One surefire sign of maturity is the acceptance that you have friends who are more talented than you are. I learnt that lesson early, which, considering my manifold shortcomings, was just as well, frankly. I have mates who are better practical gardeners than I am, and ones who are more creative garden designers. I like to think that this is not so much a source of deflation or envy as a spur to my ambition.
The spur pricked recently in France. I had been invited by Clare Whateley, of French Gardens Today, to join a very jolly small party of knowledgeable gardeners who were visiting gardens in northern Brittany. I was particularly pleased because I had worked with two of them at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley in 1975.
In those days, as now, Wisley was a draw to ambitious horticultural apprentices who wanted to benefit from the exceptionally wide range of practical experience on offer. The students who followed the course of practical and theoretical study were all teenagers and mostly boys, but there were also a few, slightly older ‘short-term entrants’, who spent all their time working in the gardens. These included the supremely friendly son of an Ohian tree nurseryman; a sunny Belgian aristocrat who wore handmade shoes and, from time to time, slipped off to London to grand dances; a cerebral wildflower expert on her gap year; the very keen, one-time rebellious son of a naval officer; the ebullient daughter of a Russian princely émigré — and me. We were a disparate bunch, but we got along well. And we worked hard.
In 1975, Wisley was almost like a private garden. In winter, you could labour all day without seeing a single visitor. (A million people now visit every year.) After tea, when the gates were closed, we would leave the YMCA hostel where we all lived, and stroll into the garden, which we had entirely to ourselves. It felt like a well-stocked botanical sweetie shop, full of delicious unknowns, laid on for our special enjoyment. We shared our particular enthusiasms with each other: mine were flowering bulbs and roses, while Isabelle Wolkonsky favoured acid woodland shrubs. I remember her introducing me to the elegant, winter-flowering Camellia sasanqua, one of the few camellias I have ever had much time for.
Her father had left Russia with his family at the revolution and settled in France, so Isabelle had been brought up in a house in St Cloud, with a garden made by her father. In 1965, however, Prince Peter Wolkonsky sought a warmer climate and better soil, quite close to the sea on the Côtes d’Armor in northern Brittany, in which to make a garden. By 1975, Kerdalo was already well-known internationally for the vigour and diversity of the trees and shrubs he grew there.
Isabelle and I had not seen each other since 1975, although I had heard tell that she had married the son of the naval officer Tim Vaughan — no longer rebellious but a landscape architect in France. It was a pleasure to meet Isabelle again and to visit both Kerdalo, which the Vaughans have looked after since Prince Peter’s death in 1997, and Crech ar Pape. This is their own garden, close to the coast, which was designed and planted by Tim. Unlike the gardens of Kerdalo, Crech ar Pape is not open to the general public, which was the reason for joining a specialist prearranged tour.
Crech ar Pape is very cleverly designed. The garden is composed of a number of linked spaces, visible through large windows in the Breton house, as well as the summer house-cum-library, which is aligned with it on the other side of a flower-rich, partly sunken, courtyard garden. This makes the buildings appear to grow up from the surrounding garden. Every ‘hard landscaping’ element — from granite wall to paving of reclaimed setts — is beautifully executed. The garden spaces are crammed tight with plants, flowering exuberantly even in September. And, in many places, evergreens and evergreys have been clipped into rolling, rounded shapes, like overstuffed cushions, anchoring colour schemes and providing ‘bones’ in winter. This garden proves the theory that taking time and trouble, as well as creativity, are necessary to make an appealing garden. These were lessons we learnt early at Wisley.
During the tour, Isabelle pointed out to me a grove of Camellia sasanqua, which took us back to our botanising forays long ago. I travelled home in thoughtful mood, conscious that I had missed a number of tricks in my own garden — and pretty determined both to do better, and work harder, in future.