Coughton Court gardens by Christina Williams
Christina Williams is the mother of Magnus Birch-Throckmorton the current resident at Coughton Court along with his wife Imi. Christina is a Chelsea Flower Show garden designer and medal winner.
Interview with Christina Williams
C = Christina
B = Bill
Christina Williams is the mother of Magnus Birch-Throckmorton the current resident at Coughton Court along with his wife Imi. She is a Chelsea Flower Show garden designer and medal winner.
C: I wasn’t brought up in the House but was brought up the Ford House next to the Catholic Church. At the time my great uncle lived here with his wife and he didn’t have any children so he always knew my mother would inherit but the garden was a sort of classic post-war, low maintenance sort of garden. It was just lawns and rather overgrown, shrubberies and long hedges and the house felt rather sad. My mother and my grandparents were all very keen gardeners so I think she always wanted to bring it alive. We started with the Courtyard which was just a rectangular grass area with a very narrow path and we wanted to give it a feel that would be simple enough not to detract from the detail of the house but sort of Tudor in feel. Patterned beds, hedging, topiary and the quatrefoils on the house were looked at. I like having water and we picked up the design of the pool off the house. We used the access from the saloon and the main tower as our cross point. You never really saw the saloon door as you walked underneath it on this narrow path which made you walk very quickly and we wanted enough space that we could have a family party or visitors and enjoy seating under the tower looking at the garden. Because in fact the Courtyard is not symmetrical we had to put this long wide bed down the north-wing side which actually helps to give the family a bit of privacy as well which is incidental. There is nothing symmetrical about this space so if you look from above the pool is two-thirds of the way down and about 20% nearer the south-wing than the north-wing. And then the garden unfolded from that but, we wanted it formal but not too complicated as the area goes down to the river.
It is a long straight line and we wanted to break it up a bit and the garden itself is quite flat and it looked like it was becoming a bit square so we thought we would put in a circular rotunda in as a way of bringing in some softer lines on the main lawn and the two central gardens were again an attempt to just give a bit of interest and changing the levels a bit. They have a circle at the middle and then just channelling your eye to what I think is a beautiful view across the fields. That all sounds very easy and actually it was easy because the whole design came from the house really, and then this lovely view down to the river. The second phase was the walled garden which was really just abandoned. We took thirty-five skips full of old broken glass, bits of wood and broken clay pipe out. Because we wanted the areas around the house to be quite simple and my mother loved colour and loved roses we thought we would make that the focus of the flower garden. Again none of the walls are parallel it feels like it’s quite round but in fact it’s quite wonky in there but that was the idea that we could break up into rooms so we could try different plants and different planting styles. So that’s been in there for some time. I think we planted that in ’85. It was that awful winter when it just poured and poured with rain. It was really hard work it took forever and we have been slowly improving the soil here so everything is much easier that what it was 25 years ago when we were using pick-axes most of the time.
Then obviously the orchard with lots of local fruit varieties and then there was the bog garden which had been another lake which had become silted up some years and years ago. That was the next phase. Then there was a bit of a fight between me and my mother. I wanted all native species but because she liked colour she kept putting brightly coloured astilbes in there so I lost that battle. We’ve done a lot of work over the winter of 2018/9. Cleared a lot of the invasive weeds and got the water flow back. Actually it has been transformed down there as having that space and area of water just brings much more light in. It will take three years but we have replanted the inner beds and are just trying to keep on top of the weeds. We want to get more wildlife down there and we knew we would have to get more open water in so that’s a project that will need a lot of weeding for the next few years , I feel rather guilty as it will be making the gardeners more work. So that’s the kind of genesis of it.
Oh! We reshaped the drive in front of the house which no-one ever knows. It was a car park really but we put much more grass down and made it a more defined shape between the drive and the lawn and that’s one of the things you wouldn’t notice unless you knew what it looked like before. It looks a lot softer.
C: Obviously the Portuguese Laurel which we are pruning at the moment there was nothing at the front of the house at all except a lawn. It was just to set the house off better really and then it became an attraction in its own right.
B: It most definitely has. What is your favourite part of the garden?
C: I don’t have favourites. It depends on the time of year. The spring garden, I love the spring beds best and the summer I love the roses and I love the herbaceous border s, I do love……I love all of it actually. It’s all different isn’t it which I love.
B: Roses have taken a bit of a battering with the weather recently.
C: Well, it wasn’t helpful but I have to say the amount of bud on them they are looking really well. It’s looking really well; it’s a testament to the gardeners.
B: I normally take a walk around before the visitors get here.
C: It’s a privilege
B: It’s a huge privilege, do you have future plans?
C: The biggest plan for the moment is just to get the bog garden we haven’t planted up the islands and the flower bed that will be planted up this winter but really, it’s keeping on top of the weeds so there is not so much to gardener for the gardeners so that’s our major project. We have to replace the vegetable garden pergola and I think we’d like to, or I would like to plant spring bulbs which runs along the potting shed wall on both sides of the path so that you can walk between the borders but it’s very important in a garden of this size not to create more work than you can maintain. It is always a struggle. I have thousands of ideas but I have to be realistic.
B: You are professional garden designer?
C: I have many hats and one of them is, yes, I have a garden design business with Annie Prebensen, my partner and we work mainly south of Birmingham and west of London but we did a garden at Chelsea this year. We’re taking a break, at the moment, having a rest as that was very stressful and took up a lot of time. So I’m concentrating on here a bit.
B: What took you into gardening in the first place?
C: Well I was a banker and then I had Magnus and this was before telephones, mobile phones and laptops and I asked if I could job-share that and I was doing very long days. I was in work at 06.30am and I left at 06.30pm and I realised this was difficult to look after a child as well and I asked if I could job-share but of course in those days …..
B: It wasn’t so easy
C: Well, it wasn’t possible, particularly following markets. So I thought, Oh crikey I had better go self-employed and I can’t make patterns or cook (well I can cook but not professionally) all of those things which sensible people can do but I’ve always gardened with my grandparents, and then my mother and then I read an article in the FT which was about the English Gardening School in London and I thought brilliant I’ll do it! And I had a lovely year training there and then luckily I had Coughton as a test bed, a trial.
B: It’s obviously worked hasn’t it?
C: Well thank goodness, it was quite frightening.
B: It’s a big one to start with.
C: It was a big one to start with. I had done a few London ones, a couple of small one but this was on as scale unlike anything else.
B: And a lot of people see it.
C: A lot of people see it and it cost us a lot of money, but slowly over the years we have got it right. We’ve had a rethink over the last 5 years and we’ve changed things. We had box-blight which we struggled with in the Courtyard for years to get over but didn’t so all the box hedging is gone and we have got some new topiary now. You can’t stop in a garden. Things die on you and we’ve had a big change in the labyrinth and it’s surprising how much people notice. We’ve taken down a lot of the height that we put in originally to help it look more mature and we’ve put in obelisks and a bit more topiary and it’s subtly changed the look quite a lot but it has been good for the roses which has given them more space in there
B: You replaced quite a few, was it 2 years ago?
C: No, it was about 5.
B: How time flies.
C: Time flies. We’ve struggled a bit. Our Ph is a bit high for roses and we have been mulching with the municipal waste and that that has taken our alkalinity up quite high which isn’t great for roses.
I’m very pleased with the orchard and all the spring bulbs in there and I think works really well. I think that’s quite good. I think what we are trying to do is tweak what we have got. Finish the bog-garden may do the spring border. You know, give us time not to lose control of the rest of the garden. Big sigh.