Hanham Court Gardens

On the eastern outskirts of Bristol, where villages have been swallowed up by the ever expanding city, there is a magical pocket of timeless pastoral England caught between Keynsham and Kingswood. It has miraculously escaped the hand of the planner and developer and is now a conservation area. Hanham Court lies in its midst.

Approaching from Willsbridge, past the handsome mill and age-old Queen’s Head pub where the ghosts of Roman soldiers lurk, the villas begin to fade away into fields as you descend the hill down Court Farm Road. On a shady bend, an unassuming drive leads  towards the settled group of tithe barn and church huddled together with the ancient gabled house of layered centuries. All is harmonious and built of the same mauve brown pennant stone. The buildings once belonged to the abbots of Keynsham Abbey, but soon after the Dissolution Hanham became the country estate of the Creswicke family, who were Mayors of Bristol for nearly four hundred years.

A small door set into the great oak gates under the entrance arch leads, as though you were Alice in Wonderland, into another world. It is gloriously unexpected. A promontory – like the prow of a gigantic liner carrying the garden with it – sails above ancient fields and tumpy hills, commanding a spectacular view over the Avon valley towards Somerset. Trains bound for the West Country or London occasionally streak like lightning across the middle distance on an embankment beyond the unseen looping river below. Ferry Road skirts the fields to the west, dipping down a steeply-wooded slope to The Old Lock and Weir Inn at Hanham Mill.

The garden designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman came here in 1993 and found a long-abandoned garden whose faded vestiges had almost disappeared. Nothing succeeds like excess, and today the garden has been rendered one of the most extravagantly romantic and imaginative in the land. From nothing, yew trees cut like giant skittles have sprung up; armies of blood-red lilies mix with deep orange sunflowers, and then, suddenly, the brightest, most electric-blue explosion of giant eight-foot-high delphiniums, like some extraordinary firework display, ephemeral and fantastic. Grand golden ironwork gates lead through to a gigantic spreading walnut tree and mown paths entice you to unknown places. Green oak balustrades top the ancient retaining garden walls, all hovering high above the dipping valley. Paths lead down towards the liner’s prow, and, walking between box hedges holding back a voluptuous abundance of old roses, lilies, mock orange, peonies and crambe, you feel as though you are on the ship’s deck. A grotto beside the rectangular pool drips water over tufa, giant pots spill with lilies, bulls’ heads spew water from their mouths, myriad obelisks foam with clouds of Sander’s White roses, a gothic tree-house with wooden fishtail tiles hangs high in the yew. And always there are glimpses of the jumbled mauve stone house with its conical-hatted Tudor tower.

You can walk down from the prow and through an oak-pedimented doorway to follow a winding path through long grass to the top of the far hill. There, on the other side, is the sad and mountainous Fry’s chocolate factory stranded beside the spread-eagled industrial landscape of Keynsham. Then you can return to the house up the shady glade past martagon lilies, stepped ponds, giant gunnera and tree ferns. At the top, an amazing cascade tumbles over rocks and tufa, beside a stumpery set with foxgloves and ferns, and into a pool, where a high jet of water holds up a dancing golden  crown as though by magic. There is tea in the Tuscan yellow glow of the Arts and Crafts loggia or in the cool of the Roman-feeling vaults beneath the ancient house.

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