The Murch family have turned a depressing, neglected property into a magical home and gardens. Sharon Dale reports.
Even on a grey winter’s day, the Ellicar gardens are full of interest. Hardy perennials bring colour and the miscanthus and panicum grasses wave in the wind, their seeds attracting robins, blue tits and finches. To one side is a much-loved family home, while at the gardens’ heart is a natural swimming pool.
It all adds up to a little piece of heaven, fashioned from a decaying and depressing property that looked more like a prison six years ago. Indeed, it had been a privately run residential centre for troubled teenage boys, who were often locked in their rooms. Outside, the five acre plot near Doncaster, was an overgrown, neglected waste of space.
“The bolts were still on the outside of the bedroom doors and there were security monitors everywhere. It was pretty awful,” says owner Sarah Murch. “We tackled the outside first before we did the inside, which wasn’t the most conventional thing to do but that’s what is important to us.”
The transformation is remarkable, not least because Sarah, husband Will and their five children, who range from 23 to 11 years-old, did much of the work themselves.
“We knew the property because we lived up the road in the village. It was empty for ages and we knew it was in a state outside and in, but it gave us what we wanted, which was more land for our garden and our animals,” says Sarah, a garden designer.
Her husband, Will, a horticulturist, owns Osberton Nurseries and is renowned as the best rhododendron grower in the country. Together they have worked tirelessly, digging, weeding, fencing and landscaping to create gardens that enthral both enthusiasts and those who wouldn’t know a hellebore from a hydrangea.
They have everything from a veg patch, bird garden and orchard to a gravel garden, a crab apple avenue and a junk garden with everything from toilets and wellies used as planters. Four trees have been joined by another 180 specimens and there’s a wildflower meadow.
The wildlife-friendly grounds are open as part of the NGS open garden scheme, and have educational value. Sarah does teacher training for the Royal Horticultural Society and helps schools to create gardens and outdoor learning areas.
When they looked indoors, they found a huge amount to do.
The house, built in the 1970s, was structurally sound but the interior was a mess. The heating system was broken and remains out of action. Warmth comes from the open fire, a wood burner , the Aga and hot water bottles.
“We don’t feel the cold perhaps because we’re outside such a lot,” says Will.
Instead, they spent their budget on two bathrooms to replace the single working shower and knocked the canteen and telephone room into one large living kitchen. The wood units were handmade by a local joiner and the corner cupboards and shelves were crafted by Sarah’s uncle, John Taylor. An old chain harrow has been recycled to hang pans on.
“I like to buy crafted products, so I know where the materials come from and I know the maker. There’s a lot of value in that,” says Sarah, who also likes to buy from local antique shops and fairs. The huge 18 seater dining table came from Hemswell Antiques Centre.
Upstairs, what was the CCTV monitoring suite, is now a master bedroom. All the bedroom floors were rotten and have been replaced. “The poor kids who lived here used to kick the radiators off the wall and they flooded the rooms,” says Will.
The house is now bright and cheery, thanks to a happy family atmosphere and gallons of Little Greene paint. A vibrant blue covers the sitting room walls, bathed in light from French doors leading outside to the Murch menagerie. This includes two dogs, cats, ponies, chickens, geese, Aberdeen Angus cows, and Agnes, a kunekune pig who is best friends with the goats, Angelina and Daphne. The animals are a big hit at open garden events, though the main wow factor is the natural swimming pool.
The family are keen wild swimmers and when the chance arose to build their own pool, they couldn’t resist. From Austria-based Biotop, it is a clever, eco-friendly cross between a conventional outdoor pool and open water, made by digging a large hole, lining it with polypropylene and building submerged walls. The perimeter is planted with reeds and oxygenating plants to filter the water and keep it fresh. One end has decking while the other is a gravel beach, with jetties in between. There are no fish, no chemicals and no heating system, and the water is crystal clear.
“It’s incredibly energy efficient and low maintenance. There’s one 60 watt pump that uses the equivalent of one lightbulb and that’s it. You hoover the bottom once a month and prune the reeds and plants twice a year,” says Will. The couple have teamed up with landscapers Andrew and Paul Watkinson to design and sell the natural swimming pools, which cost from £50,000, and recently won an award for their work.
Ellicar Gardens are open on March 23, June 8 and September 21, as part of the National Garden Scheme, www.ellicargardens.co.uk. Natural Pools, www.naturalpoolsuk.com.