Doddington Place was once moulded out of plasticine. Not in the James May style that left so many gardeners grumpy at the Chelsea Flower Show last year, but in its nascent stages, on a wooden board. The garden was planned this way, with the then-owner Mrs Douglas Jeffreys seating herself on the terrace of her Victorian red brick mansion to mould her new sunken garden from the modelling clay.
That sunken garden was the start of an enthusiastic programme of expansion at Doddington House, which continues to this day. It was originally designed by Markham Nesfield in 1873, but when he was killed in an accident the following year, the plans were put on hold for another thirty years.
It was not until Mrs Jeffreys and her husband bought the property in 1906 that Nesfield’s dreams were realised. She also created a rock garden using stone from a quarry in Maidstone, with a series of descending pools. The current owners, Amicia and Richard Oldfield have renovated this, adding more stone to increase the drama, and planting a number of spring-flowering bulbs.
In the spring, the garden is breathtaking. Although Doddington is on the North Downs, and most of the beds are chalky, there is a freak seam of acid loam soil which is fed by underground springs. This is where the stunning woodland garden is planted, with acid-loving trees and shrubs such as camellias, rhododendrons, aralias, a handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), eucryphias, magnolias and acers stealing the show from lofty sweet chestnuts and oaks. Leading away from the garden is a magnificent avenue of Sequoia gigantea, which made their entrance at Doddington in the 19th Century.
Some of the garden’s best features came about by sheer accident. The distinctive cloud-shaped yews were never intended to look the way they do. They were planted as a formal feature in the Second World War, but as the gardeners were called up, and the garden itself given over to the Dig for Victory movement, the bushes were not clipped annually as they should have been.
By the end of the war, they had developed their own shape, which everyone decided looked too stunning to trim into conventional geometric forms. So they remained as they were, and are now carefully trimmed every year to keep stray shoots from spoiling the rather surreal effect. This might leave the gardeners with a back-breaking two tonnes of clippings on their hands, but it is a happy accident. The hedges are now fantastic blobs, rather like something a child would dream up. It’s the most stylish plasticine garden you’ll ever visit.