The more you look at Noyle Place – the home of the Comtesse de la Moriniere in Wiltshire – the more you have something to admire. Charles Quest-Ritson surveys this magnificent garden, which has been subtly and beautifully improved over the past decades. Photos by Mimi Connolly.
The village of East Knoil is located on a slope of green sand above the Blackmore Valley near Shaftesbury. Its inhabitants are proud of their most famous resident, Sir Christopher Wren, whose father was rector of the parish when the future architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral was born in 1632.
Adjoining the Georgian façade of the elegant parish house we see today is an older building, and it was where Christopher lived as a child, although a fire shortly before his birth that destroyed part of the building meant that he was actually born in a nearby cottage. . When he was eight years old, his father, by then Dean of Windsor, moved his family to join him in Berkshire.
The Rectory was sold by the Diocese of Salisbury in 1935 and eventually became known as Noyle Place. In 1992, it was bought by the Count and Countess Hervé Le Baux de la Morinière, and together they planted a magnificent garden until Hervé died prematurely last December. However, de la Morinière has always paid tribute to his predecessors, especially Sir Guy Fison, who owned the house until 1964, and Sir John Eden (later Lord Eden of Winton), who was MP for West Bournemouth and nephew of Sir Anthony Eden. Eden was a keen dendrologist and many of the best trees in the garden, especially in the forest, are his property. It was he who planted an immensely tall double cherry (Prunus avium Plena) on the edge of the forest garden, and the Pisons planted a majestic row of magnolias and many rhododendrons on the hillside behind the house.
The soil is green-sandy, interspersed with clay. The property has about 9.5 acres evenly divided between cultivated gardens next to the house and an ancient forest behind. It faces south and east and warms up quickly in spring, so bluebells always seem to bloom a week or so earlier than anywhere else.
Gardening was a hobby shared by the de la Morinières. Hervé was originally French, but lived in this country for 40 years. He was a man of remarkable sensitivity, but also a very knowledgeable horticulturalist. He had this extraordinary ability to anticipate and project the effect of designs and plantings, and he could always answer the question most gardeners ask about a possible addition or change: “Will this work?” His interest in gardening dates back to his childhood on his grandparents’ estate in Perch, where he developed his love of potting and cutting gardens full of flowers.
He also remembered the millions of cyclamens that dotted the woods and avenues in autumn at La Haie, the de la Morinière family estate in the Vendée. Walking through the woods in Neule with Hervé was an education in botanical knowledge, horticultural skill and aesthetic awareness. Gardens are constantly changing: old trees die, ashes need to be cut down, storms make room for replanting. Hervé took advantage of these misfortunes as an opportunity, so that the plantings were always constantly improved.
The Countess de la Morinière is English and grew up in The Hail, a beautiful house and garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in Sandwich, Kent, in 1911-1912. She has a wonderful eye for form and color and is responsible for subtle color combinations in expansive grassy borders. The Countess makes the annual tulip selection and is a knowledgeable rose gardener, with a fine collection of old-fashioned roses and modern classics bred by the late David Austin.
One of her most successful compositions near the house is a white and purple border planted with alliums, astrantias, hardy geraniums, rue, lupins (including the “Polar Princess”, a particularly beloved), peonies, pale blue Iris “Jane Philips” and white foxgloves; shrubs such as the old hybrid musk rose ‘Penelope’ give structure. The bows include the Gladiator, Pinball Wizard, Round ‘n’ Purple and Purple Rain, which work well together in a mixed fit.
A statue of a dwarf with a sphinx on his helmet guards the turntable in front of the house; he is considered Sir Geoffrey Hudson, a favorite of Queen Henrietta Maria. The nearby “French” garden is charming – a fenced area on the lowest terrace of the forest garden, framed by a lush yew hedge. In Eden’s time it was planted with grassy borders, but the de la Moriniere replaced them with elegant bands of low hedges interspersed with slightly taller cubes and pyramids, also of boxwood.
