Herefordshire is home to many beautiful gardens and now, with the (cautious) opening to the public of Pant Hall Cloister Gardens, the county's garden lovers are in for a stunning treat. The gardens' creators, Malcolm Temple and Karen Roberts, talk about the evolution of the six-acre plot.

For the past six years, Malcolm Temple and Karen Roberts have been dedicated to the creation of an extraordinary garden near Presteigne.

Extraordinary in part because of the ambitious scope of the plans for the six acres, but extraordinary, too, for its challenging terrain.

Because Pant Hall Cloister Gardens tumble effusively down a vertiginous valley, with navigation facilitated by a mix of terracing and, at the current count, 12 sets of steps built by Malcolm.

"Our sloping land has led to the construction of at least a dozen flights of steps and numerous flights of fancy," says Malcolm in his introduction to the garden on its website.

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It’s also a garden that reflects Malcolm’s life as an artist: “It is an autobiographical garden,” he explains, adding that initially he loved the concept of gardens rather than the idea of his own garden.

Throughout this extensive garden, there are constant surprises, all incorporated in the design to tell a story.

The bandstand, for example, is a reflection of Malcolm’s childhood in Southend-on-Sea, approached by a decking walkway offering an echo of Southend’s record-breaking pier.

And around the bandstand fledgling willows have been planted to create movement that offers a sense of the sea.

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“I had an obsession with Victorian architecture, says Malcolm, “and I think that persists.”

When I was young it was very much out of fashion, and people were ripping it all out.

My dad was a builder and spent the Fifties and early Sixties panelling over the period, and the late sixties taking it off again.”

Malcolm and Karen arrived in Presteigne seven years ago, after moving from London, with one aim firmly in mind.

“We wanted to work on a project together,” says Karen. “But we didn’t know how long it would take.”

Before finding Pant Hall, they had been looking in Devon, and it was while they were there that they found their current home.

“We went into the local library and saw this online.”

“We looked at it and almost instantly thought ‘yes’.”

Given how steeply the garden falls away from the house, it’s surprising to hear that “it didn’t really occur to us that it was really hilly and steep.”

At the time, say Malcolm and Karen, the garden was half an acre of terrace front garden which has been remodelled to include a yew alley and rose bank, but, with a restricted budget, much of the planting of Cloister Gardens is thanks to the generosity of friends.

"New friends, neighbours and the glories of the local freecycle network have provided an abundance of plants, bricks and a cornucopia of disparate materials, essential now or at some unknown future," says Malcolm.

"Things need to be saved from the landfill. We are a wide-ranging plant rescue service, nothing with the exception of ground elder is refused.

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“Our friend Jane, for example, who we met at a lunch party, told us she was taking out plants and if we didn’t have them, they were destined for the skip, so we gave them sanctuary. There's now an area of the garden we call Jane Lane."

Malcolm and Karen add that they refuse nothing they’re offered – with such a large garden, everything is welcome and everything finds a home.

“This garden is about my life as an artist,” explains Malcolm, “and it’s as much a work of art as it is work of garden. It has elements of land art and is a garden full of stories and ideas."

Malcolm first emerged on to the British art landscape in the late 70s with huge colourful punk rock portraits, but is known for his dramatic sculptures, textiles and furniture designs.

His work has been exhibited worldwide and acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A keen gardener, in the new millennium, he shifted his focus to include garden design and pavilion architecture, widely featured in the media, including the Guardian, the Daily Mail, and the Financial Times.

Karen, meanwhile, has a background as a horticultural therapist.

In London, she led a team of volunteers in the renovation of the historic Chiswick House Walled Gardens.

And since moving to Herefordshire, Karen has worked with a number of environmental charities and volunteering groups, working three days a week at Herefordshire Wildlife Trust.

Once they’d moved in, the first three months were spent taking down sheep fencing as they reclaimed what had largely been sheep pasture, and a local farmer took the last cut of hay from the top field.

Malcolm then spent three weeks marking out the woodland – and planting 2,000 trees, a project facilitated by a forestry commission grant.

The garden occupies the majority of their time, because, as Malcolm explains: "There are only the two of us working in this garden, and Karen works three days a week!"

But it's not just the practical and physical aspects of the garden that are all-consuming: “I’m thinking about it all the time,” Malcolm admits. “In my head it’s all finished.” 

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Although the house is called Pant Hall, the gardens have been given their own name, Cloister Gardens, another nod in the direction of Malcolm’s childhood, as he explains:
“Since the age of six or seven, when we lived in Southend, a favourite place was Priory Park, which had an old walled garden that had been half cloistered, part of Prittlewell Priory.

"And that’s why I want to build a cloister which will have four quadrants.

"Cloisters are about silence, having an opportunity for reappraising things.

"If you walk around in a circle you don’t have to make decisions, whereas if you go on a walk you have to make decisions about which way to go. It’s very meditative." 

“Last year I created the hidden island garden, and there’s always another flight of steps to build.”

From the hydrangea garden you get a glimpse of the gatehouse to the island garden, just one of the secret delights of this garden.

Walking along a path you suddenly come across a door with a stained glass window, a door that offers the irresistible temptation to discover what’s behind it … which is a calm, hosta lined retreat offering with a lichen covered tree stump at its centre.

“That came from the yard. I put it on logs and rolled it into position.”

The garden invites you constantly to ask ‘what’s that?’.

In every direction, you'll spot something that hasn't been visible before, because this is a garden that rewards exploration and hides its secrets well.

Many gardens reveal themselves all at once, but Pant Hall Cloister Gardens is full of surprises and flourishes that will delight any visitor, including the Glad House, approached unsurprisingly by the Glad Border, and the Monkey Perch, all designed to exist in harmony with the garden: there is a fine sense of balance here.

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The Glad House is one of four buildings Malcolm has already finished: "I'm working on the fifth, which will be a little spiral pod with a view down the valley, and there will be more ... and that’s in addition to the 14 flights of stone steps and several walls." 

The artist's chapel is another work in progress, and this will incorporate stained glass windows Malcolm made in the 80s, though the building will conceal its secrets, he says, looking from the outside like a shepherd's hut.

"For me, it’s the ideas behind the garden that are most interesting.

"I’ve had to have a crash course in plants, but Karen has done her RHS course. I start with a sense of what we're going to do, then find the vision and finally find the ways of realising the idea."

He explains that he starts by doing hundreds of little sketches and doodles and "that involves a lot of asking myself how is it going to look when it’s finished. You have to pull it from the future."

Beyond the more formally planted garden there are three acres of woodland, planted in four areas, with sweet chestnut, silver poplar, hornbeam and lime avenues.

Among the first trees to be planted were three monkey puzzles trees and hawthorns.

“There used to be a line of hawthorns outside Kensington Palace that I loved, and one by one they died off. These remind me of them.”

Although lockdown postponed the planned launch of the gardens to the public, Malcolm and Karen are now delighted to be able to invite visitors to explore their creation.

To visit, you should phone or email ahead (car parking is limited, so visits do need to be arranged a little in advance) on 01544 260066, or by using the contact form at