Family who built the perfect garden

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Craftsmanship, care and a lot of hard graft have made this cottage and its land into an idyll for plants, animals and people. Sharon Dale reports.

It’s easy to feel property envy when visiting Vikki and Richard Meller’s home. Their cottage is rustic and cosy and overlooks a pretty garden filled with flowers and the hum of bees.

The garden room/office, pizza oven and table all handcrafted

The garden room/office, pizza oven and table all handcrafted

Across the track is a walled kitchen garden abundant with organic fruit, vegetables and herbs and on the terrace above is a pizza oven and one of the best garden offices you’re ever likely to see. Everything is handcrafted using dry stone walling techniques and timber from the Mellers’ own wood, which is a short stroll away.

It is a rural idyll only made possible by a huge amount of hard graft that started with the wood. The couple and their sons, Oliver and Robin, work together in their family landscaping and dry stone walling business and were living in a Georgian house in the centre of Sheffield when they bought the ancient woodland in a village near Barnsley 17 years ago.

“We were part of a woodland craft group and so when the wood came for sale we decided to buy it so we could keep it as a place for wildlife, use the timber ourselves and supply other craftsmen,” says Vikki.

It was full of 8ft-high brambles and, over the years, she and Richard have painstakingly dug them out and made way for plants such as a wood sorrel, wood violets and bluebells, which now grow among the oak, ash, larch and sycamores.

The family bought the cottage four years ago

The family bought the cottage four years ago

Richard and Robin built a living wagon using a military trailer with a cabin on top. It was useful for overnight stays and a place to rest and brew up. Back then, the family had no intention of moving from their city centre home but four years ago Oliver spotted a “for sale” sign on the cottage. Backing onto the Mellers’ woodland, the three-bedroom property was originally a dairy for the Wentworth estate. It was tumbledown and damp but the garden and old cattle fold screamed potential.

“It was the outside that really excited me. I wanted to design a garden that would reflect some of the old grandeur of the estate farmhouses around it. So when we bought the property we started work on the garden first rather than the house, which isn’t unusual for us,” says Richard.

The family’s combined skills were perfectly suited to the project. Vikki has a background in biology and arboriculture and her strengths lie in planting and design, while Richard is a stonemason and a master craftsman of the Dry Stone Walling Association and used to work for the National Trust.

Robin is also a dry stone waller and can turn his hand to anything and Oliver is a architectural stonemason and talented sculptor. They all love working outside.

Richard in the woodland with the living van that he and Robin made from an old military trailer with handmade cabin on top

Richard in the woodland with the living van that he and Robin made from an old military trailer with handmade cabin on top

Creating a walled vegetable and apothecary garden in the cattle fold next to the cottage was one of the first jobs. Dry stone walls were built and protect the plants from the Pennine winds. The 30 tonnes of soil was redistributed and the sloping ground was terraced with walls, paths and steps. Dry stone walls are perfect for terracing and last far longer than railway sleepers.

“A well-built wall with no air gaps can last for centuries. I’ve rebuilt dry stone walls that have been up for 500 years,” says Richard. “They also provide habitat for plants and animals. In and around our sandstone wall you can see woundwort, sweet woodruff, foxglove and teasel,” adds Vikki, who used crushed granite and clay on the paths as it forms a hard crust when wet and isn’t toxic.

At the top of the garden is a patio that is home to the garden building, pizza oven and an outdoor table made by Oliver and Robin from Welsh slate. The curved, dome-topped oven is the Mellers’ own design and shows exceptional skill. “We handpick our stone from a Yorkshire quarry. Sourcing stone is a challenge because a lot of quarries have closed and there are now a lot of imports, which don’t fit well into the English landscape,” says Richard.

The office/garden room, which would cost between £50,000 and £60,000 to buy, is constructed from flat-bedded Yorkshire sandstone and the roof frame is local oak, topped with roofing tiles shaped from sandstone flags. Inside, three windows bring in natural light, the walls are painted in London Plane green by Mylands and the floor is Cornish slate. Oliver’s exquisite Portland and York stone wildlife sculptures decorate the room and also feature in the new flower garden outside the house.

The slate topped table made by Robin and Oliver

The slate topped table made by Robin and Oliver

The latest outdoor project is an orchard which was sloping and is now a series of stepped terraces. This involved bringing in around 60 tonnes of stone and soil and replanting fruit trees and bushes. This summer more garden and woodland work is on the agenda before the Mellers turn their attention to the house.

Used to working outside, they are more immune than most to cold so there is no boiler or central heating, just a Rayburn and two wood-burning stoves fuelled by logs from their woodland. Hot water is from an electric water heater.

“Our old house had 11 radiators and a boiler and we didn’t realise how noisy they were until we came here. It is much more peaceful without them,” says Richard.

As well as creating their own perfect home and garden, the Mellers now use the property to showcase their design skills and craftsmanship to clients. They work all over the UK and projects have included creating everything from a Gertrude Jekyll-inspired garden to smaller urban gardens.

The Meller family business, southpenninewalling.co.uk, offers landscaping, walling, garden design, stone garden buildings and furniture.

Inside the garden office with beams made from the family's own woodland timber.

Inside the garden office with beams made from the family's own woodland timber.