Amanda Honey - Caisson House (Spring 2023)

Caisson Gardens

Image shows: Tulipa ’Request’, Tulipa ’Slawa’, Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ and Tulipa ‘Brownie’ in the walled garden

Caisson Gardens in Combe Hay, nestling in a valley just south of Bath, have been lovingly restored and nurtured over the last 14 years by Phil and Amanda Honey. Their vision and ethos has created a sustainable landscape that is visually stunning and rich in thriving wildlife. Emma Clegg pays them a visit.

Caisson House in Combe Hay was built in 1815 by the Somerset Coal Canal Company as its head office. The Grade-II listed house sits at the summit of a flight of 22 locks constructed from huge Bath stone blocks. ‘Caisson’ was the name of a revolutionary new kind of lock, designed as a water-saving measure. In their heyday the canals were enormously profitable, but they eventually fell into disuse after the coming of the train network system to Bath in 1870.

When Phil and Amanda Honey bought Caisson House in 2010, the property had been in the same family for many years, and the land hadn’t been well maintained. So they inherited an extraordinary landscape of 40 acres with a unique history, distinguished by the unused locks threading throughout the gardens. This provided them with a buildings and landscape project of massive proportions.

In 2010 Amanda and Phil moved from London into the main house with their two children and lived there for four years before planning permission was granted. Amanda says that it was freezing cold in the house, with an inefficient heating system and no insulation, and she remembers the whole family wearing ski jackets in the kitchen at the back of the house to keep warm.

The garden in front of the main house and the site of the oval pond

“The whole property was very overgrown, run down and dilapidated – every building from the main house to the cottage and the small outbuildings – so we’ve renovated it all over 14 years. Then the whole garden was carefully unravelled and unpicked – it was engulfed with nettles and brambles and there were heaps of rubbish in the vegetable garden.”

While clearly a gargantuan challenge (and some of their friends thought they were bonkers!), the couple found it fascinating uncovering the structure. “What was really exciting was clearing away some of the brambles – a lot of them were 10 foot high, and were physically engulfing trees. We also fell in love with the locks that shape the garden and its 40 acres.”

Much of the wilder elements of the garden were maintained. “The garden bleeds out into the wildflower meadows, which had been untouched for years, so the area had rewilded itself. We were very careful about what we cleared – all the margins were left along with the woodland areas beyond”, explains Amanda.

Garden designer Amanda and Phil are both from farming families. They also used to run a London-based prop house company specialising in the creation of greenery sets for film and TV, and this experience meant they had the practical and creative skills to be able to project manage the renovation. Amanda was determined to reference the working history of water in the property within the new garden structure and this involved bringing the locks back into view.

“We’ve got 15 locks on the property so it was about preserving them. It is fascinating because each lock creates a different microclimate of its own – some are facing south, or north, or in other directions and you have different lichens, different mosses, different faces of the walls – and they are incredibly beautiful.”

Tulipa ‘Bleu Amiable’, Tulipa ‘Blue Wow’ and Tulipa ‘Blue Diamond’

The locks, now free of water, are sculptural as well as being wildlife havens, as they carve across the hillside. Phil took on the clearing work on the locks, organising the cutting back of the big trees close to them that were undermining their structure, and leaving the flora and fauna around them.

Having water in the garden design was part of Amanda’s masterplan. This included the creation of a beautiful oval pond outside the house and curving stone rills looping in figures of eight across the lawn. A small lake was also created by damming and lining the pound between two of the locks and a boardwalk made with English oak was constructed next to it. The lake is stocked with rudd, stickleback, crucian carp and tench.

The land had rewilded over decades and was already supporting a biodiversity of insects and wildlife. The ribbons of water in the rills opened this up to include aquatic creatures, and enormous numbers of frogs and toads now spawn from the two ponds. “We have to stop mowing when the frogs move out of the ponds in late summer – there are just hundreds and hundreds of tiny little frogs!” says Amanda. The lake is also a favourite haunt of a kingfisher and heron and a gigantic grass snake has recently been spotted swimming across the water.

Amanda and Phil both come from an organic farming background and understand the importance of soil health, so practise regenerative farming and gardening. The land is sectioned into multiple areas that blend loosely into each other. These elements include woodlands, the lock structures and wildflower meadows with their abundant mix of orchids, buttercup, primroses, cowslip and knapweed. There are also the stone rills trailing across the landscape, the oval and round ponds, along with a topiary meadow, a long border, and an orchard with apple, pear, quince, damson, greengage, figs and apricots. Further diversity comes with a mulberry terrace lined with ancient pollarded white mulberries, a walled garden and an ornamental vegetable garden with cut flower beds.

The walled garden with ornamental vegetable and cut flower beds

All of this is maintained following an organic approach with no-dig gardening. A programme of not mowing is followed throughout the summer and in some areas dead hedges have been created with brush from live hedges to encourage beetles and wildlife.
The gardens have become a full-time management project for Phil and Amanda, but it’s a life that they love. “There is continual activity and planting throughout the year, whether it’s perennial bulbs in the grasslands or planting on the banks of the lake beyond the river boardwalk, which com­es to life after rain”, says Amanda.

“This place can still soak up more planting – just maintaining it is full on,” says Amanda. “But when it’s your passion it’s easy to get out of bed – and it’s wondrous here, so it’s not difficult really.”

Caisson Gardens will open on selected days in April – to find out more visit Caisson House, Combe Hay, Bath BA2 7EF.