The Martara Garden, near Tetbury
PUBLISHED: 15:34 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013
the Matara Garden, near Tetbury, represents how we can learn to work more closely with and with greater respect for nature. Words and pictures by mandy Bradshaw
Many gardens have a spiritual element, a sense of connection to something beyond the material world, but few are created solely for that purpose. The Matara Garden is different. Not only does it challenge conventional ideas about what constitutes a garden, it was born out of a desire to express a philosophy about how we live.
The garden has been created over the past 13 years by Geoffrey Higgins in the village of Kingscote near Tetbury. After spending some years in Canada and becoming disillusioned with the way society there was becoming more materialistic, he wanted to establish somewhere that inspired people to reconnect both to nature and their inner selves.
"We are nature," he explains, "we are not separate, but somehow we've lost our way. A lot of people know it's not right but they don't know what to do about it."
He believes that it is this disregard for nature that is the root cause of many of today's problems, with chemicals poisoning the air and water, and a plundering of the Earth's resources.
"Unless we treat ourselves, or each other, or the land in a respectful way, this will continue."
At Matara he has created a centre that draws on the teachings of many different faiths, from both the East and the West, and the garden is an extension of these ideas, without seeking to impose any one on the visitor.
When he took over Matara it was a rundown and neglected house and a 28-acre site that had been used as a stud farm. Fences divided the land into paddocks, and stables and barns formed the outbuildings.
Today, these have been transformed into beautifully designed meeting rooms with an emphasis on creating calm. Around the centre the garden reinforces this sense of Matara being a place where you can leave modern life behind.
This idea of a transition from the outside world to the inner one is symbolically represented in the garden in front of the centre's main entrance, where a simple but elegant series of gravel and paving circles leads you to the door. Box and clipped choisya emphasise the shape, there's an Eastern element with acers, bamboo and ferns, while stepping over a circular rill of water represents cleansing.
Indeed, circles and the calming influence they have are a recurring theme at Matara. There is a seven-sided meditative labyrinth, a medicine wheel and spiral maze - all created using stone laid out in the meadow.
Each is rooted in philosophies that go back centuries. The medicine wheel is seen by many as representing the cycle of life, with no beginning or end, while walking the double spiral of the maze can be a meditative experience.
Paths around Matara are also fluid, either mown into the long grass of the meadow or snaking through the woods. Their curves force you to slow down - indeed there is a sense that hurrying would be wrong in this garden.
The woodland, once overgrown with laurel and elder, has been shaped following the ideas of a Japanese Shinto garden, which show reverence to ancestors and nature spirits. Entry is through a tori arch, a gateway between mankind and the spirit world. Water is important because of its life-giving properties and here it is seen bubbling through rocks. More weathered rocks, covered in lichen and moss, are found throughout the wood, along with bamboo and ferns. Numerous paths offer chances to explore, often leading to a carefully placed stone or wind chimes. The central path is moss-covered, revered as a natural ground cover.
Among the beech trees are several old yews and one has been used as a prayer or wishing tree. Coloured ribbons, hung there by visitors, adorn its branches.
Move into the walled garden and you step from East to West. Here formal box hedges and domes create an intricate design of small beds in which medicinal and culinary herbs are grown - sage, thyme, angelica, polemonium, feverfew and nasturtiums. Lavender edges one path and chives grow under a rose-covered pergola, while a seat is strategically positioned to give a view into the meadow outside. Recently, the range of produce has been extended with beds for potatoes and other vegetables cut into the meadow.
In keeping with the idea of working with nature, Matara is managed organically and this concern for the environment has been taken further with the creation of a series of ponds that process the grey water from the centre. Fringed with iris, gunnera, geum, rushes, cornus and willow, the ponds also provide a tranquil place to sit and they attract much wildlife, including kingfishers, newts and toads.
Move closer to the centre and the garden becomes more designed. Alongside the house there is a traditional English mixed border. Sedum, Japanese anemones, spiraea, verbascum and alliums, mingle with geraniums, thalictrum and verbascum, while purple cotinus and ceanothus add height. Roses in shades of pink, lilac and white scramble over the pergola, and opium poppies and foxgloves have self-seeded.
The stableyards behind the house are now a series of courtyard gardens, each with its own identity. Saxifraga is used to edge beds in one, with clematis, peonies, hellebores, lilies and roses providing colour.
The next has a formal Italian style and is based around a raised rectangular pool with water spilling over one end into a lower trough. A loggia provides shade, there's a vine-covered pergola, and wisteria against the house wall. The shape of lollipop standard euonymus is echoed in Portuguese laurel that line a path, but the formality is tempered by Welsh poppies that have been allowed to colonise one corner. With the sound of water and a sense of enclosure it is a peaceful place to retreat.
China was the inspiration for a meditative garden, complete with moon gate, which runs alongside the centre's main rooms. Again, water is a key element and a covered terrace at one point goes out into the pool that dominates this space. There are acers, rhododendrons, mahonia, twisted hazel and laurel. Ferns nestle among rocks and plants overhang the water, creating interesting reflections.
Bamboo is used throughout the garden - either as clumps, or in screens that are staggered across entrances. These create a flowing rather than linear path, slowing you down. Meanwhile, a zig-zagging 'strolling bridge' that runs through a bamboo and aquatic grass-filled pool is designed to ward off evil spirits.
Matara has been created with the help of several designers - Geoffrey admits to knowing nothing about gardening - and is maintained by a full-time and part-time gardener. It has evolved slowly and is still changing: drifts of wild flowers are being added to the meadow and a Japanese-influenced tea garden has been created around the lodge.
The centre is popular for weddings and other celebrations, and guests are encouraged to plant a tree to mark the occasion. Partly it is in an attempt to create a carbon neutral environment, and partly it is a way of providing trees for future generations to enjoy. Already there are collections of magnolia, acers, silver birch and crab apples, while a ring of oak has been planted around a fallen oak, left for wildlife.
Above all there is a sense of two cultures coming together.
"It's the East West fusion that gives the garden its uniqueness."
The Matara Garden, Kingscote, is open for the National Gardens Scheme on September 28 from 1pm to 5pm. It is also open Tuesdays and Thursdays until September 30 from 2pm to 5pm. Admission is 4, children, free, concessions 2.50. For more information, ring 01453 861050 or visit www.matara.co.uk