Kemble Mill garden

PUBLISHED: 16:25 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:55 20 February 2013

A decorative bridge joins the island to the main garden

A decorative bridge joins the island to the main garden

With its waterside setting, Kemble Mill is a family garden with a romantic twist. Words and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw

Approaching Kemble Mill it would be easy to label it as a typical Cotswold garden - mature trees, neatly clipped lawns and pastel-hued borders set against honeyed stone walls. But closer examination reveals far more exotic influences.

The garden has been shaped over the past 11 years by Simon and Vittoria Thornley and her Italian heritage and childhood in Africa have had a big impact on the direction the garden has taken.

Much of the structure was in place when the couple arrived - trees lined the long drive, lime on one side, flowering cherry on the other, yew hedges divided the formal garden and a rose pergola formed an important focal point in the walled garden.

"Someone at some point was obviously very keen on gardening because the bones of the garden have been well through out," comments Vittoria.

Her aim has been to make a family orientated space with the demands of a family and a love of wide open spaces the driving force behind her creation.

There's a carefully concealed play area for her sons, while bucking the fashion for garden rooms, she has opened up vistas, allowing long views through the garden.

"I realise there's a place for rooms in a garden," she explains, "but growing up in Africa I love really big open views."

One of the most dramatic changes has been in the Walled Garden where the intention was to create a less enclosed feel. Following a reorganisation of rooms in the house, the importance of this area increased as it became the main view from the kitchen.

"We can enjoy it now, which is nice."

A thick yew hedge that divided the space was removed, allowing views across the space, although the element of surprise was maintained by keeping the rose pergola. The space the hedge once occupied is now a wide gravel path, broken by striking slate containers planted for seasonal colour.

A formal pond was given new interest with revamped planting in the surrounding borders - purple sage teamed with alliums and white tulips, and standard white wisteria bridging the height gap between this and existing magnolias.

"I wanted some interest here after the magnolias bloomed. They looked fabulous and then there was nothing."

What was once an herbaceous border is now prairie-style planting with grasses, such as dwarf pampas, Festuca glauca and Stipa tenuissima, teamed with eupatorium, thalictrum, sedum, astrantia, and Japanese anemones. While the grasses provide the winter interest lacking in an herbaceous border, any gaps are being filled with more flowering plants following the pink, mauve and white theme.

"I love flowers," says Vittoria. "I wanted to have masses of colour."

A sunny raised bed is used for herbs - all neatly clipped to keep a slightly formal edge - and a wisteria-covered arbour offers a cool retreat.

The cross-shaped rose pergola is smothered in Rosa 'Alfred Carrire' and was underplanted with lavender, although this is being redesigned this season. At the centre is an old mill wheel, while the 'tunnels' frame different views of the garden.

Another area of roses, against a wall, has been replaced by Cornus 'Midwinter Fire' underplanted with miniature narcissi and red tulips. The roses had struggled in the shade of the wall and yew hedge and gave a short season of interest.

"I wanted something for winter that would really draw the eye to the back of the garden. The cornus just looks stunning against the yew hedge."

The old roses, meanwhile, have been moved to a tiny garden attached to the cottage that is used for holiday lets. Here the style is distinctly informal and the plot is often used for plants that have not found a home in the main garden.

A native hedge of hawthorn, maple, dog rose, holly and viburnum separates it from the former paddock and buddleia is used to screen it from view.

At its heart is a seaside-like planting of helianthemum and sea thrift in gravel, with pebbles and shells adding to the nautical feel.

Unlike many gardens, the kitchen garden is not an afterthought but an integral part of the plan. Starting with an existing greenhouse, Vittoria has designed a series of raised beds around it - all set within rabbit-proof fencing. These are used for a range of crops, such as broad beans and brassicas, all grown from seed with the help of full-time gardener Chris Archer. There are masses of salad leaves, while the greenhouse is stuffed with tomatoes and basil - thanks to her Mediterranean tastes.

More raised beds in a huge fruit cage are used for more permanent planting, including a range of soft fruit, while pumpkins and squash are grown on the compost heap.

In keeping with her nature conservation ideals - she has a degree in ecology - the crops are managed organically. Potatoes are grown under black plastic, using nematodes to combat slugs, and a nearby buddleia hedge attracts beneficial insects.

This interest in wildlife extends to other parts of the garden. A large field that forms the outer boundary has been left unsprayed for several years and each season the number of wild flowers increases. A mown path encourages you to walk around it, while a central strip is used for cricket in the summer.

A more informal style of gardening is also found on the island, created by the River Thames - here little more than a stream - that splits into two just above the property and rejoins further down.

Noted by conservationists for its rare white ranunculus which grown only in clean water, the river dries to a trickle in high summer.

The island has been cleared of old shrubs and straggly trees but retains its air of informality. There are old apple trees, and specimen trees, such as maples, a tulip tree and pomegranate. One area has become a bog garden while near the house ligularia, Persicaria bistorta, iris and Darmera peltata add some colour.

One of the spring delights is the display of narcissi and primroses.

"From the house you see this river of yellow disappearing off into the woodland."

It is a peaceful area and fits well with Vittoria's aims for the garden, with a gradual move from formality around the house to a natural landscape beyond.

"For me the garden is a sanctuary away from the chaos of life. I want to be able to come home, look through the window and just relax."

Kemble Mill, near Somerford Keynes, Cirencester, is open for the National Gardens Scheme on June 7 from 2pm to 5pm. Admission is 3, children enter free.

Latest from the Cotswold Life