Cothay Manor, Somerset
This place is a gem.
I was lucky enough to be invited to join part of a tour organised by Marian St. Clair who blogs at Hortitopia. Marian is based in South Carolina, USA. It’s the first time we’ve met but after just a few minutes I felt as though I’d known her for years. That’s what blogging does for you I guess. Equally lovely was falling in with her group, identifying some of the many plants that grow on both of our shores, marvelling at the beauty of our surroundings and enjoying a pot of tea on the terrace.
First up, a tour of the manor house itself. No photographs are allowed inside so you will have to take my word for it, it is exquisite. This is not a place staged for inspection, such as you might find on a visit to a typical National Trust historic house. No, Cothay Manor, dating back to the 15th century and pronounced Cott-ay, is a home that is most definitely lived in. It was purchased in 1993 by Mary-Anne and Alastair Robb from the then MP for Taunton, Edward du Cann. There was a pile of mail on a chair in the Winter Parlour, a dog bed, and family photographs and keepsakes crammed on to every available horizontal surface. The walls of the drawing room in the medieval ‘Solar’ were hand painted with stylised flowers by the Robbs’ eldest daughter.
There are much older wall paintings too. Conservators are currently working in two of the rooms restoring artwork dating back to the origin of the house. When a Chinook helicopter passed overhead a few years ago fragments of a wall bearing the ancient art actually fell out as a result of the vibration. Low flying military aircraft are now banned over Cothay as a result. We were shown how one painting, of the Madonna and Child, was applied over the top of an even earlier decorative scheme, still visible underneath if you knew where to look. Absolutely fascinating.
The property must cost a fortune to maintain. Perhaps it’s just as well that Mary-Anne takes a philosophical view: “Thrifty ’till you’re fifty, then spend to the end.”
And then there are the gardens. Oh my.
Unicorn resting amidst a sea of Nepeta
The current layout was set out by Colonel Reginald Cooper in the 1920s. Cooper was old friends with Harold Nicolson of Sissinghurst fame, the architect Edwin Lutyens and Lawrence Johnstone who, since 1907, had been creating a garden at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire. Parallels to both of these historic gardens can be found at Cothay. The original plan has been extensively replanted by the Robbs, to glorious effect.
Close to the house the space, much like Hidcote, is divided into a series of ‘rooms’, each a garden in its own right, surrounded by high yew hedges and topiary. It is perfectly possible to get lost here, and we did, hearing the voices of other members of the group but never being quite sure of how to rejoin them!
Mary-Anne made reference to her use of repetition in the borders. She is especially fond of the yew standards which crop up everywhere and add real structure to the loose planting.
Reflections in the pool
Cothay has achieved the highest accolade of two stars in the Good Garden Guide and in June 2012 featured in the Daily Telegraph’s ’20 Best Gardens in Britain’.
Alastair’s great-grandmother was a plant hunter who discovered the lime green flowered wood spurge Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae in Turkey. It is nicknamed ‘Mrs Robb’s Bonnet’ because, so it is said, she smuggled it back through customs in her hat.
Roses scaling the walls of cottages adjoining the main house. They include one I’ve been hankering after for a while, R. mutabilis, furthest from the camera.
Wandering out beyond the garden ‘rooms’ we came across a magical wildflower meadow..
..running down towards the lake.
Birdsong, a faint breeze, peace and tranquility.
If you ever find yourself near Wellington in Somerset, Cothay Manor would well reward a visit.
It’s like stepping back into another time.