A tour of beauty

PUBLISHED: 12:42 13 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:30 20 February 2013

A tour of beauty

A tour of beauty

Surrounded by a rich nature reserve, the gardens at Daws Hall have spectacular autumn colour that is proving an inspiration to generations. Philippa Pearson finds out more

SITUATED next to the River Stour, Daws Hall is well known as a nature reserve rich in wildlife with diverse natural habitats. The reserve is managed by the Daws Hall Trust and the Environmental Education Centre there is staffed and funded by Essex County Council.

Five acres of the 30-acre site are given over to ornamental gardens that delightfully mingle with their natural surroundings. Specialities in the gardens include more than 100 different types of old fashioned shrub roses, 80 clematis varieties and a three-acre wildflower meadow. Trees also play an important part and an arboretum complements many mature and established rare trees that are dotted throughout the garden. When Major Iain Grahame moved to the hall in the 1960s, there was very little garden. He established a wildfowl farm in the grounds, which has a brook running through it as well as a number of ponds, and today many bird species can be seen throughout the year here and on the reserve.

Autumn colour
Back in the grounds, Major Grahame started to develop the gardens and he particularly wanted plants that would create good autumn colour so he hired a knowledgeable Dutch gardener to help him shape the gardens. He also visited Beth Chatto for inspiration and advice. His Dutch gardener, Ceef Stapel, planted many trees in the 1960s, including many rare species, which are now gracefully maturing. The soil at Daws Hall has areas of acid soil, unusual in Essex, so in spring camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons happily flourish here.

From October onwards, many trees in the arboretum and the grounds explode into a colourful firework display as leaves take on their autumnal hues. Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' takes pride of place as the brightest, most brilliant red of the Japanese maples; the Norway Maple, Acer platanoides 'Drumondii', has beautiful dark green leaves with creamy white margins that turn orange in autumn; elsewhere, a magnificent Liquidambar styraciflua 'Worplesdon' the Sweet Gum tree, competes for its share of autumn colour attention.

A visit from a member of the Tree Register, an organisation that keeps records of notable and ancient trees in Britain and Ireland, acknowledged this latter tree as one of the biggest known so far, along with a Prunus x yedoensis 'Ivensii' cherry tree and golden-fruited Rowan. In all, six trees on the estate have been noted by the Tree Register as outstanding specimens, the others being a larch, Larix kaempferi 'Blue Haze', the Norway Maple and the Acer grosseri var. hersii on the lawn opposite the house, which is the tallest measured for many years.

Elsewhere, seek out the Cedar of Lebanon which was planted around 1650, the Paulownia or Foxglove Tree from western China, which after a mild winter has a spectacular display of blue flowers in May and a Coast Redwood which although only planted in 1970 is a magnificent, tall specimen. Good autumn colour also comes from interesting forms of Nyssa, Amelanchier, Viburnum and other shrubs and trees.

Many fabulous old fashioned roses bloom in the gardens at Daws Hall. Rosa Mundi with its striped semi-double blooms was originally introduced in the 12th century; 'Charles de Mills' has deep purple-red double flowers; 'Boule de Neige' repeat flowers in the autumn and has pure white strongly-fragranced flowers; 'Fantin-Latour' has abundant blush-pink fragrant flowers.

Being surrounded by wildlife can occasionally cause problems to the ornamental plants. Major Grahame has built fox-proof fences around some areas of the reserve, but concedes that nature and gardens just have to work together side by side.

In spring, much of the lawn near the house is carpeted in daffodils and other bulbs. Major Grahame created and planted the wildflower meadow in the 1980s and during the summer there is a fine display of grasses, ox-eye daisies, cowslips, meadow saxifrage and many other wildflowers. The meadow is traditionally managed with sheep grazing here from winter until early April before the wildflowers emerge. The field is cut in late summer to early autumn, after which the sheep return.

The Environmental Education Centre, located in the old stables of the listed hall which was built around 1530, attracts more than 4,000 school children from Essex and Suffolk each year. In this wonderful setting, they are sure to be inspired.

RHS Silver-Gilt medal winner Philippa Pearson is a garden designer and professional horticulturalist. Call 01767 651253 or email gardens@essexlifemag.co.uk

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