Outdoors in early summer at Hinton Ampner
Hinton Ampner is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of 20th century garden design. Laid out by Ralph Dutton in the 1930s and 40s, it remains something of a hidden gem. Discover early summer scents and colours tucked away in this sleepy corner of Hampshire, courtesy of Head Gardener, John Wood.
Ralph Dutton inherited this hilltop manor house surrounded by rolling Hampshire countryside, in 1936. He set about creating a place of tranquillity. His genius eye for detail can be found in the bones of our garden, in the structure and the contrast. He developed a theme of crisp, sharp, formal hedges softened by the planting and pastel colours in the beds they surround.
The 14 acre formal garden is brilliantly laid out. It’s very purposeful and all paths lead to a destination. Mr Dutton took inspiration from places like Sissinghurst. He recreated that compartmentalised feel but maintained the views of the surrounding countryside. The result is a garden that sits well in its landscape, the further you get from the house the more the two blend.
A garden full of rooms
Your journey begins with a visit to the walled garden. Here you’re greeted with dahlias, delphiniums, sweet peas and neat rows of meticulously kept vegetables. Everything we grow is used by our tea-room so we’ve tailored it to their needs. Our cut flower border also provides fresh floral displays for the house.
A large formal pond full of lilies is edged by a stunning border of 100 roses. Whiter shade of pale is a modern floribunda rose and, as they begin to open in June, the scent is amazing. Turn the corner at the south side of the house and you’re greeted with magnificent views over ancient parkland. Manicured lawns, interrupted by formal hedging and quirky mushroom topiary, fall away from you. The pretty daisy-like flowers of erigeron grow in the terrace steps and soften the brickwork, bringing an old world charm.
Beds and borders brim with dahlias, roses, agapanthus, philadelphus and mixed perennials. The bright magenta dahlia ‘fascination’ draws the gaze close to the house, its dark foliage contrasting beautifully with silver cineraria edging. Our dahlias really take centre stage in the formal bedding, but we also try to grow them where their shape and colour can be used to compliment other plants.
A wilder side
On the north side of the garden an isolated cap of clay enables rhododendrons, camellias and pieris to thrive. Primarily built on chalk hillside it’s unusual to find that type of planting in a garden like ours. A shady woodland magnolia trail follows the old driveway that once formed the entry to the estate.
Perhaps my favourite area of the garden is the dell. Hidden away, this former chalk pit is secluded and quiet. Incredibly, it was once a village rubbish dump, but Mr Dutton saw its potential and set about transforming it. I love the planting, and the giant foliage punctuated with bright colours gives it a tropical feel. It’s surrounded by huge scented roses, wedding day, kiftsgate and brunonii, which grow right up into the yew trees and then cascade back down.
Focus on volunteering
I took over as Head Gardener here in 2006. An extra acre of garden came back into our care, so my first task was to increase volunteer numbers. We now have a brilliant group of 30 working alongside our four staff members.
Our volunteers do a fantastic job. They completely restored the historic greenhouses in the walled garden from a state of disrepair back to their glory days. The kitchen garden production is also managed by volunteers; they talk to the tea-room about what they need from us then pick it for them. We usually all stop for lunch together; I think fostering that social aspect is really important when people are doing something for the love of it.
A rewarding role
I moved to the National Trust because I wanted more people to be able to enjoy what I do. My favourite part of the job is probably the satisfaction of knowing that visitors, especially those that come regularly, are enjoying what we create.
We’re preserving a slice of history, keeping it as Mr Dutton wished. The garden is hard work; keeping those high standards is tough, but that’s part of the attraction. It relies on that crisp presentation so the hedges always need cutting, the lawns always need mowing. It’s a real plant person’s garden, very detailed, compact and interesting to work in.
Keeping up appearances
Any big garden is like a never-ending restoration project. Clearing beds and replanting will always continue. Mr Dutton said ‘if a garden stands still it goes backwards’. Whilst we’d never change the framework we can play around with the planting. We’re constantly evolving, enhancing and recreating.
We prioritise areas that need restoration and plan with a full season of interest in mind. We pay attention to new varieties that weren’t necessarily available to Mr Dutton but fit with his aesthetic. We take his principles and expand on them, always striving to present the garden at its absolute best.
It’s probably taken over my life a bit, but I love it here and if you’re happy in your job then you’re happy generally. It’s a fantastically well designed garden that I think’s hugely underrated. But then I would say that wouldn’t I...