Iris sibirica fringe a stream that flows through the orchard below Mothecombe House. The house is flanked by a large Magnolia x soulangeana already in leaf on the left and the candyfloss-pink blossom of a Judas tree Cercis siliquastrum on the right.

The enchanted gardens of Mothecombe House

At Mothecombe House in south Devon the relaxed gardens now include a walled garden that has become a sanctuary for bees. Words Isabel Bannerman, photographs, Claire Takacs.

A Queen Anne House nestled in a wooded fold behind the sandy mouth of the River Erme, Mothecombe is the family hub of the Flete estate. The long-established garden includes a clutch of walled gardens and beyond the walled enclosures and an informal garden of flowering trees, shrubs, and massed bulbs is a tumbling brook, which leads to a sandy cove. Tucked away from the sea, the balmy garden, filled with tender botanical treasures, calcifuges, testified by nature’s litmus test of blue hydrangeas, the combination of aspect and acidity offering all the treats of more famous gardens, it sits serene in its own magnificence.

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The garden in brief

Name Mothecombe House What Country house garden with a new bee sanctuary established within a walled garden Where Devon Size Five acres Soil Alkaline Climate Temperate maritime Hardiness zone USDA 9

Iris sibirica fringe a stream that flows through the orchard below Mothecombe House. The house is flanked by a large Magnolia x soulangeana already in leaf on the left and the candyfloss-pink blossom of a Judas tree Cercis siliquastrum on the right.
Iris sibirica fringe a stream that flows through the orchard below Mothecombe House. The house is flanked by a large Magnolia x soulangeana already in leaf on the left and the candyfloss-pink blossom of a Judas tree Cercis siliquastrum on the right.

The house

Mothecombe House was built by John Pollexfen in about 1720 and has been home to the Mildmay family since the 1870s. Edwin Lutyens remodelled the house and immediate garden in 1925, which meant that there was already a formal structure of walled enclosures melting into an older orchard and groves of informal woodland underplanted with bulbs and wonders in the mid-century. In the 1950s, much of the garden was replanted by Helen Mildmay-White under the tutelage of her friend and plantsman extraordinaire, Lionel Fortescue, but since 1982 it has been Helen’s daughter-in-law Anne Mildmay-White who has been the keeper of the garden helped by her husband Anthony, and now joined by their son John, who recently moved back to run the estate. In January 1990 a terrible storm ripped apart the southern protective woodland, opening up new opportunities as well as great losses. As Mothecombe has opened up, full-time head gardener, Martin Haxton, has been appointed to nurture this plum gardening position, while in the walled gardens Anne has come to value above all the ecological treasure at Mothecombe.

The bee sanctuary

Mothecombe’s old kitchen garden has become a bee sanctuary, with borders, edged with lavender, overflowing with other bee favourites, such as foxgloves and Stachys byzantina. Purple, a colour bees see more clearly than others, dominates with alliums, thyme and self-seeded aquilegias surrounding mounds of Hebe ‘Pink Paradise’.
Mothecombe’s old kitchen garden has become a bee sanctuary, with borders, edged with lavender, overflowing with other bee favourites, such as foxgloves and Stachys byzantina. Purple, a colour bees see more clearly than others, dominates with alliums, thyme and self-seeded aquilegias surrounding mounds of Hebe ‘Pink Paradise’.

One walled garden has been turned into a bee haven, filled with 18 different bee-magnet lavenders, including Lavandula x intermedia cultivars ‘Hidcote Giant’, ‘Grosso’ and ‘Abrialii’, and several Lavandula angustifolia cultivars. In another walled garden Anne’s son John is starting a new vegetable garden, where he hopes to show how pollinators can be helped by planting wildflowers and not using pesticides or herbicides. The grass grows long, making hay and wildflower meadows where once were pony paddocks; nettle and bramble patches are left for moths and butterflies. Anne has always gardened in this common sense, low-impact way sharing the world of slow worms, frogs and dragonflies with a wider audience.

Venturing out into the orchard, past the Amaryllis belladonna that cluster under the walls, a bulb tender and naked as the night when it flowers in September, you reach a brook. Bordered by Iris sibirica given to Anne in 1985 from the Russell Page water gardens at Flete, it wanders down through the orchard with spring bulbs and flowering magnolias.

A mature dogwood, Cornus kousa var. chinensis, about to pop with white bracts, hovers over a mist of bluebells in long grass. Behind, a Malus x floribunda fills the air with blossom and blossom smell, surrounded by earlier flowering magnolias in the orchard by the Duchess Walk.
A mature dogwood, Cornus kousa var. chinensis, about to pop with white bracts, hovers over a mist of bluebells in long grass. Behind, a Malus x floribunda fills the air with blossom and blossom smell, surrounded by earlier flowering magnolias in the orchard by the Duchess Walk.

The orchard

In the orchard an older Magnolia campbellii subsp. mollicomata and M. x soulangeana keep company with a huge Judas tree, covered in crystallised pink sugar, and beneath it blowing in the sea breeze are Narcissus poeticus always the last to flower. Here a large hole has been dug out, revealing a complicated system of clay pipes. Anne is exploring and restoring the complex web of lost drainage systems that were, and are, vital to a garden oozing with springs and streams. She takes us on down the broad Duchess Walk, the slopes rippled with bluebells and primroses.

Following the brook back up the hill one passes pools of Zantedeschia and Gunnera forests, through groves of cultivars of Hydrangea paniculata – ‘Grandiflora’, ‘Kyushu’, ‘Tardiva’ and ‘Limelight’ – finally arriving back to the walled garden where white-fleshed peaches and pelargoniums are protected in the sunken greenhouse in winter. Espaliered fruit against the walls, bearing the thickest fur coats of moss that I have ever seen. The lavender beds run in downhill. These and the towering echiums, Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ and hebes will be full with harvesting bees in August, but for now they make do with wisteria, dancing columbines, alliums, sages, thymes, foxgloves and fruit blossom. Mothecombe is old England at its merriest.

walled garden
Wisteria sinensis ‘Prolific’ growing against the ferny bee sanctuary wall battles in summer with rambling roses and valerian. Beyond it peep the soft thatch of cottages from the surrounding Mothecombe hamlet, while in front rustic sweet pea teepees anticipate the trapped evening scent of Lathyrus odoratus, which mingle with the aromatic lavender on hot summer days.

12 key plants at Mothecombe 

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*Holds an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. †Hardiness ratings given where available.

Useful information

Address Mothecombe House, Holbeton, Devon PL8 1JZ.
Tel 01752-830234. Web flete.co.uk Open Tuesdays, 10am-4pm, 1 April to 30 September. Admission £6.