The old gardens of the Grange

It’s difficult at this remove to remember that, apart from the volunteers staffing the theatre, hardly anyone over the years had the opportunity to explore the grounds. The house was pretty well obscured from public view apart from glimpses of its rather forbidding northern aspect which faced the village lane as one passed by. (This side held the service quarters and a late addition to the house which once held storerooms with a small nursery above.) The approach driveway rising, as it does at the time of writing, towards the house from the main gate in a gentle right-hand curve beneath mature chestnut trees ensured the eastern view of the building only gradually opened out. A thickset wood on the inside of the curve preserved the mystery until the very last moment, when at last the old house revealed itself.

A tantalising glimpse across the nearest lawns greeted the arriving visitor as they parked on the drive in anticipation of the evening’s show.
A broader view in autumn shows how well the house sat within its grounds. Those leaves would be swept away before a performance.
The large yellow bush in the middle of the photo is all that’s left of “the snug”, a circular hedge with an opening in its far side.  A huge tree (Californian sequoia “Wellingtonia”)  used once to rear upwards from it and, around its base, seats where ladies could sit and talk in seclusion. (It is thought the very large Wellintonia down in the village was probably planted by Revd Garratt at the same time as this now-vanished one.) Behind the trees could be found the archery and, beyond that, the trees forming the western boundary of the grounds. A gap in the greenery to the right of this photo led to the northern end of the archery. Turning left and strolling up the length of it brought the visitor to the long-lost rose garden whose bushes had long succumbed to the overbearing large mature trees which blocked out too much sunlight. This part of the grounds always struck one as melancholic.

To the left of the approaching visitor were the five acres of garden in which nestled a small orchard, many specimen shrubs, mature trees and several ornamental ponds, nicely set off by six lawns from which led a number of secluded grass pathways twining through the grounds. On a balmy summer’s evening, how tempting was all that!

Looking south (with the house on the right) there were promises of paths and glades to be explored at leisure.
Yet another tempting avenue for the determined member of an audience to venture into. No wonder Fred used to despair of finding them!

On the western border an archery had been formed, allowing people to stroll its entire length sheltering beneath the large trees planted to protect the grounds from westerly gales. (Fred once observed that perhaps Edwardian ladies, when tiring of aiming their arrows at the straw targets, might fix targets to the gardeners instead and give them a couple of minutes’ start!) From this (south) side the house presented a wonderful picture – picturesque even – and this is where the family rooms are situated.

The hidden “rose garden” at the top of the archery. Sadly no roses had bloomed there for many a year.
These coy little glimpses of further delights for the intrepid explorer could quickly disorientate the unwary, leading sometimes to search parties.

Straight ahead, the Grange stood with a quiet air of welcome – and this was the aspect most familiar to our patrons. In spring the southern grounds could be tantalisingly glimpsed before the summer leaves obscured the view and discreetly drew a veil across them. In autumn the riot of colour from the careful planting made an enticing picture. In winter, however, the shows’ performances during the dark evenings meant the house presented a rather different image. Blazing with light from many windows and from the two huge carriage lamps lighting the driveway, the Grange itself became a theatrical setting, especially if the rooks (we had one of the largest, oldest rookeries in north Oxfordshire) were busy cawing “goodnight” to each other in the darkness. Most atmospheric.

This serpentine pathway once wound its convoluted way around almost two-thirds of the gardens, with new aspects opening out from moment to moment to delight the visitor. But even with a tractor mower, cutting just the main lawns took at least two days, while maintaining this path was usually one long day. The beauty of a grassed path meant that a visitor’s footfall was so muffled that often one could see a small, unaware muntjac deer grazing peacefully or, perhaps, a pheasant or two. Rabbits and badgers abounded in the deep undergrowth. Where do they and the smaller denizens of the undergrowth seek shelter now, one wonders? And even if none of the inhabitants showed themselves, on a late summer evening – oh, the birdsong!

Small wonder, then, that during the intervals of summer productions many of the patrons would collect their drinks and “go exploring”. This would exasperate Fred because, of course, they would need rounding up before Act II could begin, and could be pretty much anywhere in the grounds. And that took time which was better spent (on many of the shows) in setting the new scene.

A late frost still lingered in this view of the Grange’s southern aspect. The drive can be glimpsed to the right of the photograph.

However, the prospect of investigating what at any other time were very private and secluded gardens usually proved too great for the occasional visitors, and who could blame them (apart from Fred!). Almost all of us lived in considerably smaller, often much younger, buildings with very limited gardens so naturally the opportunity of seeing how “the other half” once lived was taken with gusto. There were other snags apart from misplaced souls: the mowers were not capable of collecting the grass clippings, but merely strewed them across the freshly-cut lawns. And the grounds themselves – often very wet with muddy areas – meant audience members returning from their perlustrations would have shoes and boots depositing grass and soil onto the house’s carpets. This would mean extra work before the next evening’s performance in order to brush and vacuum the detritus away.

This low-level photo of the bluebells also shows the big logs we spaced alongside the drive in an attempt to prevent cars parking on the soft ground. A few days after one spring show, most of them were stolen . . .
The house slumbers on a hot summer’s day, the only sign of life being Jim Harper, volunteer gardener and very long-serving member of our theatrical company.

The most secluded part of the house; its west end. On a late summer’s evening this aspect was the last to bathe in the dying golden sunlight.

There was an up-side to all this, though, and Fred was quite susceptible to admiring comments regarding his lovely home and its unique position. Suddenly all the angst seemed worthwhile (until the next load of patrons vanished…) and so he soldiered on, happy that he was continuing to care for the Grange and its gardens as the earlier owners envisaged.

The sun didn’t always shine – this spectacular approaching thunderstorm caused some concern because a performance was about to begin: the village’s power lines came in above ground and would sometimes suffer a lightning strike, provoking power outages for a while. Luckily, this one didn’t. But if our patrons thought themselves privileged to explore these grounds on a summer’s evening I was doubly privileged, being able to steal softly along the barely visible but well-loved pathways after a performance on clear nights when the sky was ablaze with myriad stars. Light pollution was entirely absent and the burning silence of the night was such a balm after a busy day. I do miss those gardens.
With nearly five acres of peaceful, verdant greenery to wander through, our audiences had wonderful opportunities for getting lost!
The “eye-catcher”, a device beloved of Victorian garden planners. Into a dark yew hedge a white-painted door gave promise of further delights beyond; in this case what was once the rose garden.

The discerning reader may have noticed that all the above is written in the past tense: quite naturally in respect of the now-vanished theatre of course, but sadly at the time of writing (early 2018) this writer is informed by locals who regularly take their dogs for walks in the fields bordering the Grange’s property that the grounds stand denuded of many of their mature trees, while the majority of the specimen shrubs have been torn out along with the surrounding undergrowth. Where once were enticing glimpses down green pathways and across quiet lawns is currently a desolation of felled trunks, tree stumps and mounds of wood chippings. No doubt many of the older trees were past their sell-by date but it does mean that, along with the theatre itself, there remain now only precious memories of what once had been.

That the Grange’s new owners have their own plans for the property naturally cannot be denied them, and it can only be hoped that in another few decades peace will again re-visit this once-magical place.