Shepton’s Secret Garden

PUBLISHED: 12:53 09 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:26 20 February 2013

Roger Saul in the famous rockery

Roger Saul in the famous rockery

Most successful gardens boast at least one eye-catching focal point, whether it is a well-positioned sculpture, water feature, temple or folly. I can only think of one that can claim to have a spectacular viaduct cutting right through it, and a Gr...

For much of the last century Kilver Court was home to the Showering empire, once famed for its Babycham drink, but in recent times it became the headquarters of the Mulberry design label, having been taken over by Roger Saul, founder of Mulberry and more recently associated with spelt and his own British food label, Sharpham Park. The very presence of the viaduct gives Roger Saul a show-stopping start to his latest venture - opening Kilver Court to the public - and as he steers me gleefully around, his excitement is palpable.

"The Charlton Viaduct makes the garden," he says. "It's staggering with its backdrop through to the countryside. The line was known as the Somerset and Dorset - or Slow and Dirty. It's actually tarmacked across the top now and has recently been restored by English Heritage."

Whilst the Showering family periodically used to open the garden at Kilver Court, Roger Saul is now opening it to visitors on a regular basis and enhancing the overall experience by the addition of an adjoining organic shop and caf. All is done with the flair and style that one comes to expect from the man from Mulberry.

The full impact of the garden, positively zinging with good health, can be seen from a few floors up, in what was once the old Showering offices, and prior to that the site of wool and silk mills. What is surprising is that this oasis is completely hidden from passers-by and it is not until you turn off the main Shepton thoroughfare, walk through the outer courtyard hemmed in by office buildings, and under an archway, that the secret garden is revealed.

One of the new additions to the garden is the parterre, designed by Roger Saul himself

Beautifully maintained, the garden sits in a little valley of its own beside a swelling mill pond. Almost as dramatic as the viaduct is an enormous rockery that fills one side of the garden. Its perfectly executed proportions mean that even the viaduct doesn't overshadow it. A torrent of water gushes downhill between the weighty sandstone boulders and into the mill pond at the bottom.

The rockery is a piece of history in itself. It won a prestigious gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in the 1960s and the Showering family commissioned its designer, Charles Whiteleg, to recreate it at Kilver Court. Conifers and acers are the key rockery plants in shades of green and purple.

Horticulturalist Chris Bath has been working in the garden for an incredible 29 years, and remembers the rockery in its early days. Over the years it has grown, developed and more recently been overhauled.

"The conifers are a main feature, for two reasons really. They were fashionable at the time and they put a lot of mature specimens into the garden to give immediate impact," explains Chris. "All the originals have been replaced since inception. We have kept with the spirit of the design but changed the varieties where there are more interesting varieties available. They work well because by choosing the varieties that don't spread too much we can keep them in check and they give colour all year round."

Amongst the conifers are: Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea' standing like a shaggy, golden hair-do; mid-green Picea abies 'Albertiana Conica'; and the golden column of Taxus baccata 'Standishii'. The deep-burgundy leaves of Acer palmatum dissectum make a striking contrast to the greens. Interplanted in pockets of soil between the rocks, a myriad of alpines bring the scene to life: hardy geraniums, sedums, rock roses, thymes and pretty dianthus. Chris has certainly learned over the years how to handle a rockery of this stature.

"It's high maintenance. It's hand-weeded, there's no easy option, but by being consistent, not leaving it for weeks, keeping on top of it and not letting the perennial weeds get in, then it's no problem."

A stone pathway running around the base of the rockery is a mini triumph of its own, burgeoning with low-growing alpines and other dwarf plants so that you feel you are bouncing along on a soft bed of foliage as you walk. Look out for Thymus serpyllum, alpine phlox, silvery Raoulia australis, and Dianthus 'Flashing Light'.

One of the new additions to the garden is the parterre designed by Roger Saul himself who, I am surprised and delighted to discover, lists gardening amongst his interests.

"I love gardening. My grandmother and my mother were keen gardeners. My own garden is a very English walled garden, quite different from here, so the first time I came here I didn't like it. It was perfectly manicured with corporation roses, so I took them away and replaced them with a parterre and large herbaceous borders around the outside, inspired by Nori Pope at Hadspen. I spent ages getting the colours coming through in my planting plan.

What is surprising is that this oasis is completely hidden from passers-by

"I got a lot of inspiration from the military museum in Paris, Place des Invalides, and I have cut the topiary in the same way they have - in the shape of huge shells or bullets."

The parterre makes a restful centrepiece to the terrace area, with its neatly clipped patterns and infilling of lavender, santolina and iris.

A stroll beneath the viaduct and through the shady walkway beside the mill pond opens up views of the old industrial site, complete with factory chimney and tall, many-windowed offices. This was once the hub of a significant manufacturing industry with woollen mills running all the way along the River Sheppey and employment generated for hundreds of people in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The garden was originally created in 1880 when Ernest Jardine started up a silk mill on the site and, being an ardent philanthropist, he created pleasure gardens around the factory for the benefit of his workers.

Today, the site is enjoying a new injection of attention and, just as in the Victorian era, people will be able to take pleasure in the surroundings the gardens offer. No 21st-century garden visit is complete, however, without afternoon tea, and you won't be disappointed by the caf and adjoining shop.

"We want to be the first shop in the country doing only organic, seasonal, locally grown food. It's quite rich pickings around here; there are loads of organic cheeses and meats, and we have our own rabbits, deer, Hebridean sheep and beef from Sharpham Park. We even have organic coffee from Cornwall. Step by step we hope we can offer either fresh or frozen local produce. The whole idea is to take produce from the field straight to the shop."

The intrigue of the garden, complete with magnificent viaduct and rockery, is that it lies totally hidden from view, albeit only a stone's throw from the A37 through Shepton Mallet. Stop and take a look, and you will catch some of Roger Saul's infectious enthusiasm for his latest venture.


Kilver Court Gardens, Kilver Street, Shepton Mallet, is open daily 10am-4pm to the end of October The shop and caf are open from 9.30am Mon-Sat; 10am Sundays.

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