An English Country Garden…in Oberon
No matter what the context, universal truths are a contentious subject and as a general rule, I try to avoid making such pronouncements. There’s one area where I’m happy to make an exception; which is my belief that when an individual is blessed with an outlandish fortune, they are compelled to indulge their wildest dreams. For some, this involves superyachts, haute couture and magnums of champagne; some discover philanthropy and other acts of altruism. Others do a bit of both, as is the case of Garrick Hawkins. After purchasing a 5000 acre farm in Oberon in 1984, the investment banker set about creating one of the world’s largest cool climate gardens. The Hawkins family first shared Mayfield Garden with the public in 2008, for just one weekend. The response was so overwhelming, they now open twice a year, over three weekends each autumn and spring with all proceeds going to charity.
Inspired by the grand estates of the English gentry, using the word garden to describe Mayfield feels slightly disingenuous. Setting aside 140 acres within the working farm, Hawkins, his landscape designer Peter D’Arcy and their team of 25 full-time staff, have transformed paddocks into a majestic parkland. As you might imagine, the sheer scope of this undertaking has allowed, and encouraged, the indulgence of many different styles of garden and landscape design.
Considering the intense seasonal variations experienced in Oberon and the shale-like nature of the topsoil, Hawkins’ first priority was to establish a series of dams to capture rainfall whenever possible. Working with the natural contours of the landscape allows run-off to be funnelled back into the dams, feeding a much needed irrigation system. The beauty of this strategy is that the dams read as naturally occurring lakes, a defining characteristic of the English country gardens that Hawkins is so fond of.
Another important aspect of the classic English style of landscape design, is the skillful manipulation of more formal elements; traditionally found closest to the owner’s residence with relaxed, playful spaces further afield. At Mayfield Garden, the entrance to Hawkins’ French inspired manor house is lined by hornbeams, pleached and trained into hedges. On one side, an expansive arbour of cream Lamarque roses lead to a glass conservatory, which hides a walled kitchen garden and the palatial hen houses. On the other, you find a raised croquet lawn overlooking the cut flower garden and sunken parterre, featuring an Islamic inspired reflection pond, the view beyond framed by tall topiary pillars. Behind the house, the Cascade Temple commands the hillside, its waterfall flowing 80 metres into a reflection pool, the four corners of which are punctuated by cone shaped conifers, set into the water. From the shaded front porch of the house, verdant green lawns give way to the dams, both dominated by the unbelievably big sky of the Central Tablelands.
As a paying visitor, however, you enter Mayfield Garden along a path of raised bluestone beds, filled with rhododendrons, hydrangeas and azaleas, shaded by backdrop plantings of cypress. This combination creates a kind of tunnel, which heightens the drama as you approach the six acre water garden. If you peel off to the left as you enter, you can pick up supplies for a picnic at the catering pavilions or enjoy a coffee in the sun filled courtyard. Considering the walk around Mayfield takes around three hours, it can feel like a long way to return if you get peckish!
Dominated by a 16m high obelisk, the water garden is fed by the dams, via an 11m waterfall set within a stone bridge, which took four stonemasons a year to construct. Groves of birch trees are set amongst the winding paths, with mass plantings of maples, irises and moisture loving ground covers at the water’s edge. As you wander, you notice large stones used intermittently to define the pathways, a thematic nod to the influence of Asian landscape design and a suggestion as to what you’ll discover next. Excitingly, this area is being developed as a year-round tourist attraction. Scheduled for completion in early 2013, plans include a children’s discovery garden, a grotto, a cafe, garden shop and retail nursery.
Beyond the water garden, the landscape returns to the pastoral. Rolling grasslands are studded by isolated groups of trees, the positioning of which are designed to make your surroundings seem even larger. As you pass by the Chinese pagoda, water again becomes a central element; hillside streams tumble down the slope, culminating in a majestic Japanese style reflection pond. Colourwise, the maples are showstoppers but for me, the true beauty is in how perfectly the whole vignette is reflected in the water.
Climbing towards the house, a woodland beckons. It’s the type of luscious dell that dares you to deny that fairies, nymphs and elves only exist in story tales. Underplanted with hellebores, it is one of Mayfield’s more informal areas, and gently reminds those who garden of the powerful simplicity of massed plantings.
Coming closer to the Hawkins’ residence, the formal aspects of Mayfield Gardens dominate. Here you find the immaculate croquet lawn, the sunken parterre and cut flower garden. With the air heavy with the scent of roses, the lawns surrounding this area are a delightful place to stop awhile.
From this point, the paths of Mayfield climb further up the hillside, leading you to the bluestone chapel, which was specially constructed for the marriage of Hawkins’ daughter. On the way, we discovered a tunnel which delivered us to the base of the amphitheatre, much to my daughter’s great delight. She would have rolled down that slope all afternoon if possible, so if this isn’t something you’d like to negotiate, maybe take the long way round! Once the grass was picked out of my very cross four year old’s hair, we made our way across to the aviary and the Cascade Temple. Further on is the oak forest and maze, which we missed on this visit in favour of the walled, potager kitchen garden and a jealous look-see at the Hawkins’ hen houses.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is a mini-bus that will take you to the top of the hill, from the visitor’s car park. I’ll most certainly take advantage of this service – I’d much prefer to amble down that hillside, than clamber up it, particularly with children and a pram in tow!
Despite the incredible work done to date, Mayfield Gardens is still in its infancy. For me, this is a thrilling prospect. When I visited last autumn, I was overwhelmed by the scale of Garrick Hawkins’ undertaking and it pleases me immeasurably to know that this is a garden I will return to throughout my life. There is a curious sense of investment, to realise that what this garden will become over time is just as special as what it is already.
Mayfield Gardens is open to visitors over the weekends of October 27th and 28th and November 3rd and 4th. For more information, visit their website. If you can’t make it this spring, reserve one of the last three weekends in April, 2013 for a visit. In the meantime, take a look at their photo gallery and imagine life in an English country garden…