Linking a Garden with Doorways in Hedges

Recently I have become mildly obsessed with doorways cut into hedges. I think they are a wonderful way for large gardens to link different areas.

Too often hedges are seen as static features, acting as a barrier to divide one area from another. By cutting a doorway the hedge’s purpose changes and becomes an integral part of the garden design, linking rather than preventing access.

And there is also something ‘Alice in Wonderland’ about them, appealing to our human nature to explore.

I am lucky by living in the Cotswolds to have two gardens nearby that utilise hedge doorways with great success. They are Hidcote and Kiftsgate. Here are a few examples from those gardens that may help explain my growing obsesssion with this design feature:

1: Garden rooms are a big feature of Hidcote, dividing the large garden into manageable and distinctly different parts. Here they have used Yew hedge to divide a lawn area from another section of the garden. The doorway has been carefully placed to provide access but also to draw the visitor in by offering a tantalising glimpse of a curved gravel path. Where does this path lead? Who could resist this invitation to explore further.

Two large, stone paving slabs are placed on the lawn side to help with wear but also catch the eye and make the door more visible. It’s surprising how easy it is to miss these doorways when there is not a path leading directly to them.

2: This time the doorway is cut through a beech hedge. Again the same principle of a curved path is used to entice the visitor through the hedge but not reveal too much of the garden beyond. The only option for the inquisitive is to follow the curved path and see where it leads.

3: There is no intrigue with this hedge doorway. It is a yew hedge that has been cut and shaped like an archway to become a feature of the garden. The design links with the topiary in front.

The paving stones are smaller as you approach the archway to slow the visitor down, before they make their grand entrance through the yew archway into the next section of the garden.

4. This doorway at Kiftsgate is cut into a purple beech hedge. The strong lines of the path draw the garden visitor towards the doorway. The dark purple colour of the hedge perfectly frame the green foliage of the garden ahead, creating a visible focal point.

5. This one isn’t a doorway cut into a hedge but I wanted to share it with you anyway because, basically, I like it. The gardeners at Kiftsgate have trained Sorbus aria into an archway. The large leaf shape, colour and texture of the Sorbus contrasts perfectly with the yew hedging. There is not the intrigue as associated with a small doorway cut into a hedge, rather a dramatic statement to attract the visitor to view more of the garden.

6. It doesn’t always have to be doorways cut into hedges. At Kiftsgate the gardeners have cut a window into a yew hedge to frame a view of their contemporary garden room.

This glimpse of the reflective pond and fountain is enough to encourage the visitor to find the path leading to this section of the garden and discover more.

The Fashion for Cloud Pruned Yew Hedges

If you follow this blog or my social media profiles you may have noticed I am building a small collection of vintage gardening books. This is not intentional.

I find it difficult to resist when I see an interesting antique gardening book on an online auction site and my low bids seem to be winning. One lucky acquisition was this 1904 First Edition ‘Some English Gardens’ with beautiful prints of watercolours by George S. Elgood and commentary by Gertrude Jekyll.

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One print that caught my eye was a watercolour titled ‘Yew Alley at Rockingham’ and painted about 1900. The yew has been clipped in a cloud pruned fashion with magnificent waves and undulations.

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It didn’t take much research to discover this yew alley still exists. A quick search on Google revealed a hedge known as the ‘Elephant Hedge’ at Rockingham Castle. A helpful blog post on Hedge Britannia confirmed this is the same one.

The Elephant Hedge, so named because the undulations look like the backs of elephants, is 450 years old and has survived a Royalist siege in the English Civil War. Below is the image of the hedge now from the blog post, and shows how little has changed since 1900.

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Seeing this Yew hedge raised the question of when the fashion for cutting hedges like this began. Although there is evidence this hedge is over 450 years old, I am not convinced it has always be trimmed in this ‘cloud pruned’ fashion.

There is a similar yew hedge at Walmer Castle. The hedge began life in the late 19th century as a formal, clipped yew hedge that acted as a backdrop for long, flower borders. This Italian style of walkway and vista was in keeping with the fashion at the time.

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However, the hedge was neglected during the Second World War and as a result the straight, linear edges were lost as the yew continued to grow. A hard winter in 1947 with heavy snow added to the hedge becoming even more misshapen. The result was an undulating yew hedge that would have required major pruning to restore the straight, formal lines of before. So the decision was taken to follow the naturally formed contours, resulting in the cloud pruned style hedge seen below.

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Another famous yew hedge is located at Powis Castle. The history of this hedge is similar to Walmer Castle. The yews were originally planted in the 18th century as small cones and pyramids, influenced by the formal Italian garden style. But by the end of the century English landscape gardening was becoming the fashion, inspired by famous designers such as Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. So the yews were left to grow into their natural, tree-like shapes.

By the time the desire for more formal gardening had returned in the Victorian period, the yews had grown to such an extent that the only option was to shape them into the famous hedges that we see today.

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The common theme with these two famous yew hedges is they arrived at their current appearance more by accident than by choice, often after periods of neglect. I am not sure whether this is the same for the yew hedge at Rockingham Castle but George S. Elgood’s watercolour has inspired me to see ‘Elephant Hedge’ in person and find out more.