Hidey Hole at Heale

PUBLISHED: 11:09 08 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

Heale House from the terrace

Heale House from the terrace

Alison Joyce visits a house with a gorgeous garden that hid King Charles II for six days in 1651, not that he would have been inclined to wander around much, although he did visit Stonehenge waiting for preparations to be made.

In the tranquil setting of the Woodford Valley, north of Salisbury, follow the road beside the gentle-flowing trout-filled River Avon into Middle Woodford, and you will come to the entrance of Heale House. Then, drive through the gates into the charming long drive that sweeps through pasture and round in front of the house to the car park and the entrance to the plant centre and gardens.

The day I visit these wonderful gardens, I couldn't have been luckier; the sky was blue and the sun was shining. I smile as I pull into the private entrance. Against the back drop of this magnificent house is a pink bike strewn on the ground, a football and a guinea pig cage - all reassuringly normal. As the guide book suggests: 'the timeless atmosphere at Heale is the result of the creative endeavours of many generations of the Rasch family, who still live in the house, each inspired to leave their mark'. Anna Pavord, the gardening correspondent for The Independent and the author of eight books, describes Heale as 'an entrancing place to visit, the elegant house poised in a many layered garden of beauty'.

A favourite with many families in Wiltshire, Heale House Gardens is always a rewarding outing - somewhere to escape the hustle and bustle, to spend some quiet reflective time in the peaceful and inspiring surroundings. It is particularly pleasant to visit Heale in June, when the fragrance of the musk and other roses fill the air. Set in eight acres of beautiful gardens, much of the house has remained unchanged since King Charles II hid here in 1651, taking refuge for six nights before riding on to Shoreham, where he took a ship to France. He dictated an account of his visit to the diarist Samuel Pepys, and it is worth quoting from the extract, to give a flavour of the wonderful history that Heale House has lived through.

The king was evading capture by the Parliamentarians before heading off to exile in France and was being sheltered by sympathetic Royalists during his journey to the coast. When the extract relating to Heale starts he had just come out of hiding from a sympathiser's home and, with a minder (Sir Robin Philips), was going 'directly to a widow gentlewoman's house' near Salisbury (Heale House). He arrived at the house just as it was getting dark, intending not to make himself known, but his hostess, Mrs Hyde, actually recognised him from a fleeting glimpse when he had passed through Salisbury with the Royalist army some years previously with his father. Together with her brother (who was also present at the meal) she approached him after supper and told him they had a very safe place for him to hide at Heale, but that he should leave immediately after supper as if he were just an ordinary guest (as the servants believed) and return under cover of darkness. He did this, having gone with his companion, Sir Robin Philips, in the meantime to Stonehenge where 'we staid looking upon the stones for some time and returned back again to Heale... where I went up into the hiding hole that was very convenient and safe and staid there all alone'. Sir Robin went on to stay in Salisbury.

Naturally enough, the account makes no mention of the gardens that would have been extant then. Doubtless, the King would have other more pressing things on his mind at the time.

Frances is waiting for me at the door with her two dogs. Since marrying Guy Rasch in 1996, Frances has taken on the family tradition of developing the garden and, having the benefit of some notable gardeners in her own family, has determined to bring a new perspective to the garden by introducing modern design, colour and style. "I like to undertake one new project every year," she tells me. This year, Frances is pulling up borders, taking up a terrace and putting a formal structure back into the garden, further developing the wonderful legacy passed on by Guy's mother, Lady Anne Rasche, who died in 1995, having spent 35 years creating her version of Heale House gardens.

Frances begins by explaining the history of the house that she so clearly loves. It was built in 1533 by Sir William Green as a wedding present for the daughter of Sir Gerald Errington. The tradition continued when Lawrence Hyde of Hatch did the same and passed on Heale House as a wedding present to his son, who developed the house to the size it is today. Later the house was sold and remained in the ownership of the Bowles family for over 100 years until it was sold to cover debts. Heale then had several tenants and owners until finally, having almost survived a fire in 1835, it was bought by the Hon Louis Greville in 1894, Guy Rasch's great uncle.

In 1910 the celebrated architect and garden designer Harold Peto, of Iford Manor fame, designed part of the garden, including the terraces and stone lily ponds, and we begin by visiting the north-east corner of the garden, based on the plans drawn up by Peto. Here there are formal herbaceous plants and a tunnel of figs.

Perhaps the most outstanding structural feature of the grounds at Heale is the Japanese garden. Louis Greville had been Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Tokyo in the late 1880s and had so loved Japanese gardens that on his return to Heale he brought back nine Japanese gardeners, an authentic Japanese tea house, bridge and stone lantern. Here, the River Avon has eight carrier streams, all flowing in different directions, believed originally to have been influenced by Dutch engineering to allow the water to be redirected to flood the water meadow, in order that the garden never freezes or floods. The garden Louis Greville created with these authentic Japanese features has a fish pond and boat terrace which faces a little waterfall cascading from one water carrier to the other. As with all Japanese gardens, they are peaceful, with interesting focal points as well as colour for the visitor. The red lacquer bridge, which is a smaller copy of the Nikko bridge in Japan, crosses the stream in front of the authentic tea house, with its rice-paper walls and grass tatami mats; all created by the Japanese gardeners and carpenters. What a civilised way to drink your tea, as the screen walls slide open to view the streams, channelled to make patterns of still and running water. The planting includes acers, Japanese flowering cherries and a superb cercidiphyllum.

We then walk towards the woodland garden, a rich gardener's paradise. In early spring the aconites and snowdrops carpet the ground. There are species tulips, British bluebells (which are smaller than the Spanish invaders that we so often see today), rare snowdrops, musk roses, native primulas, acacias and, amongst the drifts of flowering bulbs, is a collection of magnolias. In late summer the garden explodes with colour. The fully productive vegetable garden is a true delight and supplies Heale with flowers, fruit and vegetables - something to be truly proud of. There are figs, cherries, peaches, apples and pears, carrots, plums, radicchio, broccoli and raspberries. Decorative apple tunnels separate the beds that supply the house with all this abundant supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Today, no respectable garden would be without its plant centre and Heale House is no exception. Kevin Hughes runs a specialist plant centre from the gardens. Here you can find a wide variety of hardy garden plants including many that are new and unusual. Most are home-grown and herbaceous plants. Having toured the garden you can treat yourself to a delicious homemade light meal or tea and cake at the riverside coffee shop.

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