In 1892, The Formal Garden in England was published, the work of architect and landscape designer Sir Reginald Blomfield. The book, still in print, proposed a classical, architectural approach to garden design – one its illustrator Inigo Thomas used to great effect at Athelhampton in Dorset.
Commissioned by the then owner, Alfred Cart de Lafontaine, in 1891, Thomas created a series of formal, Renaissance-style walled garden courts or ‘outdoor rooms’ with terraces, fountains, ponds and pavilions. A central Corona leads out to four of the courts, the largest of which is the Great Court with its 12 yew pyramids set around a sunken lawn and pool.
“The individual garden rooms offered the opportunity to plant each with distinct colours,” says Andrea Cooke, whose husband’s family have owned Athelhampton since 1957. That planting includes roses, magnolias and lilies, along with fruit trees, vines and an avenue of pollarded limes. “Even in winter, the bare bones of the gardens and topiary make for a magical sight,” she says.
The Grade I listed formal gardens form part of just under 30 acres of grounds, which also include woodlands and pasture, a walled kitchen garden, a golf course and a 16th-century dovecote. Encircled by the River Piddle, and with numerous pools and fountains, water is a recurring theme.
“The central axis of the three fountains in a row is reminiscent of the Holy Trinity design of medieval gardens,” she says. “Despite their 19th-century date, this historical detail, along with the 40,000 tons of hamstone used to construct the walls, allow the gardens to sit happily alongside this ancient house.”
The oldest part of Athelhampton, the Great Hall, was built in 1485 by Sir William Martyn, and features an original timbered roof, linenfold panelling, heraldic stained glass and a spectacular oriel window depicting the marriage alliances of the Martyn family. “The Hall is a marvel. It is captivating not only for its beauty, but also its antiquity.”
From the Great Hall, arched doorways lead out into the Green Parlour with its carved 16th-century beams, the King’s Ante Room, and on into the West Wing, added in 1550 and home to the Great Chamber, which features a decorative plaster ceiling, Elizabethan panelling and heraldic glass.
The Cooke family has made many improvements to Athelhampton, including converting the Coach House into a wedding and events venue, and part of the attic into a conference space with cinema. The West Wing attic is home to an art gallery dedicated to the Russian Cubist painter Marevna, who lived here in the 1950s.
Hers is not the only famous name linked with the house – Thomas Hardy’s father was a stonemason who worked on its restoration in the 19th century, and the novelist was a frequent visitor. “The mellow beauty of this gentle place has been a source of joy,” says Cooke.