When landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan was asked to create a garden and transform the wider parkland around Eastcourt in Wiltshire for its new owners Nicola and James Reed, he arrived to find a pony paddock right next to it with an old tub set into a trough was converted house. “It’s really extraordinary to find a house from that period that still has ponies living so close to the kitchen,” he says. “And it’s even rarer to find one with a vegetable garden adjacent to the house, as by the 18th century almost all of these were swept away and planted at a great distance from the dwelling.” But the bones of the 0.2-hectare property, which included beautiful Cotswold stone walls and heavily fertilized soil enriched over centuries was a gift – and a perfect blank canvas for the garden he had created.
Unleashing the potential of historic gardens and homes was Longstaffe-Gowan’s life’s work. As Gardens Consultant for Historic Royal Palaces, he has worked on designs for Hampton Court Palace and transformed 11 acres around Kensington Palace Gardens to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But it was his own residence, Malplaquet House, a Georgian mansion in Stepney, that enchanted Nicola when they were introduced by James’ parents 30 years ago. They later spoke of Eastcourt, “at first as friends,” and worked together for almost two decades to reinvent the old estate.
Eastcourt was mentioned in the Domesday Book. The part of the house adjoining the walled garden was built in the Tudor era while the central part of the property was added in 1765. When it launched in 2003, the couple fell in love with the country stake — and spotted a small advert inside Country Life Magazine – although the house was “derelict” at the time.
Longstaffe-Gowan’s design – which included a complete overhaul of the walled garden – not only transformed the house and estate, but opened up a new career for Nicola as a beekeeper. Just as the garden was taking shape, James was given a beehive for his 50th birthday. “He was appalled because he had horses and hated the idea of keeping bees, so I volunteered to take a class.” It was the beginning of an obsession. “They are such extraordinary creatures to watch and observe. The hum of the happy bees in spring is just adorable and there is so much to learn.” Nicola originally trained as a fine artist and often paints the flowers around her. “The bees bring the whole garden to life. Just watching them pollinate the garden is fascinating,” she says.
Nicola initially gave away the produce of her bees to friends, but on a whim she tried an experiment – soaking the frames of her hives in whiskey to extract the last drop of honey. She began selling the resulting honey whiskey at local farmers’ markets before her venture grew into a full-fledged business. Nicola now has 11 hives in Eastcourt; another 119 in fields near the estate are managed by a beekeeper who then sells the honey to Nicola’s Beeble company. They use the idler beekeeping technique, taking small amounts of honey from spots where there is a surplus. Once liquefied, the honey is then blended at Strathearn Distillery in Perthshire. Nicola produces 50,000 bottles a year and has just started making vodka and rum with honey. The bees, in turn, have also helped transform the garden.
Longstaffe-Gowan began work in areas near the home where walks and views were paramount, creating an unconventional orchard and flower garden guided by visual axes where the family might wish to sit or stroll. Meandering paths circle curving beds with an array of perennials – agastache, catnip, penstemon, verbascum, salvia and asters, as well as cut flowers including lily of the valley, cornflowers, roses, peonies, delphiniums, dahlias and chrysanthemums. The other half of the garden is a more geometric layout with vegetable beds, herbs and fruit, and the warm walls are covered with espaliered apples and pears.
A carved dome from the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey – thought to have been removed and replaced in the 19th century – was excavated by Longstaffe-Gowan at a Gloucestershire scrap dealer and takes center stage. “My eyes popped out when I found the piece. It’s an exceptional medieval carving – and the most spectacular focal point in any garden I’ve ever made.” The dome is adorned with climbing animals and, appropriately, honeycomb hexagons. Whimsical flourishes are key to Longstaffe-Gowan’s work – and are the subject of his latest book, English garden eccentricwhich was published by Yale University Press in April.
As the bee population has increased, The planting responded to this and ensured a long feeding season, especially at the beginning of the year with snowdrops, early flowering crocuses and then spring onions. Existing areas like the Bluebell Forests have flourished as the areas have been carefully regenerated. Another larger walled garden further from the house has over 50 varieties of apple trees which provide even more pollen and nectar. Nicola has added plants that the bees particularly like: lavender, heather and borage in particular.
Despite the immense colony Nicola has developed, wild and solitary bees happily co-exist alongside the honey bees and dummy hives are being set up to allow wild bees to make a home there too. This was supported by a mass project that planted 50,000 native trees. “We have a very beautiful old oak tree that is our main view from the house and is maybe 1,000 years old, so Todd helped us find trees that would support it rather than fight it.” This includes disease-resistant elms as well as various Varieties of linden and wild cherry.
Planting, in turn, influences the flavor of each batch of Nicola’s whiskey. “It’s like tasting wine; with the early harvest in July there is a distinct apple-lemon taste. The later harvest tastes completely different. So we explain where we come from and that each bottle may vary slightly,” she says. They also use a special filter system to keep the pollen in the whiskey.
Nicola is now an ambassador for Bees for Development and regularly conducts classes with bee whisperer Bill Anderson, who uses a Warré system: beehives that mimic the hollow of trees, although Nicola watches out for too much human intervention. “The idea that bees need us is ridiculous. You can take care of yourself very happily. You can keep bees, but if you have a beehive in your yard, much like a bird table, just let it be. It’s only if you want to take honey that you have to get involved,’ she says, noting that she recently applied for planning permission to open her own beekeeping school in Eastcourt.
“When we started the first walled garden, who knew Nicola would become a beekeeper?” says Longstaffe-Gowan of their journey together. “As a designer, I’m always trying to work with and enhance the local ecology, but we’ve also created such wealth here over the past 20 years that it’s beyond my imagination. It has become a big feeding pot.”
In an ironic twist to the plot, James too has fallen in love with bees and now has two beehives on the roof of his Covent Garden office. “Last spring we had a taster. My six children came and we blindly tasted my spring honey against James’s Covent Garden variety. I was very upset that his sweetheart won.” Perhaps a sip of honey whiskey would have affected the vote.