in the Nation’s favourite garden…
This month Laura Malpas loses herself in the horticultural and historical delights of Coton Manor Garden.
Sometimes you come across a place so sublimely beautiful that you must tell your friends about it, and maybe take them there. This month I’m sharing with you one of the loveliest spots in Northamptonshire, winner of ‘The Nation’s Favourite Garden’, and the perfect spot for lunch on a summer’s day, Coton Manor Garden.
Although the gardens at Coton Manor have a timeless feel, their story begins only around a hundred years ago, but the history of Coton Manor itself goes back into the mists of time. Like many places in this now tranquil part of the county, it has seen conflict, battle, and civil war.
Although the settlement is certainly much older, Coton’s first mention in the historic record appears in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is recorded as the possession of William Peverel, one of the Norman knights accompanying William the Conqueror. The manor of Coton possessed fertile lands, natural springs of fresh water, and rich woodland and as such it was highly desirable. It passed through several owners and was briefly seized by the Crown in 1379. But by the time of the Civil War and the Battle of Naseby in 1645, Coton Manor seems to have been in the possession of the Verney family.
Like many, Verney family loyalties were torn between those supporting King Charles and those supporting Parliament and the New Model Army. Whilst history is unclear about exactly who lived in Coton Manor at the time, there is no doubt that the thousands of Parliamentary troops who passed through Coton on the way to Naseby for the decisive battle commandeered everything they needed from the area. Food, fuel, stock, and other supplies were taken. By the end of the campaign, Coton Manor, like many other places in the area, was razed to the ground.
Nearby lay one of the great Elizabethan ‘Prodigy Houses’, Holdenby Palace. Built to impress Queen Elizabeth I, it had most recently seen service as the prison of Charles I before his beheading in 1649. After this, Parliament later sold Holdenby to Captain Adam Baynes, who demolished the house almost entirely, selling on the masonry to Northamptonshire builders.
It is likely that the oldest part of the Coton Manor House we see today was at least partially constructed from Holdenby’s remains. The date of construction, 1662 is right, and there are many architectural elements which bear comparison. It’s not entirely clear who built the house, but it seems likely to have been Coton’s tenants, William and Elizabeth Holles as their initials are found on an inscribed stone. However, the Verney family continued to own the manor and used it as a tenant farm until the 19th century, when the ownership passed out of the family through marriage.
In 1923, Harold and Elizabeth Bryant, the present owner’s grandparents, bought the farm outright, and rebuilt it considerably, incorporating the 1662 house as a southern wing. And they set about landscaping the garden, using the natural advantages of a south facing gentle slope down towards a 90-acre reservoir. They constructed terraces from which to enjoy the views, and established wonderful trees and hedges, which have now reached the peak of maturity. Perhaps the finest example of these is the magnificent black walnut tree found in the stable yard.
Harold and Elizabeth’s daughter Haroldine came to live at Coton Manor in 1950 with her husband Henry Pasley-Tyler. Both were very keen to continue the development of the gardens, and with Haroldine’s flair for planting, and Henry’s Royal Navy-inspired organisational skills coupled with his abilities in landscaping and water engineering, the gardens flourished in every way. The rose gardens were remodelled, and the water garden was enlarged. Opening the gardens to the public in 1969, Henry also introduced one of the garden’s most animated features, a charming collection of wild and waterfowl. Descendants of the original flamingos are still in residence today, along with other birds including tree ducks.
Haroldine and Henry’s son Ian, together with his wife Susie, took on the care of Coton Manor in 1990, becoming the third generation of the family to continue developing and caring for the Manor and its gardens. They’re optimistic that at least one of their three children may continue this family passion.
Although the family deny there was ever a masterplan for its development, a visit to the garden feels like a beautifully designed journey for pleasure through an ancient landscape with stunning planting, and things to enchant at every turn. What makes the gardens so appealing is the gentle way they seem to nestle so naturally into their setting. The route through the garden ‘rooms’ flows naturally and harmoniously, occasionally opening up to breath taking vistas. At 10 acres, it’s a substantial garden, although perhaps not the biggest, but it certainly packs more ‘wow’ per acre than many I have visited. So much so that it was voted as the Nation’s favourite garden by the public for ‘The English Garden Magazine’.
And did I mention that there’s a great little café at reasonable prices? And plant sales too, so that if you’re inspired to replicate the experience, you can take a little of the beauty home with you.
Coton Manor Garden is open for the season from 11.00 – 5.30 daily except Mondays. No prebooking is required. Don’t miss out. It’s just stunning.
For more information, please visit www.cotonmanor.co.uk
Thanks to Dr Ann Benson FSA FRHistS, author of A History of Coton Manor and its Garden, which may be purchased from Coton Manor and the author’s website www.annebenson.co.uk