In the center is a fine fountain from The Talisman, Ken Bolan’s antique vault in nearby Gillingham. Two beautiful urns are planted with seasonal bedding and bulbs, as eight thin, elegant cones covered with greedy deer netting support vigorous roses such as Iceberg Climb and New Dawn. The design and proportions are pleasing at any time of the year, as is the color sequence of the discreet fit. As with many good gardens, the more you look, the more you notice and admire.
The steep forest is a waterfall of bluebells in the spring, and the south-facing slope means they bloom very early in the season. De la Morinière added extensive plantings of rhododendrons, maples, camellias, azaleas and many other small trees and shrubs. Four paths run through the forest, going from end to end at different levels. Maple paper maple gray it is a particular feature, especially known for its elegant leaves, autumn coloration, and red-orange trunk and branches. Heptacody myconioid also a great success, now an 8-foot shrub destined to double its size.
At the edge of the forest, tree specimens include the variegated tulip tree. Tulip Liriodendron ‘Aureomarginatum’ planted by Sir John Eden, as well as magnificent dogwoods and vigorous Ginkgo biloba added by de la Morinière. Ferns, also among their favorites, are planted throughout the forest. Wild foxgloves extend the season of interest until June.
Two big hits at Knoyle Place are the shearing garden and growing potatoes, both of which are reminiscent of the gardens that Hervé and his twin brother loved so much in their French childhood. Tucked away in a stepped yew and beech hedge, the shearing garden has the brightest center path, flanked on either side by a thick border of old Portland rose known as ‘Jacques Cartier’. This is one of the best old roses for cutting, it is not afraid of rain and blooms again and again until late autumn. Old roses dominate the cut garden for much of the year, but the plantings are informal, and they blend with dahlias, peonies, and irises to create not only a wonderful resource of cut flowers for the home, but also a rich and dense arrangement in the garden. your right. Wolf “Bishop’s Infusion” and Oriental poppy ‘Plum Patty’ is especially beautiful just before the roses start to bloom.
The vegetable garden adjoins a beautiful and immaculate farm, which is currently maintained on a sharecropping basis with a friendly neighbor. The beds are raised and held in place by strips of hazel weave. De la Moriniere’s particular favorite is the soft-leaf Clarion lettuce, which has been awarded the RHS Garden Merit Award.
The garden offers a splendid view for miles across the Blackmore Valley towards Wyn Green on the edge of Cranborne Chase, but Hervé and Lisey decided that the house did not sit well on the sloping lawn sloping down to the public road below. In 2017, they concluded that the answer was to level it so that the main façade had the correct baseline. They asked up-and-coming designer Daniel Combs, who lives nearby, to take on the job and give him all the credit for the success of his improvements.
The new flat lawn emphasizes the connection between home and garden. It is fenced with a high screen of crabapples, decorated with trellises (Malus ‘Evereste’), the effect of which is very striking, both in flowering in April, and in fruiting and leaf coloring in October and November – and the planting really shields the house from the public road. Mr. Combs was also the creator of the beautiful pale grassy plantings that surround the new lawn areas.
At the same time, the de La Morinières decided that the old croquet lawn facing the front door on one side of the house should be replaced with a more structured one. Mr. Combs’ solution was to place a massive 8-foot tall urn as a focal point at the far end and create a formal garden of lavender-filled flower beds with a long reflecting pool in between. This whole garden is surrounded on both sides by multi-stem trees of the Persian iron tree, Parrotia Persianwhose foliage brings a welcome burst of color in autumn, weeks before other trees in the garden and forest begin to transform.
Gardening at Knoyle Place is all about pest control. Deer – muntjac and roe deer – are a big problem, and new plantings should be protected from them. Rabbits and gray squirrels also cause damage, but are tolerable. Normally the garden is open to the National Garden Scheme, but not this year because the date de la Moriniere originally chose would now conflict with the king’s coronation celebration. Look for Noyle in yellow book NGS in 2024. This place is worth a visit – it is beautifully maintained and there is a lot to learn from it.
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