Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Gardens restored with love

July 14th, 2018

Rescuing a Georgian mansion house and garden from a state of dilapidation and potential total loss is a daunting prospect that might overwhelm most people.

Philip and Marianne Santer bought Langley Park house and farm on the A935 between Montrose and Brechin in 2001.  Having sold their farm in Kent they expected to continue farming up here but events took over and they sold the farm land, retaining the house and 76 acres of garden and woodland policies.

Our agricultural improving forebears had a passion for planting trees – lime trees, sycamores, yews, beech, Scotch pine, Wellingtonias, some planted in the eighteenth century, surround the house.  A Spanish or sweet chestnut tree is believed to be one of the oldest trees in Angus

When Philip and Marianne arrived the house had stood empty for years and was in a distressed state.  They camped out in the two dry rooms and began the mammoth task of making the Big Hoose habitable.  Dry rot was rampant, for two years there was no electricity or hot water and it was six years before it was complete.

After WWII the four walled gardens were cultivated as market gardens but had lain fallow for years.  The woodlands were hopelessly overgrown with windfall trees and pervasive rhododendrons beloved of Victorian gardeners.  What interested me as a wildlife writer was learning that in the apparent wildwood environment which had reverted to nature, Philip and Marianne heard little or no birdsong – it was like a silent Spring.

While restoration of the house was ongoing the garden walls were repaired where they had been breached, rhododendrons and trees were cleared, weeds sprayed and the ground ploughed and sown with grass for easy management.  In 2007 they opened the first flower beds in the walled garden and planting began.

Their hard work outside began to pay off.  Where the woodland floor had been cleared letting in light, dormant snowdrops and bluebells appeared in the spring and foxgloves in the summer.

From the start they put out feeders for the songbirds but it took two years for birdsong to return to the garden.  Now starlings, sparrows, wagtails, chaffinch, goldfinch, tits, jays, blackbirds, thrushes and robins are just some of the daily visitors.

Their next major undertaking was the creation of a traditional wildflower meadow in the 20 acre field below the house.  This is still very much work in progress as wildflower meadows establish themselves naturally over years rather than being cultivated.  But their hard work is paying off and clover and cornflower, oxeye daisies, buttercups and yellow rattle, campion and sorrel are growing strongly amongst the sedges and ryes and fescues and other meadow grasses.  Philip has cut walks throughout the meadow for visitors to enjoy it better.

The meadow has transformed the wildlife population, attracting large numbers of voles and mice and hedgehogs.  They in turn have attracted predators –  sparrowhawks and buzzards, and foxes that have bred beside the meadow. Tawny owls and barn owls nest in the grounds.  Roe deer are seen most days.  At night bats hunt over the meadow and along the drives to the house.  What was a wildlife desert has, with careful improvement and management, become a wildlife haven.

A massive standing stone looking as if it might have fallen from outer space sits in a corner of the meadow.  Its origins are lost in the mists of history and no one knows who or what it commemorates.  Mallard duck and moorhens nest by the pond.

The greatest change has been in the formal walled gardens which have been planted out mainly with herbaceous shrubs, perennials, roses, honeysuckle, clematis, delphiniums, peonies.  Philip admits that their planting plan has been largely unplanned  and haphazard.  Whatever they saw and liked they planted wherever there was a space – if it didn’t work they moved it and planted it somewhere else.  The gardens featured recently on the Beechgrove Garden programme.

The focus has been on bee and butterfly-friendly shrubs and flowers.  A large bed of catmint was planted specifically to attract bumble bees.  Red Admiral,  Painted Lady and Peacock butterflies have appeared in past years.

The next project is clearing the old sitooterie for visitors to sit oot in.  There’s a rare example of a traditional Scottish garden feature that I bet they had never heard of when they bought Langley Park.

From 1792 till 1940 the estate was owned by the Cruickshank family who made their fortune from Jamaican sugar plantations.  Cruickshanks, claiming kinship, have visited from Canada, New York and Washington, Australia and even Bulgaria, wanting to see the ancestral house and gardens.

Langley Park gardens are open over the summer every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10am.  There is a modest entry fee and teas and delicious home-made cakes are available.  The proceeds are split between garden development, Scotland’s Gardens Scheme and the MS Therapy Centre in Dundee.

It’s been a labour of love I suggested to Marianne as I was leaving.  “Not really”, she said, “more like just love.”

Written on Saturday, July 14th, 2018 at 9:00 am for Weekly.