Where the Taw and Torridge rivers meet on
the North Devon coast is the old boat-building village of Appledore, with its
narrow streets of fishermen’s cottages jostling down to the quay.
Most of the gardens are pocket
handkerchiefs, and many of the houses have no outside space at all – so Val and
Gavin Robbins’ plot comes as a real surprise. Though less than 30-feet wide, it
is almost 250-feet long. Val has exploited this by dividing it into a sequence
of garden rooms, packing them with plenty of diversions to amuse during an
evening stroll, as well as places to sit with a drink in hand…
may be only 30-feet wide, but Val and Gavin Robbins transformed their garden
from an awkward space into the perfect place to unwind with a long drink
Not that creating the garden has been easy.
When the couple arrived in 1979, it was so overgrown that they had to slash
through a forest of brambles to find out what they’d bought. At the end of it,
they found a narrow alleyway leading to a second garden even more overgrown
than the first and littered with generations of rubbish.
by evergreens and potted hostas, a wooden arbour is a comfortable spot from
which to appreciate the formal font garden
Today, the old yard has become a formal
garden swathed in climbers, while the dump is now productive – with fruit
trained on the walls, veg in raised beds and two ponds teeming with wildlife.
“This is my sanctuary,” says Val. “I come
here to sit and look out over the water, and it always makes me feel better.”
Introduce changes of mood
“I try to give each section of the garden
its own distinctive atmosphere,” says Val. “So rather than being a corridor,
the garden becomes a journey.” The starting point is a Cordoba-style patio
garden with white-painted walls and colorful pots, followed by a cooler, more
secluded dining area, presided over by the garden god, Pan. There is a hint of
the Orient in Thai-style lanterns and a cloud-pruned cotoneaster, before you
step into a green garden inspired by the parterres of Versailles.
Create focal points along the way
“If you have a narrow garden with a path
down the middle, it’s easy to barrel down it without noticing what’s around
you,” says Val. “So it’s nice to have diversions along the way to encourage you
to go more slowly.” Her garden is full of quirky ornaments, some made by artist
friends, some junk-shop finds. The heads that pop up all over the garden came
from a hairdressing school, while an object resembling an exotic Asian
palanquin, when turned the right way up, reveals itself to be a wine sledge
Borrow a view
A raised deck, known as “Gavin’s Folly”,
makes the perfect gin-and-tonic spot, soaking up the evening sun while looking
out over the boats bobbing in the estuary. “I love being by water,” says Val.
“It’s never the same two days running. If you look out over a field, even
though it changes with the seasons, it’s really always the same – the river
here changes from moment to moment and tide to tide.”
One section resembles a French chateau
garden in miniature – all swirling box hedges, formal topiary and rather grand
statues. It’s important to think big in a small space, Val says, to counteract
any sense of meanness. As she says: “The smaller the space, the more it pays to
be bold. I find different textures and dramatic changes of scale make it feel
so much bigger.”
clipped cotoneaster and a mosaic of flowers ease the transition from patio to
green garden; Val Robbins tending her plants; a raised bed of succulents shows
off their sculptural qualities and is easy to care for;
Val’s tips for a long, thin garden
To make the most of a long, thin space,
break it up. “You don’t want to see everything at once,” says Val. “I’ve tried
to create different sections with individual moods. And it makes the garden
If you don’t have much ground space, try
trellis panels covered with climbers or fan-trained fruit.
Varying the levels will also help to break
up space – even a few inches can make a real difference.
Blurring the boundaries of a narrow garden
with plants or structures, so it sometimes appears wider and sometimes thinner,
will make it feel less cramped.
To prevent visitors from immediately seeing
to the end of the garden, Val diverts the gaze upwards with trees and tall
structures, downwards with paving details, and from side to side with
captivating displays – tiny ponds and water features, clusters of succulents
and even a fernery tucked under the viewing platform.