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  • Writer's pictureLilium

The Laskett Gardens - Enchanting Havens

"The Laskett Gardens, set in the idyllic countryside of Herefordshire on the Welsh borders, is the creation of Sir Roy Strong CH and his late wife Julia Trevelyan Oman CBE. The gardens – created from a bare field – were begun in 1974 and have continued to evolve ever since. They are the creative fruit of a happy marriage between two people who were at the centre of the arts for much of the latter half of the twentieth century. That story is uniquely etched into the gardens evoking friendships and associations with people as diverse as the photographer and designer, Sir Cecil Beaton, and the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton as well recalling artists such as John Piper and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Nor should the visitor ever forget that this is kingdom of the cat from the Lady Torte de Shell down to today’s Lettice and Perkins. All are lovingly celebrated and remembered in this four acre patch of Herefordshire soil."

I was staying at a lodge in Herefordshire for a week last September, and one day while talking with the owner and playing with her three particularly lovely labradors she asked if I was planning to visit the Laskett. I told her I had never heard of it and she enthusiastically encouraged me to go, it was the last month that it would be open and I had to listen to the audio guide as I walked around, that was what made the garden.

So I did as I was recommended and filled out an unusual form booking on their websites for an afternoon slot, and was told to bring money in an envelope for the head gardener Philip who would meet me at the gate. I arrived early, following the sign to park in a field and made my way up the lane. As promised, as I walked up the drive I was greeted by Philip, who turned out to be one of the nicest head gardeners I have ever met. He handed me a map and a Podcatcher as my guide and sent me off into the garden. I was the only one there, I had the entire place to myself.

"The Laskett was one of the first gardens in the country to offer an audio tour and this enables everyone to enjoy exploring the gardens at their own pace dipping in and out as they go listening to the very personal story of the creation & evolution of the gardens as told by Sir Roy himself."

I opened my map, it was beautifully illustrated, with each part of the garden numbered and named. I looked for number 1, the Yew Garden. The map lead me round the front of the house. It was built in the cool red toned brick like most houses in Herefordshire but which features were original and which were added by Sir Roy was unclear. The main clear additions were two large coats of arms attached to the wall between the first floor windows. One belonged to Julia and the other to Sir Roy, which caught my attention due to the crest being a cat in a helmet. The house was empty now so I was able to take my time in noticing the details, the blue and cream door and the latin motto above it "Pax Intrantibvs". The same motto was in the border of the map with its translation, "Green Thoughts." I intended to keep this in mind.

Round the side of the house and I had reached number 1, the Yew Garden. It was as one would expect, a garden shaped with yew, it stretched out away from the house, square hedges at the centre and surrounded by walls of yew. At the end of the garden was a grotto named the Nymphaeum. Now as I looked around none of these things seemed to have any great connection or reason, and that was where the audio tour came in. In front of a blue gothic conservatory stood the first post for the audio tour. I hesitated. I knew very little about Sir Roy before my visit and was slightly wary of hearing his voice. I placed the Podcatcher to the post and held it to my ear like a phone as instructed.

Sir Roy began to talk, it was as though he was right there next to me, taking me round and explaining why this tree and why that statue. It was like what I had always imagined a tour by Beverley Nichols around Merry Hall would have been like. The audio tour made the garden just like my kind host had said. Having every detail and story of the garden explained by one of its creators gave such depth that I had never experienced before while touring a garden. I won't retell all of the little details, I couldn't possibly recreate the magic of the audio tour, so all I can do is describe the gardens as I saw them and encourage you to visit it for yourself.

So off I went, gripped by this new portal into the creation of the garden, doing my best to follow the numbers and not be lured through a secret door or a gap in a hedge lest I miss something. Through the Spring Garden and I was in Howdah Court, on my right was the house and where I had previously walked to reach the Yew Gardens. It was made up of a knot garden of box and green and golden heather, with four Japanese crab apple trees at its edges. Its name came from the Howdah – a viewing platform to the countryside, which was now tangled with ivies and vines as though it had been there since the Victorians.

Next stop was the Fountain Court, up a small flight of steps and there was a fountain flanked by Roman pillars which leads to the Colonnade Court via a topiary garden. Around the fountain there was lavender and rosemary, acer's and roses. Onwards to the topiary garden where the topiary is trained into shapes associated with the Arts and Crafts garden style. From here we take a left into the Silver Jubilee Garden.

This garden was created to mark the Queen’s twenty-five years on the throne and it held something I recognised. At its centre there was a sundial from the garden of Sir Cecil Beaton, who had been friends with Sir Roy. I had seen pictures of it before, sat amongst a wildflower meadow of poppies and cornflowers and now here it was, sat amongst beds filled with white and yellow roses under planted with lavender. I was now deep enough into the main part of the gardens that the vistas had began to make an appearance, Sir Roy informed me though the audio tour that he was inspired by Hidcote, with its individual garden rooms and long vistas between them.

Next was the Rose Garden, which was filled with roses repeating in various shades of pink underplanted with Sedum and Lady's-Mantle. At the gardens centre was an urn that came from Julia’s aunt, Carola Oman. Four clipped standard beech lead on to the "triumphal arch" with the inscription in Latin: ‘They who plant a garden, plant happiness’.

The map then lead me to double back to number 12, Muff's Parade. It was here that the crest of a cat began to explain itself. "A Parade or Walk named after a much loved cat, the Revd Wenceslas Muff, whose tomb nestles here behind a large yew topiary piece. His delight was to stalk up and down here, a walk flanked by mixed herbaceous borders with a second Upper Walk from which to look down." At one end there was a small wood of silver birch, where I am from in South Wales silver birch is quite uncommon so standing amongst a small grove felt like I was in a fairy tale.

