Magic of the Menagerie

FELT a little ashamed this week on a trip to The Menagerie at Horton. Why on earth, after 11 years at the Chron, had I never visited before?

I've said before that we are spoilt in our area with the number of spectacular gardens that open to the public, and the Menagerie is a unique and delightful place to visit – a secret garden.

The history of the place – now privately owned and lovingly nurtured by film-maker Alex Myers – is long and fascinating.

It was built in the 1750s as an 'eyecatcher,' or focal point, to be seen from the large grounds of the now demolished Horton House by Lord Halifax.

Halifax went on to have it as his own private zoo, hence the name, the Menagerie.

What the modern visitor gets to see is simply unique. As well as formal lawns, fountains and numerous beds of roses, there is a newly stocked walled garden, impressive 'mounds' affording breathtaking views, and most astonishingly of all, two tiny thatched 'arbours', like hobbit homes, clad in tree stumps tucked away in the dense planting. One is a guest bedroom with ensuite facilities, and the other, an incredible consecrated Catholic chapel.

And under the main 'house' of the Menagerie building itself, is a grotto, accessible only by stepping stones across a hidden stream, and clad inside by thousands of seashells.

To visit the Menagerie is almost like stepping into the pages of a fairy story.

It is beautiful.

Coming up the long drive from the main road (past the French Partridge at Horton), you think it's just a field.

Then between the trees emerges this fabulous, hidden garden, with overflowing borders of carefully selected perennials, spilling over the beds.

There are wild areas, a bog garden, and around every corner something new and unexpected.

Keeping the stunning gardens in great condition is head gardener Ade Parris. Formerly gardener at Stratfield Saye House, home to the Duke of Wellington, Ade is a local lad, who as a youngster played at the Menagerie.

Six years ago the job of looking after the constantly-growing gardens came up and Ade was keen:

"As soon as I walked around with Alex, it clicked. I think we both knew that this place was special and needed to be looked after. It is a magical place, everyone who comes here feels it, and says so."

Ade not only maintains the acres of gardens, developed by the late Gervase Jackson-Stops, architectural adviser to the National Trust, but also raises vegetables for the house, and produces a good selection of plants for sale at the nursery. Help comes in once a week to mow, but the rest of the upkeep is up to Ade.

"If visitors think there's a weed here or there, it's not because I haven't seen it," he laughs, "it's because I just haven't got time to pull them all out! We don't mind the odd weed, this isn't a regimented garden. Things are allowed to self seed and creep and we try to keep on top of it, but it's always moving and growing.

The planting is lovely. Lots of roses, geraniums, penstemons, wisteria, and huge bamboos and cardoons.

The designer Ginny Blom has been involved, but it is Alex and Ade's collaboration that keeps this garden alive, informal and yet formal.

Relaxed and yet wittily staged. Utterly unique.

I'd heartily recommend a visit, and return visits, and don't leave it as long as I did.

The Menagerie, Horton, is open today, 2-6pm. Call Northampton 870957.