I might describe the Abbey House Gardens in Malmsbury as a gorgeous Cotswold garden that typifies the English country style, but the name doesn’t always ring a bell – until I mention the Naked Gardener and there’s an Ahhh moment “Oh yes, I saw it on Gardener’s World!”
The Naked Gardeners are Ian and Barbara Pollard and they love to garden – well, naked. If you see their publicity material you find a couple of naked Adam and Eve style figures to remind you what you might expect when you visit and there are even postcards on sale with them lingering naked amongst the flowers and foliage with a leaf here or flower there tastefully covering the naughty bits.
I love the tradition of mildly eccentric English men and women who follow their fancy and do just as they please – why shouldn’t you wander around with no clothes on in your own garden? If you like the idea of enjoying this garden with the freedom of no clothes then check the Abbey House Gardens website for the dates of the Clothes Optional Days, although personally it never quite gets hot enough in the English summer for me to be tempted.
As we walked around the garden we came across the Naked Gardener, not quite starkers as it wasn’t the hottest day but wearing a loose shirt, that just about covered him up as he went to work on deadheading the roses. I thought it would be a little rude to point the camera (we English are so polite) so you’ll have to content yourself with lovely floral photos instead.
There are plenty of statues of naked statues around the garden, from the two masculine figures locked in a wrestling match at the entrance to the perfectly toned torsoes with a lizard running over their privates and ivy creeeping over them on the river terrace.
But don’t let me distract you from the general gorgeousness of the garden which is truly a labour of love. We took the suggested route through the knot garden with an Alice in Wonderland feel of yew and box hedges, clipped into shapes and a giant face staring out at you from one end. The ruined arch of the Abbey loomed just outside the garden and once extended right along the borders of the garden.
We moved on to the lawned area where the hedging traces the shape of the walls of the Lady Chapel that once stood on this spot and in the flowerbed you can see a medieval coffin that once housed the body of a monk who lived here. He was featured on the BBC TV programme, Meet the Ancestors, and apparently his skeleton offered clues that he was brought up near the sea and suffered from periods of food shortage throughout his childhood.
There are many more connections in the garden with the Abbey next door and the current Abbey House was built in the 16th century on the site of an older 13th century Abbot’s house, while just beyond the river are the Monastic fish ponds that enabled the monks to have fresh fish on Fridays. Under the apple tree you’ll find a statue of the Cistercian monk, a mysterious figure with his face hidden by his cowl.
In every direction you look as you pass through the garden you’ll glimpse vistas created by hedged walkways and arches and punctuated by statues and water features. There are the classical English herbaceous borders and when we visited the roses were still in full bloom, planted according to a rainbow of colour with just the odd misfit to keep things interesting. The gardens are a photographer’s dream and it is really quite difficult to take a bad shot, so beautifully has the garden been planted for form and colour with a painter’s eye.
Past the Serpentine rose bed and through the old orchard with fruit trees dotted around that are used to make fresh juices and you”ll come to the sunken herb garden. It’s surrounded by a pergola planted with climbing roses and clematis and the raised beds are full of herbs that might have been used by the monks for their medicinal properties as well as their perfume, making a waist high mass of green. gold and purple.
Having worked our way around the gardens on the south side of the house we stopped in the small cafe for a light lunch of quiche and salad, waiting our turn while a very patient young man helped a German lady count out all her pennies of unfamiliar currency. There were tables around a pond with huge goldfish or you could eat your lunch inside a conservatory room with views over the back of the house.
Finally we made our way through the river garden behind the house where the ground drops steeply away to the river at the bottom of the hill.This part of the garden was completely overgrown when the owners arrived and it has now been planted with water loving plants and iris that flower in spring with a wooden bridge to take you across the river for a view back towards the house from the mound.
We visited the Abbey House Gardens in July when it was a riot of summer colour but I believe that it would be beautiful at any time of year with frost tracing out the knot garden in winter, tulips and colourful bulbs in the spring and golden foliage and berries in the autumn. And of course if you have Naturist tendancies, you can also enjoy the garden naked during the Clothes Optional open days – although with the English summer being somewhat illusive I’ll prefer to enjoy the garden with my clothes on!
The Abbey House, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, SN16 9AS - open daily March-October
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