The Story of the Gardens
As you cross the bridge from the Oxfordshire village of Goring into Berkshire, you are met with your first view of The Swan at Streatley. One look at the vast sweeping lawns down to the water’s edge against the backdrop of the National Trust hills behind the hotel, and you feel your shoulders drop and your pace of breath begin to soften.
The hotel has a colourful history of ownership, belonging to cabaret star Danny la Rue throughout the ‘70s, passing through several hands throughout the 80s & 90s. When purchased in 2013 by Rare Bird Hotels, the hotel gardens were as tired and dated as the interiors with much of the lawn taken up with wide gravel pathways and unruly flower beds.
The tag line of Rare Bird Hotels is ‘Laid Back By Nature’, and it is this passion for the nurturing qualities of the river, open spaces, plants, trees and wildlife that underpins everything that we do.
The vision of the new owners was to open up the gardens, embracing the natural beauty of the riverside location and removing any barriers to the view of the Thames. The garden is seen from many angles, by hotel guests looking down from their bedrooms, visitors gazing out whilst enjoying a coffee in the bar and party-goers on the events’ terrace and this was an important consideration during garden design.
Designing the Garden
An open garden needs form, shape and structure to create year round interest. The wooden pergola which had sheltered the path down to the river for over 30 years, was so overgrown and tangled with ivy that it was decided to remove it altogether. This was replaced with Hornbeam Columns and Buxus Balls, set into flower beds either side of the path. The Hornbeam Columns create natural windows, framing the view from different angles. They offer a seasonal contrast to the evergreen Buxus, turning from bright green in early spring to a deep russet brown in Autumn and Winter.
The fruitless Mulberry trees planted on the lawn outside the bar, have been trained into natural parasols, offering shade to guests in the summer and casting beautiful shadows over the lawn.
Using topiary and imaginative planting, that garden has been naturally divided into different areas without the need for fencing or hedges which would affect the views to the river. The impression is still one of a large open space, however this border can be enjoyed by wedding couples and guests of the Swan.
The Borders are where we can have some fun with colour, scent and texture. The largest border, by the Event Lawn is designed with weddings and parties in mind, providing a subtle yet beautiful backdrop to wedding photographs which complements but doesn’t compete with the colours of the wedding party. This Spring were pleasantly surprised by the rogue bright orange Brown Sugar Tulip!
Now, as May begins, tulips are finished and the cheerful Purple Rain and Purple Sensation Alliums are about to burst, along with the Black Swan Iris. The sliver green strappy leaves of the iris contrast perfectly with the silvery blue hue of the Stachys Big Ears (a favourite with children visiting the garden!) Lythrum, an indigenous waterside plant also known as Purple Loose Stripe, adds height to this border, along with the grasses which offer interest and texture throughout the Winter months.
As we walk back towards the hotel, through the Hornbeam Columns, the borders here are about to burst into life with White Peonies (Madame Duchess da Nemours) ready to bloom and Desdemona Rosa also in bud.
The Swan garden is blessed with a Thames tributary which runs through the gardens, crossed in two places by attractive footbridges, and this area has undergone a significant amount of restoration work. The stream was overgrown with Phragnities, a non-native aggressive wetland weed which blocked views and prevented waterflow.
Controlled removal of this weed took place with permission of the Environment Agency and the waterway was dredged of silt, which made a nutritious compost for the grassy banks on either side of the stream. Since clearing this waterway, we have seen the return of swans, cygnets, coots, moorhens and fish and plants such as the Bulrush, Ragged Robin (pink) Iris Flag (yellow) Common Comfrey (purple and pink) are all thriving. We have even seen a Stand Up Paddleboarder – as our Instructor launches from the pontoon outside the yoga studio!
There are some stunning trees throughout the property and some have quite a tale to tell, the magnolia by The Boat House courtyard was protected by its’ own temporary house whilst building work went on all around. Thankfully it is now free to flower in peace again and be admired by passers by. The large oak standing proud in the middle of the car park is at least 100 years old. The grass that surrounded it is protected from any further development to ensure that it can still thrive.
Planting New Trees
Many new trees were planted throughout the grounds in 2019; indigenous species which include: Beech, English Oak, Bird Cherry, Wild Cherry, Hawthorn, White Willow and Goat Willow.
Cliff Penny, Head Gardener worked with Lucy Potter Rare Bird Hotel MD on the original garden vision and has been managing the gardens ever since, along with a small team and his dog Bart, who many hotel regulars will recognise. Cliff has a wealth of knowledge and expertise and regularly runs Open Garden Tours of the hotel which we can’t wait to start doing again! Cliff is also a Trustee of Beale Park Wildlife Gardens.