Not too far from Banbury is a grand manor house, which you can’t visit, but also a huge and remarkable garden, which you can.
Thenford House was built in 1765 with large grounds and passed through a number of families until the Heseltine family purchased it and its grounds in 1976, expecting it seems to mainly acquire a grand house with a modest gardening interest. In fact, their interests flipped around and they set about renovating the landscape as a major and very much ongoing project.
A rich person can buy a large plot of land and have the money to spend on gardeners and plants, but there’s one thing a rich person cannot buy – and that’s time. Plants will grow at their own speed, and landscapes settle down as they feel up to it. The weather will be inconsiderate of wealth.
So it’s taken 40 years of work to turn some unkept forest and some fields into the delightful landscape that they have today.
They were slightly lucky in some sense in that there are a lot of older trees around, and several medieval lakes and a walled garden from a long-since demolished manor house at the bottom of the site, otherwise, it’s a timelessly new layout.
And now, occasionally, they let the public in to admire what is still essentially their private back-garden.
Entry is through the sort of gates you expect an old manor house to have, and then past signs that there is shooting underway. It seems they have a big problem with squirrels, and shooting them is the only solution.
A car park is on the front lawn, but once you collect a paper map, you’re left to amble around the grounds at your leisure.
Technically, it has some 3,500 different trees and shrubs, all carefully labelled around the grounds for people to take note of for their own gardens. I saw about half the people were clearly of the plant observing sort, pointing out specific species to each other or sharing notes.
The rest, and your correspondent, were here for an amble, to soak up the atmosphere of a lovely maintained landscape, in places looking managed but wild, but elsewhere very manicured. Many people are allowed in, but so large are the grounds that once you get away from the core of the layout and amble down towards the woods and lakes, you can wander around without seeing anyone for ages.
Dotted around the grounds are a lot of statues, ranging from what you might consider conventional garden furniture through to strikingly modern art. One minute you’re looking at bushes and flowers, then you turn around to find a cluster of artwork on the other side. It’s a wonderful contrast.
A few of the highlights of the grounds include the walled garden with box hedging and lots of seating to relax in. Do go out the other end though for a wide pristine lawn overlooking the fields and circular plant supports that (when in bloom) frame the views.
I visited in April, when there’s less foliage and more spring flowers. A visit later in the year will have a lot more greenery.
A long line of trimmed to perfection conical trees parade along a rill of dropped ponds and fountains. It’s worth walking all the way to the end, preferably on the other side of the trees so people can get their perfect long photos without you being in them — for the shell alcove.
The lakes at the bottom of the slope have decorative bridges over them, and an ice-well still remains from the days before modern fridges were invented.
Loads of seating abounds, which is useful as the grounds are huge.
A trough garden sounds odd on the map until you visit and realise it’s a space filled with patio troughs and plants for sunny patios.
One of the most remarkable places though is how I originally found out about the gardens, and that’s the Sculpture Garden, an almost maze-like layout of open-air rooms with tall narrow hedges as passages between them.
This is where their modern art collection can be found, and it’s such a wonderful space to wander around, discovering little side rooms and vast state-rooms.
There are small notes in the grass as to who and what the art is, but no attempt to bore you will detailed descriptions. The art simply exists to delight.
It’s one of the largest pieces that was acquired that gave the garden a spark of fame – a gigantic bust of Lenin from Latvia. Notwithstanding the politics of a former Government Minister buying ex-communist art, and the horrors that the statue represents, it just looks magnificent in the settings it now finds itself in.
It’s dominating, but more by the design of the cloak and the stern face than by its raw size, but it’s still overlooked by the trees around, which brings it back down to earth.
The grounds are huge and you can comfortably spend a couple of hours wandering around the estate simply soaking up the views and the droplets of delight when you find neat hedges in a wilder part of the estate framing a statue or two.
In 2016, Anne Heseltine published a book about their 40-year project to turn the dilapidated woodland into a delightful arboretum.
After a year of lock-down, a couple of hours rambling around their back-garden was a perfect tonic.
Visiting Thenford Arboretum
The grounds are a private garden for the family, but just a few years ago they tested the idea of opening them to the public, and now they have a number of open days each year.
You need to book in advance. When I originally tried visiting before the pandemic cancelled everything, that was by self-addressed envelope in the post, but now you can book tickets online here.
Note that they don’t allow dogs or children under 10 years.
In normal times, there are drinks served in the grounds, but at the moment that’s not happening due to you know what, so best bring a bottle of water on a hot day.
How to get to Thenford Arboretum
If you drive, there’s parking on the very large front lawn.
If you don’t drive, the easiest way to get there is by train to Banbury station.
Alternatively, if you like a walk, go via the church of St Mary Warkworth, which is delightful — but if coming back, catch the bus, as a) you’re tired by now and b) the faster route goes via a very unpleasant roundabout.
What else to do at Thenford
It’s a very small village, so don’t expect to do much, other than to pay a visit to the nearby church of St Mary Thenford, which is ancient, and looks it, and has a wonderful interior and from the graveyard, views over the arboretum.
If you’re driving, or very keen on a long day out, then on almost the exact opposite side of Banbury is Broughton Castle.