Shaftesbury residents seeking peace and solitude are being offered an escape within 375 acres of gardens and woodland at Wincombe Park. Co-owner Phoebe Fortescue has listed her estate in the Quiet Garden Movement register.
Alfred’s Keri Jones went to visit
Wincombe Park’s lawns, lake, mature trees, orchard and a walled kitchen garden lie at the bottom of a coombe, 30-minutes’ walk from the centre of Shaftesbury. “We are very lucky to live in such a beautiful place,” said Phoebe, as she explained how visitors enjoy sitting on the lawn or a seat in her gardens, enjoying the views and, in particular, the birdsong. She is particularly proud that a pied flycatcher has been spotted in her grounds recently.
Some visitors can’t believe that the busy A350 is less than 1km away, across the fields. Wincombe Park, it seems, is like a well-kept secret. “Someone said it reminded them of ‘Rebecca’,” said Phoebe, as she recalled the comment of one visitor who had compared Wincombe Park to Manderley, the fictional estate in the Daphne du Maurier novel.
“When you come down the drive you don’t expect it to be there. We ask them to park in a field at the top of the drive. They walk down my drive and suddenly they have this vista of the lake, the house and the garden. They appreciate that hugely,” said Phoebe.
Phoebe enjoys the reaction from people seeing her garden for the first time. “People come and they say, ‘Wow, that looks fantastic’. They really value the setting. 99.99% of them appreciate it,” she says.
Although Phoebe opens her gardens occasionally under the National Garden Scheme, she doesn’t promote her grounds as a place where people can ‘decompress’. “Some quiet gardens advertise themselves and have open days specifically for people to visit. I don’t do that. If people want to contact me, then they can come and spend time in the garden or feel it’s a sort of day retreat.“
Quiet gardens are, as the name suggests, places to relax ‘off-the-grid’. “I’ve suggested that people leave their mobile phones and electronic devices. They have such rubbish signals here anyway. If you want to get away, you want to have peace in the garden. The National Garden Scheme is also promoting gardens for health, to combat stress. If people want to come and spend time here they are welcome as well,” said Phoebe.
Wincombe Park’s grounds have not always been so well kempt. The estate house was overgrown when Phoebe’s in-laws bought the property from historian Arthur Bryant in 1961. “There were brambles up to the door. The house was divided into flats and there was a tree growing up through the drawing room floor,” she said.
Her father-in-law soon set about making the lake as a focal point and Phoebe agrees that it adds a special feature to the estate. “A tributary to the River Nadder runs from the lake. There’s a natural spring at the head of the valley,” Phoebe added.
Whilst Phoebe’s mother-in-law was an ‘experienced plants woman’ as Phoebe put it, she remains modest about her own gardening skills. “We have been learning on the job. We aren’t natural gardeners. We’re not embarrassed to ask for help and to ask advice on things.”
Wincombe Park’s position, nestled away in woodland at the bottom of a valley, means it enjoys a microclimate. “We lived at the top of the drive, which is actually the same height as Win Green, then you drop down to the house. When my children did their geography projects, they set thermometers up at the bungalow and down on grandpa’s lawn. And the lawns were always much warmer.”
The shelter and slightly warmer temperatures allow Phoebe to grow plants that generate some interest. “The border at the front is full of different colours including azaleas. It is always a ‘wow’ because it’s got so much interest,” she said.
Phoebe pointed to a beautiful tree with flowers that resembled red pearls, drooping downwards. “This is a clerodendrum,” she explained. “Behind you, this wisteria is a very particular variety. A wisteria expert who has written a book about them was completely ecstatic. He hadn’t seen such an example of this particular plant except in Japan.”
We walked through a stone archway the shape of a perpendicular window. As soon as we’d passed through, a large walled garden opened out in front of us. “This is where I spend my time on my hands and knees. I do all the vegetable garden, and my sister, she also helps,” said Phoebe.
I suggested that tending to a vegetable garden of this size would be a full-time job. “Spending an hour day in a garden is incredibly good for you. I like being outside anyway. We’re pretty self-sufficient. I’d rather grow my own vegetables than buy them from a supermarket. I reckon I didn’t spend any more time in the garden than other people spend going to the supermarket,” said Phoebe.
When Phoebe opens her garden for the NGS scheme, she raises money for the Campfield Trust, which supports communities of people with Downs Syndrome. “Something dropped out of a colour supplement and it was about the Campfield Trust. There was this smiley face holding a loaf of bread saying, ‘now I know I’m good at something’. It made me cry. It was such a wonderful image. They grow their own food. They make things. They support each other and I think the world will be a better place if we all lived like that,” smiled Phoebe.
If you do take up her generous offer of a visit, you might want to make a donation to her favourite cause. You can find more about The Quiet Garden Movement at quietgarden.org.
If you want to visit Wincombe Park’s gardens, email Phoebe at email@example.com.