The parade lead to the first of the two great garden vistas, the Elizabeth Tudor Walk. Framed by pleached limes and fastigiate Irish Yews, a swagged beech hedge and a low, inner yew hedge. At one end was a crowned column celebrating both Queen Elizabeth I and II, with both monarchs' initials and crowns etched on the base. At the other end a large urn which marks the award to Sir Roy of the Shakespeare Prize in 1980, the story of which he tells through the audio tour.

I was apparently now on The Great Ascent. From the crowned column the second great vista revealed itself. Up some steps and I was in the 50th Birthday Garden. Designed by Julia for Sir Roy's 50th birthday in 1985, she gave him four little statues of the Seasons which now stood on four little plinths. There were no flowers, being at the end of the season most of the flowers in other parts of the garden had finished but it was still so green. The structure of the garden had a more powerful effect than flowers ever could..

Through a curved hedge and I was in the Hilliard Garden, a small circular garden named after the famous Elizabethan miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard – a subject of one of Sir Roy’s books. Within is a clipped parterre with the initials J & R – Julia and Roy – combined.

I then took a right into the Serpentine Garden, I had lost my order of following the numbers on the map as there was so much doubling back that I just gave up and did my best not to miss anything. "The idea of a serpentine path goes back to the initial lay-out of the garden, one which because of its long, straight vistas, called for the dramatic contrast of curves and abundant planting. Swathes of perennials and grasses arise contrasting sharply with the topiary Yew, Box, Holly, Beech and Privet. Amidst a statue of Britannia and a lion from the Houses of Parliament acts as focal points."

Back through the Serpentine Garden and I was once again in the Hillard Garden. Up another small flight of steps and I was in the Ashton Arbour. "Julia designed two of Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets. The first, in 1968, was Enigma Variations, the second, A Month in the Country in 1976. This arbour, with its view of the gardens’ cross axis, was planted whilst Julia was working on the second. Both ballets are commemorated with inscribed plaques; the one inscribed Enigma has huge resonances for this is Elgar country."

Through a mass of hydrangeas and I was faced with the a statue of the Unknown King. On my right was Julias Walk. The deeper I went into the garden the more personal each garden room became. "Laid out in 2015 this area forms a dramatic contrast to thwart gardens' more formal vistas and forms a winding walk with silver birch trees and Malus arising from drifts of naturalised flowers. It is in memory of Sir Roy's late wife Julia and reflects her love of this particular style of planting. The walk culminates in a naturalised pond which instantly became a haven for wildlife."

Following the path and I had arrived at the V&A Temple. Built in 1988 to record Sir Roy’s 14 year directorship of the museum, it forms the culmination of the Great Ascent. Busts of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert flank either side of the temple and wide borders lead back down the garden.

Behind the V&A Temple was the Colonnade Court. "Once the Kitchen Garden it was only in 2013 that the decision was taken to sweep that away and build what gives the gardens a concourse area for events. On a monumental scale it forms a fitting climax to the great vista from the Fountain Court." Here at the hight of summer the borders would be filled with cosmos and verbena. The Colonnade sat quietly and felt as though no parties had been held amongst it's pillars for some time. In front of it was the Art Garden which held four statues representing Painting, Architecture, Sculpture and Music.

I then reached the final garden which I had purposefully saved till last due to its unusual name, the Christmas Orchard. The Christmas Orchard was planted in December 1974 and was the preserve of Julia who assembled a small collection of historic apples with an emphasis on those grown in the Marches.

"There is a striking contrast between the straight paths, each offering tantalising vistas and the four quarters which offer a dazzling sequence from the swathes of bulbs and fruit blossom in the spring to long grass, wild flowers and roses in the summer to the fruit laden branches in the autumn."

This was the single most beautiful orchard that I had ever visited and to visit one dedicated to crab apples made it all the more unusual. I listened to Sir Roy on the audio tour as he described the last wishes of Julia, to rest here in the orchard. Julia’s ashes are contained in the marble urn resting beneath a quince tree from the Oman garden in Victorian Oxford.

I lingered here in the Christmas Orchard for a moment, in the shade of the fruit trees. I had always considered gifts of books as the highest form of romance but to build a garden together, that seemed much greater. I could think of nothing more wonderful than to create a garden with the one you loved, marking each great occasion in your life with a new garden room, and as I made my way back to the Fountain Court, I hoped that there would be gardens like these in my future.

As I reached the Fountain Court I noticed I was no longer alone, two women had arrived and were now franticly running around trying to photograph everything, they had chosen not to listen to the audio tour. I sat down on a bench by the fountain and after a few moments Philip the head gardener appeared from between the topiary. He came over and we talked about Cecil Beaton and the survival of the garden, he then popped off again between the topiary to greet more guests. I looked at the house one more time and made my way back to the gate.

Once more I struck up a conversation with Philip, this time about Sir Roy. He had been head gardener there for some time and he shared with me little stories and follies about the garden and its owner. I enjoyed talking to him so much that I was quite sad to leave but with a garden of that size to look after he couldn't linger for long.

For all the gardens I had visited last year, twelve or so off of the top of my head, it was Laskett that stood out over all the rest. It was because it was so personal, a life story weaved into a garden. It is opening its gates again to the public this month and I could not recommend it to you more.