A delightful garden in Wirksworth, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 12:32 29 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:27 20 February 2013

A delightful garden in Wirksworth, Derbyshire

A delightful garden in Wirksworth, Derbyshire

David and Eileen's delightful hidden garden in Wirksworth has become an enduring labour of love. Pat Ashworth reports ...

David and Eileen took a calculated risk when they moved to Wirksworth from London 16 years ago. They are both actors and it can be a jittery thing for actors not to be in or near the capital. But it hasnt jeopardised work or prospects for either of them, with a journey time to St Pancras of just an hour and a half, and plenty of opportunities here in the region.

The couple, whose stage names are David Hobbs and Eileen Davies, had been passing through Wirksworth over the years on the way to the Peak District for camping and climbing and walking holidays. People were always on their way, to the National Park, Chatsworth or whatever. Now the town very much appreciates what its got and is flaunting it a bit, David says, Its a beautiful place, full of surprises. No wonder they keep coming to film here.

They lived first at Thorntree Cottages, and after their flat in Belsize Park appreciated even the bit of grass, somewhere to sit and somewhere for plants that was the tentative garden. But twelve years ago, they found a three-storey house on a late Georgian terrace on St Johns Street, with a garden so hidden that you simply wouldnt guess it was there. It evokes an involuntary Oh! of delight, as much for the surprise as for the garden itself.

David was brought up near Worthing a great childhood five minutes up on your bike was the Downs, and ten minutes down was the sea. Our garden was rather flinty and stony, and had a sort of wilderness character, he remembers. The word communion describes most aptly for him the way this garden has evolved and the relationship he has with it. Its beautiful and tranquil and somehow spiritual.

Im seeing it in late spring and everything is bursting into flower. Three steps rise from the tiny courtyard at the white-painted rear of the house to what was originally a small grassed area on a former ash pit but is now a wildflower meadow in miniature, bright with cowslips and primulas. There are Lent lilies and white fritillaries and there will be bright red tulips. David wants to sow purple fritillaries in here as well next year, and a few Ladys Smock, he says with pleasure.

Just a few plants and trees remain from the original garden, including a white lilac and a white-berried rowan. Three dolly tubs serve as planters capable of taking whole trees and yet still able to be moved around. Ivy undulates in flamboyant fashion on the south-facing wall that runs along one side of the garden, where one of the two cats, Wilson and Keppel, is curled in repose and not chasing the bumblebees or inflicting any damage. There were about half a dozen fritillaries but now there are only two, David says severely.

He had no previous experience of gardening. What you see is my garden knowledge over 12 years but accelerated so much in the last two years, when its just raced away, he says. We are standing on a small, central patio area paved with mellow bricks acquired from a demolished farm outbuilding, a pavement that looks as though David might have unearthed rather than laid it. The pond here was one of the first things he installed, though sadly, he has lost one fish and the two resident frogs over the winter.

This area has a distinctly Japanese feel to it, something compounded by an inventive piece of artistry in the form of a quotation from Shakespeare carved into a section of the high and rather strikingly beautiful fence and trellis that runs along the south side of the garden. I did Cymbeline a few years ago and theres this lovely line describing England as in a great pool, a swans nest, David comments.

I was at Stratford at the time, by the Avon, with swans, and it makes total sense. We had the pond and the bamboo: something clicked and a friend of mine put me in touch with someone who had a fretsaw machine. I really enjoyed doing that. Its the various things you can put in that makes this communion, theres no other word for it. The penny drops. You suddenly go, I know what... Where does that come from? Subconsciously something ones read or seen, perhaps, but you think, Ill put that there, that will be the place.

The roofs and gables beyond the garden are a stunning backdrop. What I like about Wirksworth is the mixture of the architecture. You can weave your way up the hill and down the green. You realise what a really unusual place it is when you go up the narrow streets and the ginnels; it looks really continental sometimes, David observes. He points out the weathervane of the church, just visible over the wall: That area there is just beautiful, one of the sights of Derbyshire, really.

He expresses wonder and amazement that stuff actually grows. I wonder whether being an actor is an influence, whether he tries to create in effect a stage. But as someone who also paints and has been attending an art class in Wirksworth for the past 15 years he reflects, I suppose I might go more towards the painting analogy. You can move stuff around in a composition, choice of colour, everything, rub something out thats not working... In a way, thats like the garden. You can take something out and move it somewhere else and more often than not, its going to survive.

He looks critically at what he hopes is going to be a double Rugosa Alba, to match the single one whose shoots are evident: he cut them back hard for the winter but lost my nerve on this one. Theres a philadelphus by the wall, also cut back on the advice of a professional horticulturalist, and he observes, Theres one stem with two really nice green buds on it; these other eight havent, so its still fingers crossed.

Christopher Lloyd, author of The mWell Tempered Garden has this great phrase a gap is an opportunity. So if it goes, then I will cut it down and maybe one of these acers can replace it if I can just drag it there in its pot ... Lloyd is his biggest influence but his voracious appetite for knowledge is also fed by Beth Chatto, author of classic works like The Gravel Garden and The Damp Garden, and by the RHS plant finder guide.

And closer to home, he has been inspired by the profusion of the Shooting Lodge garden above the Derwent dam, owned by the National Trust, which Jane Bond and her husband, John have created. Derbyshire Life featured it in 2007. I read that, and passed the garden when I was walking in the area above Howden Moor. It was when all the Japenese anemones were out and I thought, Thats what I want to achieve, he says, in admiration.

Theres no space for a greenhouse but the tiny brick outbuilding that was once a privy provides a modicum of storage space. He inherited the green metal swing frame that is holding up the lilac tree a Sanders white rambler will go upwards when the lilac is over, and David has also put in a scarlet runner bean to climb, and some sweet peas. He is pleased too with the native clematis hes planted: It doesnt give much in the way of a flower but I just like the fact that its a native wild flower, and that it came from seed.

Hes been broadcasting seeds for the first time in this rear part of the garden, and if all goes well, expects a nice array of flowers. Four fuchsias will almost be a hedge later in the year but what hed really love to plant is a hedgerow with all the things that go to make a country hedgerow, hawthorn and blackthorn and maple. Four tiny shoots herald the presence of a white form of rose bay willow herb, and he comments, These kinds of cottagey, roadside things are nice to have. You see a tiny thing like a primrose and think, how has that survived?

Its an eminently manageable garden for someone whose work can take him away for periods of time. The pots look healthy and plants dribble from every container; theres even a window box perched over the gate. From inside the house, window panes frame parts of the garden like a Hockney painting. It just goes on. The works never done, David says with contentment.

The garden, at 12 St Johns Street, is open 12 noon to 5pm on 19th and 20th June, as part of Wirksworths Hidden Gardens and Courtyards trail.

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