As if by magic, Holly Hill Cottage near Slaley has transformed from a tiny, neglected, tumbledown house to a spacious, airy family home with a garden made for fairies.
KAREN Melvin’s first glimpse of Holly Hill Cottage was by torchlight at the dead of night. But it was enough to spark a love affair that would endure a lifetime.
“There was no electricity, no toilet and no water,” said Karen. “And the garden was a rubbish tip – literally! It was barely habitable, but I loved it. It looked like a cottage in a fairytale.
“My husband Joe and I were living in a student flat in Newcastle, but we longed to live in the country. My sister spotted the cottage in the paper. We couldn’t wait to see it so we drove up that night and the next morning we went back for the auction. There were two other bidders, a local farmer and a retired couple. It cost us the princely sum of £1,500, quite a considerable amount of money in 1966 for a cottage that needed everything doing to it. But it was worth it.”
The couple moved in at Christmas, more than a year later, with their baby daughter Celina, Karen’s sister Andrea and flat mate Muriel.
“We were sleeping on a variety of rugs, mattresses and beds,” said Karen. “We had an open fire and a working toilet but no bathroom door! The locals thought of us as the beatniks or the hippies. We had no money and very little furniture. But we were happy.”
Karen, a photographic artist, and Joe, a geologist, knew that work to transform the cottage and garden would take some time, but they were in no hurry. “We decided to both work part time so we could devote all the time we needed to creating our home and garden,” said Karen.
“When we first moved in our baby daughter Celina slept in the pantry and we had odd bits of furniture picked up in junk shops and auctions. But we were young and full of energy. And we weren’t scared of a little bit of hard work.”
Ensuring the house, which was built in the 1830s, was habitable was challenge enough, but then there was the garden. “It was full of broken bottles, fragments of glass, tonnes of ash, barbed wire and rubble,” said Joe. “It had been an old Victorian quarry and rubbish tip and was 25ft deep in places. We found all sorts of interesting things including pots and hundreds of oyster shells. Fresh water oysters were clearly a main source of protein in the Victorian diet. We added 150 tonnes of soil and started to experiment with plants, shrubs and trees.”
“We weren’t gardeners and we didn’t really have a vision,” said Karen. “We just planted things and hoped they would grow. I’m American and in America we all have yards. We don’t really know how to garden like you English. And our garden, it has to be said, has never been the easiest.
You only have to dig for a few minutes before your spade hits rubble or another broken pot or bottle. But gradually our hard work, trial and error, started to pay off. And the garden started to take shape.”
Today, it’s hard to believe that the meandering grassy walkways, vibrant flower beds, thriving vegetable garden and lush, thick lawns were once a rubbish tip. There are 600 flowers, plants, trees and shrubs in this one-acre garden and Karen should know. She keeps a meticulous record of each and every one and can reel off the Latin names with aplomb.
“I love the jumble of an English cottage garden, the bright colours and textures,” said Karen. “Look at this iris. It’s just perfect.” The delicate flower falls apart at her touch, its petals weighted down by silvery raindrops. “Never mind,” said Karen. “A lot of things have died in this garden, but a lot of have really taken root. Look at this red trapoleum. It has been here for more than 100 years. I love the way that ancient plants weave their way around the newer varieties, creating a patchwork of different colours.”
Karen and Joe have certainly created an eye-catching colour palette which comes into its own in the autumn when the rich, copper leaves of a smoke bush contrast beautifully with the intense, pinky red of a spindlewood.
Karen is particularly proud of her vegetable garden which provides all year round supplies. “I bought six asparagus broccoli plants from Healey village show 30 years ago and I’ve still got a healthy crop today,” she said. “There’s also peas, courgettes, beans, corn on the cob, leeks, onions, beetroot, potatoes, lettuce, rocket, brussels sprouts, autumn broccoli, cauliflower and Tuscan cabbage.”
The one-acre plot at Holly Hill Cottage is divided into various contrasting areas from a wild wood to meadow, lawn, fruit and vegetables. One of Karen’s favourite parts is the wild, spring meadow, dotted with flowers from mauve and purple crocus to snowdrops. But she also loves the warm glow of her maple trees, birches and spindlewoods, just like her dad, Charles. “Dad grew orchids in Florida before he moved to England and developed a passion for rare rockery plants and maple trees. He retired here simply so he could garden.”
