A Narrowboat Adventure on the Thames Ring
Why You’d Like To See This House and Garden
Upton house, seven miles from the medieval town of Banbury, is all about Resilience, Surprise and Fun! And this is why you will want to see it. The house started and ended its life as a private home in times of war. It was home to people who knew how to celebrate when they had the chance. It’s got an air of Carpe Diem about it. Have a good time when you can.
Visiting Upton House
It’s a visual treat, but you can find places to sit and imagine you are part of it’s history. This piece emphasizes it’s garden, there is a fuller description of the house and art collection in “Ship’s Log” Chapter 6: a Narrowboat Journey available on this site.
At the edge of the Cotswolds, sits Upton House and its unique gardens. It has inhabited the unspoiled Warwickshire countryside since 1695. The building’s exterior is in the style of Charles ll. This was one of those times of post war optimism. The devastating English Civil War was over and the Monarchy back in place. Houses were grand, clothing was glamorous and Restoration Comedy was racy.
Upton House, built by the splendidly named Rushout Cullen was made for the good life. Gardens have existed on this site since the 12th century and the house dates to the 17th. But this place is full of surprises, it’s not Merrie Old England!
Who would anticipate that all of this estate, both indoors and out, would take us into the Jazz Age? This is not a property treasured by the same family for centuries like some we have seen. It has had many owners and was rented often. The house we see today is all about the raucous start of the twentieth century. It’s a treat to see it, but it’s the garden which holds all the surprises!
For a pair of Master Gardeners on a 6 week canal boat trip throughout central England it was a revelation of how to create a garden in sympathy with its environment. The underpinnings of the garden are two very deep spring fed valleys. It’s what they did with them that’s remarkable.
The house was purchased in 1927 by Lord and Lady Bearsted, Walter and Dorothea Samuel, owners of Shell Oil. It was redecorated at the time to be a country home for fox hunting, house parties and to display an amazing art collection.
It is a long low house made of local sandstone. The buyers renovated the place in a popular style referred to by a wit of the time as “Curzon Street Baroque.” Stylish. Never a straight line. Curvy wrought iron, Art Deco glam, old and new together. It was a sort of imaginary 18th century adventure.
Why? The Great War impacted all lives. You needed stability, romance and modernity all at once. In the U.S. we had the Colonial Revival Movement which provided us with some of the same comfort.
Walter Samuel loved to buy artwork. He bought lots; Bruegel, El Greco, Guardi, Hogarth, Stubbs, Canaletto. We toured the collection with an excellent guide. This family enjoyed gardening, decorating, entertaining, fox hunting and all in this memorable setting.
Visiting Upton House’s Garden
We know that gardeners have dug this ground as far back as the 12th century. These gardens have historic roots but they are not old. They, like the house, are part of the Interbellum period’s desire for a good life; some style, some stability. A little fun. They didn’t know that WWll would come along to spoil their plans. The gardens were designed for pleasure and to feed the family too. This family’s gardening style was different than ours in Florida’s subtropical and flat 21st century environment. Their goals, however, were just like ours when we plant a garden.
Gertrude Jekyll, the legendary horticulturalist, said that gardeners were ”energetic, optimistic, and never satisfied”. The more gardens we see, the more we see similarities among all of us gardeners.
The gardens were developed when Lady Bearsted decided to make some improvements outdoors. She hired Kitty Lloyd-Jones, at that time one of few successful women in the profession of garden design. Kitty worked hard to set herself up in business. She seemed able to make friends of her clients. They shared letters and ideas throughout the projects. The clients in turn referred her to their friends.
Viewing the Gardens
As a guest in the late 1920‘s and thirties, you were meant to enter the property through a grand wrought iron gateway, with stone pillars and down a long drive through a wide lawn sloping slowly down toward the long reddish gold stone house. This slope was a garden hint of the surprise to come, but walking from the wooded visitor center we missed it.
We left the house after viewing its superior art and artifacts and walked to its rear garden. Directly behind the house is a wide terraced area in which where you can have a Pimms Cup today. You face south, viewing a large lawn with a great country swimming pool.
The pool looks like the set for a Cole Porter movie. Dancers should leap from the lounge chairs and twirl around the pool. The chorus would sing “Anything Goes”. But keep walking.
On your right, as you face away from the house is a mature clump of Cedar of Lebanon. There are 5 of them, enormous dark green trees, wide sweeping, and dating from the 18th century. It’s a 20th — century garden but don’t think it doesn’t have continuity. The land is wooded to the left also. Still, you think, the lawn will just merge into the high pastures you see rising up ahead.
You cross two thirds of the lawn before seeing it!
Here is the real drama of the place. You see the precipice. You are looking down a steep sided valley from which deep terraces cascade below. This work is the accomplishment of the twentieth century. Throughout this garden’s history some terracing has been done and records show plans for more. However, it took the ambition of the modern day owners to tame this very difficult steep hill.
Taking advantage of the south facing space, the terraces are edged with wide colorful perennial borders. Lloyd-Jones was expert at rhododendrons, shrubs and roses. She was known for colorful displays.
