Chilworth Manor- A Musical Space
The intense care for Chilworth Manor that Head Gardener John McRae has is evident in his smiling eyes. He loves this garden where he has worked for 13 years and though he has shown countless people around the grounds in the past, he is full of freshly delivered information and excitement for upcoming challenges.
He takes me across the lawns and down to the ponds. “A monastery stood where the house is now, and it is recorded in the Doomsday book. These were their dew ponds where they kept their fish stocks.” We move to another pond where a Japanese garden has been crafted into the bank with giant boulders along the paths. Circular stone steps cross the water like lillypads overlooked by a great 30m Sequoia tree. From here you can look up to the soft ocre and yellow tones of the house.
The overriding feeling of this garden is of a piece of music- flowing from one movement to another, dramatic crescendos turning into quiet, still solos. It helps that a beautiful Surrey hill, forested and protective, rolls down through the gardens and property, allowing dramatic changes of level.
I feel enveloped. “I don’t really have a favourite area’ says John, “each place is different in it’s own way. The vineyard that we put in a few years ago, with 11,000 vines, is a challenge that keeps me alert! It was a steep learning curve and we are now producing rose and within three years we will be making white and pink sparkling wine”
“The garden has it’s different characteristics but it works as a whole, it is not separate.”
He stresses the keen involvement and creativity of Chilworth’s owners, Mia and Graheam Wrigley. “They bought the house in 2005 and began a massive restoration of the house. The gardens had also shrunk to what was manageable. We opened it up, cleared areas and replanted. They are also responsible for the garden sculptures”.
Sculptures are an integral part of the garden, leading you down avenues, making you stop and contemplate, allowing you to see some natural pattern in a new way.
History is another forcefield that flows through the gardens
In the 17th Century the house was once owned by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, one of Queen Ann’s close friends (in the film ‘The Favourite’).
“See that football field,” points John, “Queen Elizabeth used to play tennis there with Lady Heald. She was National Chairwoman of the National Garden’s Scheme and was married to Sir Lionel Heald, Attorney General to Winston General. She lived here for 60 years and died just before her 100th birthday. She rented out rooms to Law students who kept the place from falling down!”.
He reminisces about taking out the old tennis posts. “ These days the garden hosts the public. For three evenings the whole gardens are turned over to Picnic and Pimms, a live music event that sells out rapidly and supports three different charities”
John takes me up to the walled garden. Copious evergreen box balls have a pleasing scattered appearance with wisteria walks, ancient climbing roses growing up the large walls, and open spaces where the evening events takes place. One of two full gardeners says hello as he struggles with a Clematis Montana. I ask him what his favourite area- the quiet of the pond area where he goes for lunch.
I turn to John. ‘Can you enjoy the garden when you are responsible for every blade of grass and little weed? ‘ He looks around. Mainly I can, especially in the early mornings when I do a tour of what needs to be done, or in the evenings after work” He has work cut out with wildlife- “See here, deer have eaten the tops of those Azaleas, and badgers have dug up our new Sedum lawn!”
As we head towards the house for a cup of coffee, we pass an almighty oak. It is 400 years old. “One of our next projects is to develop a woodland area under there”.
I met Mia for coffee in her stylish kitchen, the decor full of pale silvers and shimmering yellows and greens and of course, interesting works of art.
‘I love the garden and am always doing something. I loved working in my grandparents garden” She is very conscious she has inherited and is developing a very historical part of Surrey. As she talks about new ideas it becomes obvious that her and John see the garden as the force leading the way- a branch falls down and they decide to make a woodland where it has fallen, grass grows long and they mow a new path through it. “Visitors also help us see it afresh.”
They smile as they recount the long nights last year where especially John had to wake at 1am and light the hundreds of lanterns in the vineyard to stop late frosts damaging the new buds. Mia leans over her coffee and shows me a video of a drone that has captured the lanterns all in rows twinkling in the oil black night- it is a magical sight and a vision of how a great garden is always evolving.