The garden designer Anthony Paul has lived in the same black-and-white cottage in the Surrey Hills for more than 40 years. He is surrounded by villages that recall the trees that once defined the landscape: “Ockley, Forest Green, Ewhurst, Holmwood – these are all forest names,” he says. “The oaks here were some of the finest in England, because we’re on clay – and clay, for some reason, grows beautiful oaks. I call them the lords of the forest.”
Anthony found his home in the pages of the Sunday Times in 1977 while living in London with his long-term partner, Hannah Peschar, a Dutch journalist, and running his own garden maintenance company (he was responsible for the upkeep of Paul McCartney’s patch of land in St John’s Wood). The couple spent their weekends exploring the countryside and plotting their escape from London.
The house they found was built in the 16th century. “At the time,” Anthony explains, “there would have been alders growing along the river, and alder makes the best charcoal, so this would have been a woodcutter or charcoal-maker’s house. It’s very primitive,” he continues. “It has beautiful oak timbers, a wonderful history and a special atmosphere.”
The Grade-II listed cottage came with a vastly overgrown 10-acre garden that once formed part of a much larger estate and hadn’t been touched for 30 years. “It was a complete mess,” Anthony recalls. “The river that runs through the garden was choked with fallen trees, there was bamboo that had gone mad and Dutch elm disease had ravaged the elms, so it was quite a challenging, crazy thing to do because we were quite young – I was only 30, Hannah was 33 – and we had no money at all.” Nevertheless, they put their London flat on the market and sold it to the first buyer who walked through the door. “I really believe that some houses belong to some people, and some people belong to some houses,” says Anthony.
For the next five years, Anthony worked weekends and gradually brought the garden back to “organised chaos, rather than total chaos”. During that arduous process, he uncovered a small brick shed hidden in the woods on the banks of the river that winds through the garden. “It was a ruin, completely covered in ivy and bramble,” Anthony recalls. “There were squirrels, mice and bats living in it, but it had these wonderful lead windows and we could see that it had potential.”
The couple didn’t have the time or the money to repair the shed, so they waited. Drawing on his upbringing in New Zealand, Anthony became a self-taught garden designer and established a reputation for creating natural gardens that connect with their surrounding landscape (his client list includes Ringo Starr and Andrew Lloyd Webber). Meanwhile Hannah’s focus shifted from news reports to the landscape outside, and she began to work with artists to create a public sculpture garden – one of the first of its kind in the UK.
It soon became apparent that their woodsman’s cottage wasn’t big enough to accommodate the artists who came to install their work in the garden. So they renovated the brick shed, transforming it into a Hansel and Gretel hideaway.
Externally, the brickwork has been clad in locally milled feather-edged oak that has been given a soft blue-green wash. The moss-covered roof was patched with clay tiles that Anthony found in the woods, and reclaimed lead windows were added to illuminate the gloomy interiors.
They employed a local carpenter to craft the kitchen, porch and internal doors using wood from one of their Scots pines; the floor was laid with light-reflective maple. Exposed plaster lends warmth and texture to the interiors, which have been furnished simply with natural materials: wood, rattan, linen and little else. “It is a lovely place to stay,” says Anthony, who takes visitors on a journey through the garden and over a bridge before arriving at the front door. “Deer walk past the window, sea trout swim in the river and owls hoot at night – it has an indescribable, rustic charm.”
Anthony’s final task was to design a deck on two sides making use of timber from storm-felled trees. “Sitting there in late spring presents a panoramic paint chart of graduated greens from oak, ash, alder and hornbeam – all English heartland natives,” he explains.
The garden opened to the public 36 years ago and remains open to this day, displaying over 200 works by more than 50 artists. Hannah sadly died last year, but Anthony is committed to sharing the unique landscape they co-created. “The sculpture adds drama to the garden,” he explains. “Set against the seasons, it is an ever-changing story – an exciting space to explore.”