The Garden Layout
It shows at Upton House. Kitty created a long herbaceous border running north and south on the east end of the Kitchen Garden. She put strong colors in the center. The red at the middle is flanked on each side by orange and then yellow. The softest yellows merge into soft blues and mauves at the two ends. This is set out in her book ‘Modern Garden Craft’ written in the 1930’s. You can still find it on Amazon.
This garden at its top, employs a HaHa in a special way. It’s not here as usual, to retain the long views beyond the garden while keeping the grazing animals out of the asters. It serves to hide from your view the surprise of the terraced garden as you walk on the lawn. It’s a little bit of theatrics in the back yard.
You traverse the terraces by way of deep stone steps, the terraces are separated by rhythmic balustrades. These were designed by the architect Percy Morley Horder in the Italianate style. You view each border, on your way down, from west to east, by walking on wide grass walkways. There are benches throughout the garden. We stop and contemplate.
In addition to long borders there are three enclosed gardens to visit.
The Rose Garden surrounds a statue of Pan. Lady B’s garden is in shades of pale pinks and white and the Hibiscus garden is a formal space.
The widest terrace is the Kitchen Garden on the lowest level. Today volunteers are weeding. They tell us that we will eat their produce at the cafe. Later we jump at the chance.
Finally, you descend to the lowest level. Here lies the very large lily pond. Called the Mirror Pool it has a clay lining which dates to before the 1930’s. It finally developed leakage and was renovated in 2017. It was drained once before, during WWll to prevent it being used by enemy fliers as a navigation aid. The water twinkles as you walk down the terraces. As you turn and walk its sparkle beckons. At the bottom it changes, now it appears soft – meditative. Following that a wall separates the garden from the rising pastures beyond.
This is quite the experience. We sit on a long bench beside the pool. Seating is important in a garden. Sometimes you just want to take it all in.
We eat lunch and walk the wooded pathways. The Pavillion Cafe is a new building in Classical style situated among the trees and ivy. They make inventive use of the Kitchen Garden. Their vegetables are in soups, cakes, breads, sandwiches. We have soup and cake with lemon and thyme. They change the menu as new things are in season.
Seasonal Blooms and Biodiversity
In February the gardens are alive with snowdrops. Later there are dramatic spring plantings making it a popular time to visit. In June the house is famous for a large display of lupine. These are in reds, pinks, lavenders and add a vertical element to the garden. For us Floridians this would be a treat. We tend to see them only on the Maine coast. Late September is best for the mixed border of Asters.
Since 1985, the Upton House Gardens has housed part of the National Plant Collection. It is responsible for three species of Asters including over 100 cultivars. In this plan, under the auspices of Plant Heritage, a national non profit, a custodial garden undertakes to document and preserve a comprehensive collection of its group of plants. Some of these heritage gardens are public, like this one, and some are simply the private backyard properties of very devoted personal gardeners.
This is a National Trust property. It was in good condition and well presented. We saw the garden following a dreadful summer for English gardeners (hot and dry) Its condition is admirable. The existence of springs is helpful and today the swimming pool water filters through the fish pond.
Everybody loves a garden. In the U.S. more people visit public gardens than visit Disney or Las Vegas. In the U.K. Garden tourism is big business. Garden visits are more popular than museums or castles. People visit for beauty, relaxation, a day out.
Active gardeners take the same pleasure in visiting a public garden. In addition we always try to learn something to take home. We thought the lessons of this garden were several.
Gardening is a long game. Gardens can be planted in the same place for centuries and be amended to the needs of vastly different peoples. On this property the stew ponds that provided winter fish to medieval monks turned into a bog garden for the pleasure of people who had fish markets to shop at.
The garden designer and the architect played the hands they were dealt. They both worked with what nature gave them. The obvious example is that they were able to tame the steep slope. What was a considerable problem became the true beauty of the place. Creating an environment in which the perennial borders could tumble down this hill made a little magic. It is the reason that the garden is unique.
The second success was incorporating a working vegetable garden into an otherwise purely aesthetic environment. They did not hide the vegetables by creating mixed plantings. This is a pure working garden placed on the lowest and widest terrace bounded by hedging. This garden is big but has no other flat and dry sunny space for a big Kitchen Garden. We all need to work with the space we have.
The biggest lesson was to give yourself a surprise. The garden is a chance for artistic expression. We won’t forget that lesson.
Plan Your Visit
Learn more: This information is per our visit, check the web page https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/upton-house-and-gardens (This is a National Trust Property. Because our plans did not include a certainty of a sufficient number of these properties we did not buy a membership. However if your plans include a lot of such locations consider the savings of a membership. There is a version available to US residents.)
Garden Location: Upton House is 7 miles north of Banbury, 12 miles S.E. of Stratford upon Avon. There are busses from both towns. Free parking is 300 yards from the house. There is disabled parking in the lot and a buggy to take you to the house. We walked one way and rode the other. Try the buggy, the driver is worth the trip!
Prices: 12£ for adults, see the website.
Opening times and Accessibility: Opening times vary, see the website before you go. The first floor of the house is wheelchair accessible and most rooms have places to sit.
Consider this: entry to the house is timed with tours aimed at various interests. This is nice because you can engage the guides and it is not too crowded. The con is that you are outside whenever you are not on a tour. We went on a day in September that started out with a cold drizzle. Bring rain gear and the restaurant is available.