Monnow Valley Arts Centre

PUBLISHED: 15:54 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013



Robin Haig visits the Monnow Valley Arts Centre where art meets nature in an extraordinary setting.

Robin Haig visits the Monnow Valley Arts Centre where art meets nature in an extraordinary setting.

When it comes to sheer awe-inspiring grandeur, there can't be many gardens with a setting to match the Monnow Valley Arts Centre, at Walterstone, near Longtown. Perched on a hillside on the east side of the Monnow, its parterres, hedges and sculptures look across to the huge bulk of Hatteral Ridge, which looms large on the other side of the valley. Look south and you see the extraordinary outline of the Skirrid, while to the north lies the characteristic shape of the Black Hill.

Eight years ago Rupert Otten and Hanneke van der Werf, directors of a prestigious London art gallery, Wolseley Fine Arts, bought what was then a small traditional farm, with farmhouse and farm buildings in a ruinous state. After years of renovation work the new Monnow Valley Arts Centre finally opened in 2007. What was a derelict barn is now an attractive gallery on two levels; one half of the barn provides a light, airy space, with light streaming in from both sides, while down the steps is a second, smaller gallery, with the landing above providing a roomy office space.

In addition, a newly built studio in one corner of the farmyard provides a light-filled space of ingenious construction, with the most sensational views, where artists can stay for short visits under a special residency scheme. The studio also provides an additional exhibition space. Outside, the steadily expanding garden has been carefully planned by Hanneke.

The aim of the Monnow Valley Arts Centre is to promote contemporary sculpture, letter-cutting and landscape painting, and it holds regular exhibitions by artists and sculptors of national and international reputation. Since its opening, the gallery has featured exhibitions by artists such as Samuel Palmer, John Piper, Edgar Holloway and Edward Ardizzone, and the current exhibition features sculpture, engravings and other works by Eric Gill, mainly from the Sir Christopher Bland Collection.

The garden moves from the intimate scale of an enclosed Japanese-style garden to a large parterre at a lower level, and then (from later this year) to a larger sculpture garden further down the hillside; the whole place being dominated by the presence of the mountains opposite. "The idea behind the garden," says Hanneke, "is to provide a contemplative space where people can sit and relax, and gain inspiration." The sculptures dotted around are of varying shapes, sizes and materials; perhaps most dramatic are the standing stones with incised lettering, most of them carved by the renowned letter-cutter Richard Kindersley, featuring quotations from eminent writers ranging from Marcus Aurelius to TS Eliot, taking in Khalil Gibran on the way.

Right at the top of the site is the car park, bounded on the roadside by another dramatic standing stone advertising the Monnow Valley Arts Centre in bold lettering. On the south side is a line of young olive trees; Hanneke is optimistic that they will produce olives in due course - though whether she'll be able to realise her vision of making Monnow Valley Olive Oil remains to be seen. Below here, the bank is covered in contrasting bands of grasses and echinacea.

The area beside the barn has been planted with two rows of silver birches in large tubs, and beside these a path leads down to the Japanese garden directly below the barn. This small garden, surrounded by a bamboo screen, contains all the traditional elements of raked gravel, stepping stones and lanterns, with some judicious planting of bamboos and grasses. The haiku by Basho carved into the stone at the entrance reads, 'How pleasant just once not to see Fuji through the mist.' OK, the raw grandeur of the Black Mountains may be somewhat different to the elegance of Mount Fuji, but it's certainly pleasant sitting in the enclosed Japanese garden feeling sheltered from the mountains outside.

Below the beds of exuberant roses on the lower side of the Japanese garden, the ground has been levelled to create a spacious formal parterre, surrounded by banks planted with grasses. An inscription on the newly installed sundial at one side identifies this as the Ardizzone Sculpture and Sensory Garden. The parterre consists of a series of large beds filled with scented plants such as sage, rosemary, lavender, catmint and curry plant, with plenty of space between the beds for the large outdoor sculptures which form part of the temporary exhibitions. Most recently the parterre has been the setting for a series of dramatic sculptures by Quentin Clemence, grandson of Edward Ardizzone.

On its lower side the parterre is enclosed by a double row of pleached hornbeams, and through their branches you can see the great bulk of the mountain, its lower slopes covered with square fields. Still newly established, the pleached hedge is a clever device, giving the parterre an enclosed feeling, but without obscuring the view of the mountains beyond. The area below here is the next in line for development, with work due to start later this year. What is now just pasture will become the setting for a series of standing stones and other sculptures from the Art and Memory Collection, a new national collection of contemporary memorial art created to celebrate the art of fine letter-cutting. Currently on display in the gardens of West Dean in Sussex, the collection is due to be divided at the end of this year between six locations around the country, including the Monnow Valley Arts Centre.

In the two years since it opened, increasing numbers have found their way to the Monnow Valley Arts Centre along the winding lanes of west Herefordshire. The garden is due to open to the public through the National Gardens Scheme on the weekend of August 15-16, when visitors will be also be able to view the drawings and sculptures from the Eric Gill exhibition. But it's a fair bet that once you've managed to find the Monnow Valley Arts Centre you'll want to go back, to admire its superb exhibitions, to watch the steady growth of the garden and to enjoy its unbeatable setting.

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