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Through the arched window…

(Happy memories for those of us old enough to remember the days of Play School!)

We were passing through Ludlow on our way back from a family holiday last week and stopped off for a quick visit to nearby Stokesay Castle. I used to go there with my parents when I was young, so I was intrigued to see if it lived up to my rather hazy, rose-tinted late-1970s memories. Stokesay is a perfect medieval fortified manor house, complete with 17th century gatehouse, moat, great hall and fairytale tower. But what struck me most (and they were exactly as I remembered, if not better) were the views. From the shuttered gable windows of the great hall and from the octagonal tower, handsome stone windows framed incredible vistas north, south, east and west across the lush, picturesque Shropshire countryside - some of the best views this side of the Welsh border. 

It’s not that I hadn’t noticed the fabulous countryside en-route. But when a frame is placed in front of a scene it focuses the mind, concentrating the vision and helping the eye pick out details that would otherwise remain unseen. Over to the east, for example, lay the River Onny with banks of wildflower meadows, fields of pale barley beyond and the Shropshire hills a wooded green backdrop. To the south cattle were grazing whilst a 12th century church settled plumply among the fields to the north.

From the tower of Stokesay Castle, looking over the Shropshire Hills

We’d just come from a holiday in Monmouthshire, staying at an old farmhouse with its own fabulous views over the Wye Valley, a perfectly positioned bench providing a dreamy spot for morning reading or lunchtime barbecues. This particular, generously wide panorama is framed by trees on either side. So I’d been thinking a lot about views, and how they can make or break a place.

What a spot to get away from it all

Although home is London and my garden here has no neighbouring wooded valleys or bucolic scenes to call upon, vistas and views are some of the greatest assets in a garden designer’s armoury. If you’re lucky enough to have a field, golf course or allotment beyond your garden, making effective use of that borrowed view is pretty simple (a bit of strategic planting and pruning will set it off to perfection). If not, and like me, your garden is surrounded by other people’s gardens, you can still create interior focal points for the eye that will bring intrigue, drama and a sense of a journey undiscovered to your outdoor space.

Man-made structures such as windows are obviously brilliant at view-framing, but a pergola or a rose arch will do the job just as well, and even more prettily if clothed in greenery or flowers. A pergola can take many forms, traditional or modern, wooden or made of contemporary materials such as corten steel. My favourite perhaps is a wooden moon gate framed by plants. Or a simple gateway in a brick wall, left open to reveal a hint of what lies beyond. Or a ‘tunnel’ with a series of unlinked frames to focus the eye down a path to a summerhouse, bench, statue or bird bath. Even a specimen tree for a smaller garden or a group of pots planted with seasonal colour can be the focal point for the eye. It’s all about encouraging us to look in a certain direction, to suggest a direction of travel or mask an unwanted view.

This black-painted gateway at Audley End house and gardens frames the view to striking effect

But your frame needn’t be man-made. An archway created through a gap in a hedge is a wonderful thing, and although it can take time to grow and shape, it’s a worthwhile endeavour and will pinpoint a view beautifully. Hornbeam is a great candidate as you can gently bend and shape the upper branches into an archway and the autumn leaves stay on, creating a lovely rust-coloured feature in winter that’s glossy green in summer. Laurel is tough and evergreen, ideal in a shady spot, where it won’t take long to knit together and form a gateway on the journey to the rest of the garden. A simple planting of a pair of spreading acers, such as Acer palmatum , judiciously pruned, will also provide a gorgeous naturalistic frame to help you on your journey to the rest of your garden. 

Shaped and pruned laurel, and a narrowing pathway pinpoint the entrance to the rest of this city garden

Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer

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