When Karen and Joe first moved to Holly Hill Cottage they could see wide, open moorland all around them. Today, mature sycamores and cherry trees provide the perfect wind break for Karen’s white, black and purple hellebores, campanula, Japanese iris and her flourishing fruit patch of blackcurrants, blueberries, gooseberries and black and yellow raspberries.
Karen and Joe have the knack of making everything look natural, as if it has just evolved over time. But a great deal of planning, design and hard work has been devoted to each and every patch. And many a plant, including some rather unusual varieties, have found a home in this garden.
“My yellow cornus glows on a wet, grey day,” said Karen. “The tiny white flowers of the Cornus kousa are quite a rarity up here so I’m very proud of them.” In a greenhouse adjoining the house, there’s a loquat growing from a seed imported from Florida beside a couple of Persian lilacs and a Lapageria rosea, a Chilean bell flower.
Karen takes inspiration from gardens across the UK including the Edinburgh Botanics and Howick Hall on the Northumberland coast where, she says, the tulip lawn is to die for. “I saw dierama there for the first time. They are known as fairy’s fishing rods and they are just so delicate and beautiful. I bought some seeds and now grow them here.
“I also love the iridescent blue of delphiniums and the scent and colour of the philadelphus and aquilegia, which many people will know as granny’s bonnet. The delicate pink flowers of the heuchera are also a delight alongside the silvery, spiky leaves of the eryngium and the hostas look good all year round.” Lots of different varieties of grasses are also dotted around the garden giving a feathery, willowy feel, providing texture and definition.
“I remember coming into Newcastle on a steam train. I loved the ancient stone buildings and steep streets winding their way down to the river.”
It is clear that both Karen and Joe are practical and hard working, but they are also imaginative and creative. And Karen, in particular, has been inspired by the garden to create some magical, photographic art work with a fairytale feel. Karen left her home in Detroit to study fine art at Newcastle University where she met Joe, a geology student.
“I remember coming into Newcastle on a steam train,” she said. “I loved the ancient stone buildings and steep streets winding their way down to the river. I only came for a year, but I never really left. I fell in love with Joe, England and gardening.”
Karen’s studies were a springboard for a career in photographic art and teaching with many of her art works exhibited in galleries across the district from Shepherd’s Dene near Riding Mill to Kielder Castle.
Reminiscent of the famous Cottingley fairies, Karen’s photographs combine magical fantasy with earthy realism. She asks friends and family to dress up, photographs them, cuts out their image, sticks it on cardboard and then, with the help of invisible, thin pieces of wire, props them up in the garden amongst the flowers, trees and shrubs.
The result is a whimsical play with scale, with tiny grandchildren dwarfed by giant flowers. One framed image in her house shows a neighbour, in her wedding dress, transformed into a fairy godmother while recent work involves tiny, delicate tea cups nestled in flower beds. Karen’s studio, built painstakingly by Joe who spent a year hand-cutting the stone, is in the garden where it doubles up as a spacious play room for the grandchildren.
Now they’re grandparents, you would imagine that Karen and Joe would want to take a step back from their labours and enjoy a well-earned rest. But ‘low maintenance’ doesn’t seem to be in their vocabulary. The weeding alone is a never-ending job. And Karen is still full of ideas to take the garden into the future. “I would really love to get hay rattle established here, but I’ve had no luck as yet. Then I want to build a pond to attract dragonflies and plant some more bee friendly flowers.”
It’s been a lifelong labour of love, but the couple have enjoyed the process as much as the results and their years of creating, building, planting, digging and weeding tell their own story. Winter is a chance to sit back a little and admire the garden from the warmth of their sunny kitchen. “We love sitting watching the snow falling silently down,” said Karen. “It’s simply beautiful. But then the garden is gorgeous all year round. There’s always something new to see.”
While the garden may look like a fait accompli, it is still very much a work in progress for Karen who is always on the look out for a new flower, spindlewood or shrub. “It’s constantly evolving,” she said. “That’s the beauty of gardening. The colours and textures change from season to season, month to month, day to day. Nothing ever stands still.”