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A living poem by the M5; There is something appealing about a secret garden that touches just about everyone, as John Stephens discovers.

Byline: John Stephens

Nestling in a five-acre wedge of land just a stone's throw from the busy M5 motorway is Halesowen's own secret garden - a lovingly restored oasis of perfection that time seems to have forgotten.

And just like the horticultural treasure of the classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, few seem to know of its existence.

Designed by British poet William Shenstone in the mid-1700s, the garden at Lapal House remains a piece of living history with some of the region's most spectacular examples of landscape design. A stunning array of towering trees, some more than 200years-old, are punctuated with peaceful paths that fan out from the home's great lawn to the less formal wooded areas of the grounds. Wild deer visit; rabbits and birds are in abundance.

In dappled sunlight, hundreds of yards of stone channeling emerge in and out of the soft planting to feed the fountains of the lower water garden. At every turn there is a new discovery.

This 'living poem' with velvet-like lawns, manicured trees and brilliant shots of border planting colour owes its survival to a couple of Black Country gardeners who have devoted the past 12 years to what they describe as an on-going restoration.

Arie Koren, aged 40, and his business partner Mark Payne, 41, both from Cradley, sit on a bench and admire the tree line spreading out in front of us with its verdant greens and subtle blue hues.

'When Shenstone planned this garden, he knew exactly what he wanted,' explained Arie. 'The gentle fall away from the house gives us some great views of the mature planting without it being too overbearing. We have shaped a lot of the trees, but some are too big for us now and we need to get a bit more light through.

'You would need a massive hydraulic platform to get to some of these giants.'

Huge blue cedars struggle with two highly distinctive monkey puzzle trees (araucaria araucana), thought to be more than 150-years-old, to draw the eye through a maze of colour and texture provided by the less imposing magnolia trees, white poplars (populus alba), beautifully manicured oaks and horse chestnut trees. In the foreground are a healthy selection of variegated hollies and an gnarled yews.

Pointing into the sunlight Mark's attention is drawn to a tulip tree (liriodendron tulipifera). 'It doesn't look very special from here, but when you get closer the small yellow blooms are beautiful. Some of these trees have been here 150 years or more and in some ways it hasn't changed that much in all of that time.

'There are some ancient pictures of the house and you can clearly see how the planting has matured. The old vineyard has made way for a car park, but you can easily recognise what was beyond it.'

Mark and Arie's love affair with Lapal House began when Arie was on a job creation scheme at Leasowes College, a few miles from the house. 'I was sent on a placement as part of my horticulture course to help the old gardener, Maurice,' recalled Arie.

'Every Thursday I'd be up here on work experience, but the gardens then were a bit sad. It wasn't long before the gardener left and I worked here on my own. It was really daunting, so when Mark lost his job in a foundry he joined me.

'We've been coming twice a week ever since and gradually the gardens are getting back to their original beauty. We have to be very careful what we do to keep the original concept alive.

'Recently we had some unwanted visitors and the ideal solution would have been a fence. It would look so out of place, so we planted a berbeios hedge. It will take some time to mature, but it's right for Lapal House.'

The pair lament over the lack of rain which feeds the water garden from a spring in an adjoining meadow and a freshwater drain in Lapal Lane South. 'Since the supply at the house has been metered it's too costly to keep the water features topped up,' said Arie.

'Last winter thousands of pounds worth of work was done in re-opening the old culvert, damaged when the road was repaired five years ago.

'But there's still not enough water to do justice to the two fountains of the duck pool, where the marsh marigold thrives. I'm invited to return in the winter when the water features are at their best.'

After a short walk through winding paths I am introduced to the sunken Italian garden. Here the sounds of the traffic are all but filtered out by the trees and looking upwards through the branches there is a kaleidoscope of greens. A weathered rockery is planted out with polystichum setifrum, a soft fern that thrives in the shade.

'It's another garden within the garden,' said Arie, 'but we've still work to do here. It's less formal, but still demands more time than we have to spare.'

To the rear of the house, now a 41bedroomed care home for the elderly, is the remains of the Victorian walled garden with boxed hedges, rockery and pear trees and at the lodge, yet another garden with the rich perfume of roses.

At the front of the tastefully restored home, liberally decorated with burgeoning hanging baskets, the shots of bedding plant colour are striking against the misty purple of the heather.

'Simple things work best,' said Mark.

Geraniums, marigolds, African marigolds, dahlias, snap dragons, fuchsias and the beautifully formed trumpets of the petunias make wonderful cameos on an endless canvas of relaxing greens.

Owner Tony Billingham said: 'It's easy not to notice the beauty of it when you're here every day, but nearly every day someone reminds me how special it is. Shenstone's living poem is on my doorstep.

'It's a beautiful safe place for residents to stroll and enjoy its tranquility.'

CAPTION(S):

Arie Koren, left, and Mark Payne, who have spent the past 12 years restoring the gardens; a bird's eye view of Lapal House; part of the garden from years ago; William Shenstone
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 21, 2004
Words:1020
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