The English Garden


A central pavilion is surrounded by asters, verbena and large drifts of grasses, radiating from the focal point.

If you log on to Radcot House’s website, you’ll hear the melancholic strains of Franz Schubert’s String in C Major accompanying misty pictures of the autumn garden. Cotswold stone walls and high yew hedges enfold wide lawns and gentle, sinuous planting designed for colour and interest even in winter.

This is nevertheless a garden for all seasons. In summer its many grasses crackle with life, while abundant roses and lavender are in full fragrant bloom. Heat radiates from the walls that later shield borders from winter winds. There is constant change and variety from room to room, from meadow planting to minimalist formality, yet it is all very much part of a single vision.

A space inspired by calm Islamic gardens, with a benched pavilion overlooking a long pond.

Sorbus ‘Pink Pagoda’ berries.

The vision is that of Robin and Jeanne Stainer, who bought Radcot in 1999 when Robin retired. According to Robin, among their requirements were “a pub within staggering distance, an interesting house, and a garden with potential”. The latter two they certainly found. The original house was a 13th-century defensive tower, which had witnessed one of the final skirmishes of the Civil War in the 17th century. A stronghold for Royalists, it was all but destroyed by Roundhead gunpowder, and was subsequently rebuilt as a manor house around 1649.

The garden extends to about three acres. The basic framework was laid out when the yew and beech hedges around the house were planted in the early 1930s, while a handful of venerable trees gave focal points – a mulberry on the front lawn, a weeping ash and a walnut in the Walled Garden near the house and an enormous pear in the Pool Garden. Very little was gardened when the Stainers bought Radcot, and the yew was so overgrown that it needed completely cutting back. The result was terrible at first, but the hedges are now tall, lush and unbroken, apart from where two of the trees were affected by disease some years ago. Robin cut them down and added grasses to break the line and offer a window from the smooth lawn to meadow planting beyond.

This kind of interruption is one of the elements which create surprise and intrigue around the garden. Quirky and diverting sculptures are also crucial, often half glimpsed initially, making arresting points of visual interest. As you walk around, you’ll spot giant boots on a lawn, a seated figure of the Minotaur on a low wall, and copper pods almost hidden among grasses.

Robin has loved gardens since his childhood spent in his parents’ ‘fabulous’ garden at Woburn, where his father was estate manager. His first garden was a London balcony eight foot by four, followed by a slightly larger balcony overlooking the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Jeanne, who was born in Chicago, came to gardening later and admits she was a complete novice when they bought Radcot. Now, heavy work is carried out twice a week by a company from nearby Faringdon, but otherwise Jeanne does much of the gardening herself.

Prunus and cotinus are underplanted with tiarella and hakonechloa.

Quirky sculptures include a pair of giant boots at rest on the lawn.

Radcot House’s owners, Robin and Jeanne Stainer.

It has, she says, been an educational process. An early attempt to recreate Christopher Lloyd’s long border from Great Dixter was a disaster, for the colours, shapes and dependence on annuals suited neither the Cotswold house nor the style of Jeanne’s gardening. Looking around, it is no surprise to hear that the sharp elegance of Penelope Hobhouse’s style appeals more to her. Ideas from elsewhere have been successfully incorporated: a scaled-down version of the laburnum arch at Bodnant, for instance, divides the Reading Room from the Pool Garden, while a copper beech rising above a pool of horizontal yew (Taxus baccata ‘Dovastonii Aurea’) was a concept borrowed from Sezincote. “Nearly all good garden ideas are stolen from other people,” laughs Robin.

But there is a striking individuality about Radcot which is entirely the Stainers’ own. Over the last 20 years, they have built on each other’s strengths: Robin has an eye for structure, perspective and overall design, while Jeanne, with a sense of colour and pattern, has filled the spaces between walls and hedges. Among more familiar shrubs and perennials, she has picked rare Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’, autumn-flowering purple perennial Vernonia arkansana ‘Mammuth’ and the fluffy-headed Aster umbellatus.

Gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’.

Barrels of yew in the simply laid-out walled garden.

A block of yew on stilts aligns perfectly with the hedge behind.

Euphorbia and Panicum ‘Hänse Herms’.

The central panel of the trellising, is aligned with the laburnum arch

The simple Walled Garden, with yew drums and three wall-backed borders, sets the tone for the rest of the garden, and leads to an avenue of ten-foot high beech hedges. Focused on a 2.5-metre limestone obelisk, this is the spine of the garden, with garden rooms to either side.

The first area to be designed is dubbed the Reading Room due to the wide Lutyens bench at one end. It is enclosed by trellising within the Pool Garden, with a view from the bench towards an apple tree orchard. The grass path is wider at the end furthest away from the bench, so that it doesn’t appear to recede into the distance. The central panel of the trellising, cut precisely to shape, is aligned with the laburnum arch. “Tiny details like this make the difference,” says Robin, “especially to me.”

Eight Sorbus pseudohupehensis ‘Pink Pagoda’ line the Reading Room, with a Cornus kousa ‘China Girl’ chosen by Jeanne for its complementary colour. Other planting includes hoheria, with veronicastrum, hemerocallis, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’, Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’, Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’, agapanthus and Stachys byzantina.

Deep borders of lavender, achilleas, perovskia, penstemons, cotinus, crocosmia and Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ surround the Pool Garden. In one bed are grasses, resplendent in autumn as they change colour and move softly in the breeze. Planted around Cotinus ‘Grace’ and Hoheria sexstylosa are sesleria, Panicum virgatum ‘Hänse Herms’, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’.

Mauve asters combine beautifully with the light-catching flowers of pennisetum.

A cream greenhouse blends with soft Cotswold stone.

Glowing leaves of witch hazel create a warm autumn scene with golden rudbeckia.

A long pond is set within lawns unadorned apart from a skeletal medlar

Plants form links through the garden. Grasses, perovskia and lavender from the Pool Garden also appear in the Pavilion Area. At its centre is an Ottoman pavilion, looking over 1,800 square metres flooded with great sweeps and drifts of planting. It is full of autumn shape and colour, with coreopsis, teucrium seedheads, monardas, gaura, Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’ and heleniums, and height from cornus, viburnum and Caryopteris x clandonensis.

Step through into the adjacent Islamic-inspired garden and you are in an oasis of calmness and tranquillity: a long pond is set within lawns unadorned apart from a skeletal medlar and an ash. In the middle of the pond, centred on a gap in the Beech Avenue, is an urn set on a polished granite block from Spain. We sit in a benched pavilion, inspired by William Kent’s work at Rousham. Across the pond a sliver of light peeps between a shoebox of yew on stilts at the far end and the hedge beyond. The top of the urn is aligned with the top of the metal bench underneath the yew, and the pool is half a metre wider there. “The perspective seems very different from the other end,” explains Robin.

Everywhere you go in this garden, there are new delights to be discovered. Beyond the walls, a waterway dug out by the Stainers, is fringed with grasses and liatris, while wire geese by Rupert Till stand on the bank. Every detail contributes to the garden’s rich blend of skilful design, expert plantsmanship and unabashed humour.

Radcot House, Radcot, Oxfordshire OX18 2SX. The garden opens by arrangement from July to October for groups of ten or more, and on select dates for the National Garden Scheme. Tel: 01367 810231;;