Focus Outdoor: a garden with atmosphere

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When asked why they like a pub, most people will come up with the word 'Atmosphere' somewhere in their reply ­ but did you know it¹s possible to...

When asked why they like a pub, most people will come up with the word 'Atmosphere' somewhere in their reply ­ but did you know it¹s possible to create an atmosphere outdoors?

That¹s what's been achieved at the Riverhouse Inn. Sitting in its new garden, you could be relaxing on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Lorraine and Roberto Dagostino, both from nearby Weymouth, bought the pub in the Dorset village of Upway, in 1999 when it was taking only £200 a week.

They have built up the business with a series of annual projects, starting out by establishing a strong food business, and adding letting rooms last year. This year, with the smoking ban in mind, it has been the garden's turn.

"We inherited an overgrown back garden that was all lumpy and bumpy," says Lorraine. "We had tables out there but it wasn¹t very nice.

"I knew there were smokers who would want to eat outside, and we also wanted somewhere to sit for people staying at the pub." Lorraine and Bob were lucky in that one of their regulars was Michelle Brown, a professional garden designer who had won an award at the Chelsea Flower Show in the 'chic garden' category.

They commissioned her to create a low-maintenance garden with a Mediterranean feel.

"It was the first time I had designed a garden for a public area and I loved the idea of creating something that could be enjoyed by as many people as possible," says Michelle.

"When I visit a garden I want to be uplifted, and my aim at the Riverhouse was that people who saw it would want to book a table to eat out there." Her design does away with all the grass, replacing it with wide paths that meander between what she calls 'podded dining areas' big enough for a family, from which you can see the rest of the garden but still feel secluded.

Palm trees and other plants and herbs from southern Europe create the Mediterranean effect, and they are all drought tolerant ­ although that won¹t have been tested so far this summer.

"They are very hardy and won¹t need watering at all," says Michelle.

"All you have to do is a bit of pruning and clear away the dead leaves a couple of times a year. That¹s important ­ I know how busy Bob and Lorraine are and they don¹t have much time for gardening." The design uses reclaimed stone, in keeping with the conservation area in which the pub is located, and the furniture is a mix of picnic benches and regular tables and chairs "for older customers who don¹t like cocking their legs over", says Lorraine.

For her, the most surprising thing about the garden is the atmosphere it creates ­ "even when there¹s no one in it, you can walk around. It¹s so lovely".

Michelle explains that the effect comes from the sense of space created by the broad, winding paths.

"It¹s how it makes you feel ­ big open spaces are calming. I¹ve also used colours and scents from the herbs that help people to relax," she says.

"There is lots of interest in the garden, too, lots of places to sit. The paths take you on a kind of journey where you are always wondering what¹s around the next corner." There is also a health and safety angle. With food and drink being carried to tables, the paths are wide enough for two or three people to pass ­ and they are also wheelchair friendly.

A garden like this isn¹t cheap. It would have cost the Dagostinos between £25,000 and £30,000 if the pub¹s staff hadn¹t helped with the basic ground clearance at the start of the project.

But it has given the Riverhouse, a small, busy dining house, an extra 90 seats. "It¹s made us a real local talking point," says Lorraine. "People have seen pictures of the garden on the website, too, and I¹m sure it encourages them to book."

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