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Visit the tranquil Old Croft garden near Dorking

PUBLISHED: 09:43 18 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:37 18 May 2015

The quirky pot man and Gulliver's chair

The quirky pot man and Gulliver's chair

Leigh Clapp

The gardens at The Old Croft brim with a series of picturesque scenes as you wander the diverse areas of natural and enhanced beauty

Virginia and David in their beautiful gardenVirginia and David in their beautiful garden

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2015


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Need to know:

The Old Croft, South Holmwood, Dorking RH5 4NT. Open through the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday May 24 and Monday May 25 (2-6pm) and Saturday August 8 and Sunday August 9 (2-6pm). Admission £5, children free. Web:


When Virginia Lardner-Burke and husband David moved to The Old Croft near Dorking in 1978, the scene was rather different from the one that greets visitors today. Back then, the grounds had been thoroughly neglected, with the plants overgrown and the lake silted up, and were just a shadow of their former glory.

“The garden really just consisted of paddocks and an impenetrable habitat of birch and alder searching for the light and enmeshed with brambles and butterbur,” recalls Virginia.

Before long, however, Virginia set about creating a garden that would not only enhance the five acres surrounding their elegant Edwardian house but also complement the adjacent National Trust Holmwood Common, of dappled woodlands and sunny clearings, which provides the character of the wider area.

Gradually, after a lot of hard work, the garden evolved into different, loosely linked areas and interesting features, with water at its heart. Indeed, with a stream running through the property, reinstating the lake became a priority – and also the inspiration to develop the garden in a natural way, sympathetic to its setting.

The next task was one of clearing usable areas, followed by a planting programme with about 700 trees, shrubs and perennials placed to look as natural as possible. “For example, we have a range of cornus, including Cornus capitata, that were first grown in this country at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall where we bought ours,” continues Virginia.

A spring visit

In May, when the gardens open to the public, you are greeted with an array of iridescent azaleas fringing the drive, before entering under the wisteria-clad pergola to a paved terrace, punctuated with clipped buxus spheres and seasonal containers by the house. Then, a circuitous route takes you for a journey as you explore the garden.

Passing verdant green lawns and densely planted borders under canopies of mature ornamental cherries and rhododendrons, you walk through a small wild area, a picture of daffodils and then bluebells in the springtime, with sentinels of sunlit maples as you reach the lake. Crossing the curved timber bridge, you then find a very naturalised style with plantings of ornamental trees and shrubs, including Nyssa sylvatica that are spectacular in autumn, as well as silver birch beside 
the stream.

Winding paths, cut-through grasses, bluebells and wildflowers lead you on to woodland where seats made from fallen trees, and an owl sculpture carved into a trunk, add to the naturalistic feel. A small hide on stilts made of railway sleepers, with a tiled roof and partly hidden amongst the rhododendrons, affords a view over the lake to observe any visiting wildlife, such as the occasional group of mallards.

“Our aim is to give a sense of gentle tranquillity and peace to ease the pressure of everyday living,” explains Virginia.

On a journey

Passing weirs in the stream, dancing with dainty candelabra primulas, the path then takes you through the bog garden with towering gunneras. The journey continues through a wild area of ornamental apple and cherry trees underplanted with carpets of oxeye daisies and geraniums. Then, next, it’s on through a timber gate, adjacent to a maze of bamboos, tree ferns and other exotic foliage, that leads intriguingly to a pair of whimsical oak thrones, where you may enjoy sitting briefly to survey the scene. “We used 10 varieties of bamboo, some clump-forming and non-invasive, while the invasive ones are enclosed in impenetrable trenches,” says Virginia.

From here, your tour continues to the back of the house with terraced gardens, including a formal rose garden. “Look for a couple of butterflies carved into one of the paving stones, a special memory to my mother,” adds Virginia. “As children, my sister and I grew up in Zimbabwe, and we thought our mother was Madam Butterfly as she had a wonderful singing voice, loved opera and would often sing One Fine Day as she strolled in her beautiful rose garden.”

Finally, in one of the highlights of this garden, to the side of the house is a flowerpot man with rake sundial backed by a unique topiary buttress hedge and a giant ‘Gulliver’s’ chair’, set within a billowing herb garden.

Good for the soul

Virginia and David have been opening their garden through the National Gardens Scheme since 1993, with visitors returning year on year to take in the tranquillity of the space.

“What we enjoy most about opening is seeing the joy people experience and hearing how much pleasure it has given them,” says Virginia. “Also, so many people come back again and again and stay all afternoon, having tea.

“This is a garden to explore slowly, discovering its peace and serenity as it reveals the beauty of God’s amazing creation – a place to restore the soul.”



Get the look...

• Plan a series of areas to discover on a journey through the garden by including mown grass paths, gates within the garden and gravel paths

• Choose a blend of naturalistic planting to suit the location, but with formal punctuation as contrasts

• Create picturesque vistas in a landscape style, using any ponds or streams, expanses of lawn and copses of trees

• Try to include a wide range of different habitats – shade, woodland, water, marginal, bog, clearings, meadow and sunny – all considered for appropriate planting that will thrive

• Include layered planting, from mature trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and ground covers

• Go for harmonious colours, including a play on greens with ferns and hostas, mauve irises under wisteria and muted pinks from cherries and rhododendrons

• Use occasional splashes of brighter colour highlights, with brilliant red poppies, rich purple aquilegia or potted red pelargoniums

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