Chipping Campden is a large village/small town quilted into the Cotswolds like a button on an overstuffed Victorian chair, and like all good Cotswold villages it has a higgledy-piggledy collection of beautiful stone buildings. The picturesque houses, cottages, pubs, hotels and shops, are studded with architectural glories like the Banqueting Houses (owned by the Landmark Trust – you can stay in them!), St James’s Church and the Wool Market.
Much of this gorgeous stone was excavated from the surrounding hills during the Middle Ages, buildings both elaborate and simple were funded by the wool trade. Nowadays the town has more diverse sources of income and population but if you could remove all the cars the High Street would look much as it did hundreds of years ago.
We live 15 minutes away and I haven’t yet become blasé about its beauties despite mundane things like the school run (both my boys went to the comprehensive school there) and a bit of shopping. But it was only by accident that we discovered a couple of years ago that the town has an open gardens event for charity each June.
To look at the houses cramming the High Street, you’d think that there couldn’t possibly be room for gardens, but if you peep down little alleys and through momentarily open doors you can catch glimpses of greenery. Many of the old houses have gardens which still sit within the medieval burgage plots, long strips of land allotted to the various tenants of the settlement and running at right angles to the street from a narrow frontage.
Open Gardens* is a great chance to see behind the stone facade of these ancient streets properly, not only exploring the sloping, narrow, rambling gardens but also looking back at the way the different buildings have been grafted together over the centuries.
With fine buildings close together on an undulating site there are bits of borrowed landscape aplenty – views that you could never imagine from simply walking down the street. It must be one of the few places where you don’t necessarily want to screen your garden from the neighbours – sometimes their houses make lovely backdrops.
There were more than thirty gardens open this weekend and my husband, Chris, is a willing garden visitor if there are interesting buildings to look at and the prospect of a cup of tea halfway round – but as our sons were both at home for Father’s Day and I have failed to enthuse them about gardening (put them off it?) we only had a couple of hours to spare. We therefore walked at a smart pace but still visited less than a third of the gardens on offer. I wish this event would carry on over two weekends!
Once you get away from the High Street there are ancient thatched cottages – some famously chocolate boxy, others more humble – mixed with modern houses and much-adapted old houses. Each had its pleasures and even the tiniest gardens had inspiring details or a few unfamiliar plants.
Old gardens appeal to me at a deeper level than new gardens, they are often less tidy because the plants have gradually taken over as the buildings and stonework start to crumble slightly. They slowly develop a patina in vegetation and stone which is like the patina on fine bronze – hard to fake and easy to ruin by trying to polish it. We went from a new and pristine garden which left me cold (and I took a single photo of their bird house) to this ancient rambling one, which I loved and wanted to HAVE.
In newer (often smaller) gardens, however, I enjoy ingenious use of space, and the sheer joy of fresh, new planting and pride in ownership.
Welcomes varied: in some gardens the owners were keeping out of the way, or were even a bit aloof, letting their cats and dogs do the greeting. By the end of the afternoon they were probably exhausted and wishing everyone would go home. Other owners were bursting with information and tips for practical solutions to garden problems, proudly showing Before and After photographs. I didn’t mind either way.
I found myself suffering from outhouse envy on more than one occasion – there was everything from genuine ruins to smart greenhouses and his’n’hers sheds to choose from.
As we walked around the town and cut across a field I reflected on how gardens leak into fields and countryside leaks into gardens – barring the release of invasive plants I enjoy this permeable membrane around ancient settlements.
There were gardens which remained frustratingly closed and others which were possible to enjoy from the pavement, so we became more and more nosy, tuned in to the possibilities behind closed gates, while aware that we didn’t have time to visit gardens we knew perfectly well were open and full of interest.
As we strode back to the car park at the school (having been nearly an hour longer than we had said we were going to be) I was still peeping over hedges and walls, wondering what was behind intriguing doors and down little passageways.
Of course, to rub salt in the wound, as we ran out of time the weather began to change from grey and gloomy to bright and sparkly but finally it was time to go (after a quick visit to the plant stall) and we drove home. I got out of the car and went straight into our garden with my camera, for a few minutes seeing it with the fresh eyes of an appreciative garden visitor. It didn’t look too bad though I say so myself!
*To preserve people’s privacy as much as possible I haven’t identified the different gardens featured in my photographs.
A very big thank you to all of them for opening on this occasion – I know it is very hard work – it was great fun to see and I am hoping that a great deal of money was raised for Campden Area Home Nursing.
If your scrolling finger hasn’t worn out here are a few bonus pictures from the same day: