brings colour and texture and many hoverflies. Needs full sun and soil that is well-drained. 1m x 50cm. AGM. Here's our piece on everything you need to know about eryngium.

Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’

Anemone x hybrida
© Britt Willoughby Dyer
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A fabulous plant for bringing life back to a flagging border, as it stays fresh from August until first frosts. Does well in part shade. 1.2m x 1.2m. AGM.

Authors

Kendra Wilson is a garden writer with a background in print design. She began writing while training with WRAGs in Northamptonshire as a practical gardener. Kendra is the author of several books: on landscapes, art, and landscapes in art.

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