Hannah Galvin meets Forde Abbey's current owner, Mark Roper to discuss the historic Somerset gardens

PUBLISHED: 20:16 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:51 20 February 2013

A carpet of glorious crocuses outside the Abbey

A carpet of glorious crocuses outside the Abbey

Forde Abbey Gardens in Somerset offer a feast of spring joys for the visitor, but there's plenty for the historians too, as Hannah Galvin explains.

Hannah Galvin meets Forde Abbey's current owner, Mark Roper to discuss the historic Somerset gardens

Founded in the reign of King Stephen and within one hundred years of the dawn of the Cistercian Order, Forde Abbey near Chard on the Somerset/Dorset border has a long and varied history. Monastic power, religious upheaval, civil war, rebellion, neglect and prosperity have all played their part. Whilst much of this history can be read in the architecture of this beautiful building, the 30 acres of glorious garden also have their tale to tell.

Forde Abbey's current owner, Mark Roper, has spent most of his life at Forde Abbey as did his father before him, and knows every inch of the gardens. "The spring is perhaps the best time to see the history of the garden. It is pared down to its most fundamental components but still retains enough planting and colour to make a visit enjoyable as well as instructive."

There is certainly a lot to see. But even so the peace and tranquillity so prized by its original owners remain in abundance, although the only surviving monastic element in the garden is the Great Pond, which once powered the grain mill. Covering an area of more than three acres it is a haven for wild water birds, while a Beech House, planted with saplings of pleached beech in the 1930s, provides a charming bird hide complete with roof and windows.

The Great Pond now feeds a cascade of ponds installed by Sir Francis Gwyn, an 18th-century owner who welcomed the new fashion for landscape gardening, and the mathematical precision of connecting cascades is clear at this time of the year. Water drops down in a perfect line from the Great Pond to the Canal Pond, dwarfed by surrounding Californian Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), then goes underground before emerging into the teardrop-shaped Mermaid Pond, home of the 160ft Centenary Fountain, and finally to the Long Pond.

These 18th-century developments made way for a period of neglect during the early part of the 19th century. It wasn't until the estate was bought by wealthy widow Jane Evans in 1863 that attention returned to the garden. Jane Evans was truly a woman of her time. Inside the house she created stairs and corridors so that she might avoid meeting her servants in the course of their duties, and outside created an extensive kitchen garden and glasshouses to the north, which still provide produce for the house and tearoom today, and dark shrubberies and borders to the south.

Mark explains the drawbacks of such an arrangement: "There must have been a constant battle to keep the rabbits living in the large clumps of pampas grass away from the bedding and the Kitchen Garden. The peacocks they had then would also have been a hazard. A couple of years ago my daughter, Alice, went up to the picture archive at Country Life magazine and came back with some wonderful photographs of the garden taken soon after my grandparents moved here in 1905. There were more beds at the front of the house than we have now and they were completely surrounded by wire netting to protect them. Necessary of course but hardly decorative!"

Mrs Evans' garden would also have required a small army of gardeners. Even at the beginning of the First World War, less than a decade after the Roper family came to Forde Abbey, there were ten gardeners on the staff. But first conscription and then high taxation meant this number dwindled, and now the 30-acre garden is worked by just Mark, his sister Charlotte, who has made the Kitchen Garden very much her own, and two members of staff. The more informal style that dominates now is as much a practical necessity as it is a conscious design decision. Even so, the garden has developed more in the last 100 years than at any other time in its history. But the key to the Ropers' accomplishments has been a desire to work with the garden rather than impose passing fashions on it. As experienced horticulturalists they know when prevailing elements can be changed and when they should be harnessed.

The wonderful Bog Garden is a Roper innovation and one Mark is particularly proud of. Made from a silted area of the Great Pond it employs the 800-year-old monastic leat and now produces a colourful display of stately yet prosaically named skunk cabbages (Lysichiton americanus) and early-flowering primulas (Primula rosea) during the spring.

Meanwhile, large areas of the lawns are left uncut until well into the summer to encourage wild flowers to seed and to provide a habitat for butterflies. Red clover, yellow rattle and green-winged orchids are spreading well over this area. Arguably, early March is the best time to see the fruits of this policy when a carpet of crocus (Crocus vernus and Crocus tommasinianus) stretches across more than 10 acres of the garden. The purple haze it creates soon becomes dotted with the first lent lilies (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), Mark's favourite daffodil. He was given a tip to encourage the spectacle and passes it on: "In certain quite small areas, where coarse grasses have taken hold, a Roundup spray in early autumn benefits the bulbs enormously."

There is more vibrant colour up on the Mount where the acidic soil provides perfect conditions for a variety of rhododendrons and azaleas, camellias and magnolias, starting with Magnolia sargentiana at the beginning of March. The Arboretum, planted by Mark's father, Geoffrey Roper, in the immediate post-war years, is also home to many of these same shrubs as well as a Chilean flame tree (Embothrium coccineum var. lanceolatum) which flowers later in the summer and a rare Picea farrerii that made its way to Forde Abbey from Burma via Exbury Gardens in Hampshire.

March is also the time to see how the secluded Park Garden is constructed and to get a glimpse of the hellebores that are hidden behind thick herbaceous plants for much of the year yet still flower from December onwards. In the Rock Garden, created by Mark's grandmother in the 1920s from the small monastic quarry, the tiny Cyclamen coum which have flowered since early January continue to give colour.

The storms of January 1990 brought chaos to much of the garden and particularly to the rockery but the silver lining to this cloud was soon discovered. Jack Drake, for many years owner of a famous alpine nursery in Scotland, offered to help rehabilitate the Rock Garden, which was made possible by the loss of a tall cedar that had darkened that part of the garden. Out of the destruction today's delicate planting became possible.

What strikes visitors most forcibly about Forde Abbey is the overall friendliness of the house and gardens. Despite its scale there are plenty of ideas that would translate well into smaller gardens. The informality of the grounds appeals in a way not appreciated by previous owners who fought to bend the garden to fit fashion, and yet it still provides a suitable accompaniment to the elegant house it surrounds. The planting is punctuated by statuary and architectural features, many of which are the inspiration of Mark's wife, Lisa. The latest addition is a newly restored set of wrought-iron gates and railings that mark the western boundary of the garden.

This is definitely a garden that refuses to stay still. It is always being developed and Mark still has ideas he would like to try out: "The joy of gardening is that it is so forgiving. If something doesn't work then dig it over and try something else but at least give it a try. You can't lose anything by it. This is a very exciting time of year, with everything to look forward to. But then I think if we are blessed with sunny weather the garden can be more glorious in early March than it is at any other time of the year."

Further Information

1-8 March - Crocus Week

The crocus are likely to be at their best so this is a good time to discover more about these delicate plants. The Gardens, Plant Centre and Gift Shop are open from 10am. Tearoom open from 11am.

The Gardens are open daily throughout the year from 10am-4.30pm (last entry).

The Tearoom and Gift Shop are open daily from 1 March - 31 October

The House is open from 1 April - 31 October on Tuesday-Friday and 12 noon-4pm (last entry) on Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday. www.fordeabbey.co.uk, 01460 221290

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