An area once little more than a flooded field is now a magnificent formal garden in Peeblesshire, thanks to the effort and determination of Robin Brock
THERE are few more arresting sights in a garden than good topiary. Its ability to draw visitors into a place is the hallmark of the world’s renowned formal gardens. Topiary shapes have a beauty that is at once solemn and inviting – like chess pieces asking to be moved.
It was the beauty and symmetry of Chateau de Villandry in France’s Loire Valley that inspired a Peeblesshire plantsman to create his own formal garden. Meldonfoot, sitting beneath the hills it takes its name from, was built as a shooting lodge and has the presence to be able to carry a large parterre, which Robin Brock designed and planted.
The house was built as a shooting lodge just to the west of Peebles in 1923. Robin arrived a decade ago and set about renovating the house and garden. His grown-up family have lived there on and off. It lies at the foot of the Meldon Hills, on the edge of the Manor and Stobo valleys. The area at the front was a field with Highland cattle and it was waterlogged with the run-off from the hills. In this frost pocket, Robin has had to be selective about what plants he uses. A line of lawson cypress ran across the garden. This was lifted and Robin moved all the topsoil, drained and levelled it. “I like formal gardens,” he says. “I was influenced by Chateau de Villandry and thought it would be nice to create something formal here. It is one of the few formal gardens in the Borders.”
Robin was a nurseryman, with a business of 600 acres of trees in Midlothian and Perthshire, so he knew which shrubs would work best for a formal garden. The parterre has three symbolic features: the St Andrew’s Cross, which embraces a heart motif – found in all formal garden layouts – and diamonds running up the middle. In summer Robin plants the diamonds up with red and white bedding, the colours of Peebles rugby club and the flag of Monaco, where he lived for ten years at the start of his retirement. Earlier in his career he also found time to play double-bass semi-professionally with Jimmy Shand, the Corries and Jim Johnstone before giving up playing to broadcast his own radio show for 13 years.
The yew (taxus baccata) and box (buxus) are far and away the best plants for topiary, responding well to clipping into shapes. The formal garden at Meldonfoot has been there for six or seven years, having taken this long to really show its shape, says Robin, who trained in horticulture in Edinburgh. Surprisingly, the shapes only need trimming once a year, in summer. Robin does this himself along with looking after the grass and complementing the garden with bedding plants. He used to put out 20,000 summer plants, but has scaled this back. “That’s the beauty of formal gardens, you can have it planted up or not, and add or subtract as much as you like. They can have magnificent flower gardens, or be used for vegetables. I was heavily influenced by that.” At the centre of the parterre is a cannon from the 18th-century gunship HMS Royal George – other salvaged guns were melted to form the base of Nelson’s Column.
The main problem faced from a gardener’s point of view here is frost. Peeblesshire is known for very late and very early frosts, says Robin, and he was caught out one summer when he lost all his begonias overnight after taking them out of the greenhouse feeling sure the final frosts had passed.
Structure and shape is present in other parts of the garden. A long line of mature beech hedging makes a beautiful copper frame for the view west, bringing instant warmth to a winter landscape. There is also a line of pleached tilia limes along a boundary wall, where the trees have been trained into an architectural feature. This use of trees was one the most defining elements of French and Italian formal gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries, but has become very fashionable again. At the other side of the formal garden is a herbaceous border which Robin is about to refurbish. Over the beech hedge lies the rear garden, with lawns and woodland down to a burn, with the whole area front and back adding up to about three and a half acres. Whether it is a bright red sunrise, or blanket of snow, the shapes are the perfect canvas for an ever-changing view, says Robin. “It changes hour to hour.”
It’s the great achievement of formal gardens that they can create this dance with nature while standing still. It may be this almost-alive quality that makes tall topiary shapes so appealing. Passers-by to or from Peebles should keep an eye out for the characters at Meldonfoot. They may just wink back. k