A mile to the east of Uley, Owlpen Manor stands in its own remote valley on a steeply rising hillside above the Ewelme Brook. Beech woods crown the hill above the house, and Holy Cross church stands close and protectively behind. In 1951, Christopher Hussey wrote that Owlpen 'in its incomparably romantic situation is a dream made real', and it remains that way today.
The garden at Owlpen is an unusually complete survival of an early formal garden, described by Geoffrey Jellicoe as possibly the earliest domestic garden in England to survive in something approaching completeness.
Owlpen manor is the home of Nicholas and Karin Mander and their family. The Manders arrived here in 1974, and they have maintained the historic gardens using old plans and records. The site has a long history, early settlement probably attracted by the springs which rise beneath the house.
The name Owlpen is probably derived from Saxon and records survive of the de Olepenne family whose earliest records are eleventh century, and owned the house until the fifteenth century. The Manor House itself is a soft grey Cotswold stone, and its origins date to around 1450. The house was added to organically until the west wing was added in 1616, giving it medieval and Tudor elements. The three irregular gables to the south front of the house are each nearly a century apart in date, and although this results in an asymmetrical frontage, they manage to balance each other happily, with what Jewson called 'good manners', none asserting its features over the others. Apart from minor alterations in the early eighteenth century, nothing has been done except for sensitive repairs of the Arts and Crafts architect Norman Jewson in 1925-6. When he acquired the house at auction in 1925, it had fallen into decay. Its previous owners had deserted it a century before for a new mansion a mile away and Jewson set about repairing and restoring the ancient house and its gardens to its original beauty. The old house had only a few rooms kept in modest repair by its owners, and its gardens were maintained with neatly trimmed yews as a Victorian destination for picnics and after-church excursions.
It was noticed again in the early twentieth century, when there was a renewed interest in Country Houses in the Edwardian Era. Avray Tipping, writing for Country Life in 1906, described it as 'a garden house more than anything else...making its brave fight against consuming Time'. The gardens were 'discovered' by Gertrude Jekyll, who may have helped with the planting of the island beds, and who drew a plan of it in her Gardens for Small Country Houses of 1914. The garden retained its old-world charm after Jewson's restoration, and is an unusually complete survival of an early formal garden with its yew walls creating garden 'rooms' in formal relationship to the house. Its hanging terraces are linked by gravel paths and steep steps, in a Renaissance style that was repeated again in the Arts and Crafts gardens of the Edwardian era.
The visitor approaches the house down a gentle slope with a green valley and mill pond below, past the old Tithe Barn. This path leads to the east front of the house, the main entrance, where a stone path leads through the kitchen court between stone gate piers to the front door. To the left of the door is a Tudor chimney stack, and a panel high on the stack commemorates Jewson's repairs. To the right above the house is the lych gate of the adjacent church of the Holy Cross, above which is a Saxon inscription: 'This is the field and acre of our God'.Entering the garden through a gate to the left, there is a stone path, and then another gate leading down into the kitchen garden, sheltered by the high stone wall and filled with flowers and produce for the family. Emerging again and walking along the path to the south of the house are the formal gardens.
In the seventeenth century, the garden was re-ordered and parterres were laid out with axial symmetry. In front of the house are quartered box-hedged English parterres, with grass in the centre. The planting is of herbs, aromatics and old shrub roses.Descending steep steps through the gardens towards the river, the medieval garden is enclosed within stone walls, still suggesting the medieval hortus conclusus of the fifteenth century manor house.The half acre core of the garden is Tudor, with early Stuart additions. The main axis leads through stone gate piers, down a flight of fine semi-circular steps. At the bottom is a lawn, and a gate leads to the river bank. Here, the vista is continued across a bridge to the opposite side of the river where the present owners have created a stone feature terrace with a fountain and pool, extending the gardens across the river. Looking back across the river to the house, it is a good place to appreciate the tiers of terraces. The theme of the hanging gardens on seven terraces was said to represent the Seven Gardens of Paradise.
Walking back up through the garden, at the level of the south terrace is a yew parlour, tall and dark. The twelve yews of the Yew Parlour, probably planted when the gardens were re-laid out by Thomas Daunt in the 1720's, symbolised the twelve apostles. At one time there were four more yew pylons in front of the house said to represent the Evangelists, but they were removed in the 1950s.Appreciating the historic site and enjoying the magnificent ancient yews, this is a perfect small manor house, with a fine historic garden of topiary and flowers. In 1914, Gertrude Jekyll wrote 'Among little hillside gardens treated in a formal fashion, none is more delightful than that of Owlpen Manor...'. And nothing has changed.
Please note that the gardens at Owlpen Manor will be closed during 2011 for conservation works.