Passing through deep-cut narrow Surrey lanes winding through tunnels of beech woodland, my first memory on arriving at Vann was of being confronted by a 12 year old boy whizzing round on a tractor, cutting the car park’s long meadow grass under the watchful eye of his mother.
At Vann, as at nearly all of the 3,500 gardens open each year for charity under the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), the garden is cared for by its owners, in this case Mary Caroe her family and help three days a week. At 2 hectares (5 acres) this is larger than most of the NGS gardens, but shares many common features; entrance fees and plant sales paid into an honesty box and the owner on hand to talk about her garden.
Vann is a historically important property designed by Arts and Crafts architect W D Caroe, who divided the garden into yew-hedged rooms. The Old Garden on the main approach to the house has many features of that period; good structure with tall yew hedges and topiary, brick paths, old-fashioned roses, lush informal planting, and self-seeders such as forget-me-not, aquilegias, and cowslips.
It was Caroe who also built the long stone and oak wisteria-covered pergola on the opposite side of the house, but he turned to his near neighbour Gertrude Jekyll to design the Water Garden. Famous for her painterly style of perennial planting, it came as a surprise for me to discover that Jekyll designed this garden of shade and damp-loving perennials. It is a garden of contrasting subdued shades of bold green foliage, such as rodgersias, leucojum, hostas and ostrich ferns. Beyond Jeykll’s Water Garden lies the semi-wild White Garden planted with early spring bulbs, the garden then dissolving into natural coppiced woodland.
Mary Caroe has strong views on her garden and although the Water Garden has many plant varieties dating back to Jekyll, she sees it as a developing and evolving entity. ‘If she was alive today, she would have done things differently,’ is her riposte to those visitors over-concerned with historical detail, a view I very much applaud.
The other main feature of the garden, the Yew Walk, a long rill enclosed by high hedges was originally a rose garden but succumbed to the deer. Replanted to give all-year interest, and especially attractive in late spring with iris, alliums and aquilegias, this is probably Vann’s most memorable feature. The rest of the garden has a relaxed feel, planting and lawns interspersed with wild flowers and meadow grass along with superb modern sculpture.
Vann, in my view, is one of the jewels of the National Gardens scheme, whose famous ‘Yellow Book’ and incredibly user-friendly website enable us all to access information on opening times, and directions for visiting those gardens close at hand. If I have one criticism of the scheme, it is that because of the number of participating gardens, descriptions are brief, seldom more than six lines, with few website photographs making it difficult to identify the gardens I most want to see.
This is a small niggle when compared to the huge voluntary effort made by owners in getting their gardens ready to open for charity, and the goodwill shown to visitors. Vann is exemplary in both respects, a delightful garden, and a charming family.
Where: Vann, Hambledon, Godalming, Surrey GU8 4EF
Details: www.vanngarden.co.uk – open some dates, April to July.
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