To the north of Gretna Green and the west of Melton Mowbray I have just had one of the great garden visits of my life. No, I was not drunk or reading the map upside down. Gretna Green and Melton Mowbray are doubles in the central highlands of Tasmania, about as far from Britain’s A1 road as can be plotted on a map. At the height of its foxhunting fame the night air over Britain’s Melton Mowbray was said to hang heavy with the sighs of adultery. I heard no audible sighs in modern Tasmania’s Melton, a township of a few bungalows. There is no prospect, either, of a shotgun marriage in Tasmania’s Gretna Green. Instead there is kangaroo meat in some of the nearby burgers.
In the remote and rolling hills I had come on the rebound from native Australian gardening to track down a loyalist to flowery English style. Now in her early seventies, Helen Poynder has been gardening for more than 30 years around her home, Prospect Villa, in the Tasmanian uplands. As I approached I admired the blue and white agapanthus whose stately heads of flower line her garden’s frontage. Behind them there runs a promising sort of hedge and a line of painted trellis with an arbour which looked oddly familiar. Helen took me through the convict-built Villa and out into a garden that stopped me in my tracks.
“It is so odd you have come,” she told me, “because I shaped parts of the garden here round your gardening book, Variations on a Garden, which you published in 1974.” The trellis suddenly fell into place. It was modelled on the book’s front cover, a nostalgic picture of the central rose-covered arbour in the great garden where I had lived at the time, the Oxfordshire garden of Haseley Court, made by the presiding genius of “English style”, the Virginian-American Nancy Lancaster. “I studied you all,” Helen told me, with a twinkle in her eye that showed that she was no simple imitator. Miles of rolling Tasmanian uplands run on either side of her garden’s boundaries, with not a house in sight. The landscape had not cut her garden off from pundits thousands of miles away. “I designed the garden from the house outwards,” she told me, following the principle of the English designer David Hicks.
If you live in the middle of nowhere, you either become melancholic or develop, in my experience, a specially positive attitude to life. There is nothing in the least melancholic about Helen Poynder or her tireless co-gardener, Carlin Triffett, now in her mid-fifties. Only a week before my visit they had been filling the Villa’s guttering with water as a last line of defence against the raging fire which was running down the nearby hillside. Notoriously, parts of Tasmania have been burning in this unusually dry summer but the fires, as so often, begin from casual mistakes. A fisherman had left his camp-chair by an outdoor fire while he went down to the river. The wind blew the chair over and on to the fire and the flames then careered out of control. The ladies could only watch while helicopters bombed the hillside with water. If the attack had failed their garden masterpiece would have been burnt to ashes. Mercifully the fires stopped at a safe distance.
The Villa has always been resilient. It was built in 1824 by convict labour, a resource which I have learnt to respect. The windows had to be fortified with bars against hostile aborigines. When Helen and her husband bought it it had been derelict already for 10 years. From the Villa outwards she divided the garden on the English principle into separate sections with enchanting borders running away from the main garden door. In early summer the poppies and irises are enviable, mixed in with the white-flowered Sweet Rocket which I recall as a Lane Fox favourite of the time.
Not that Helen needed others to tell her what to plant. She herself began gardening at the age of four and has an extremely critical and artistic eye. She grows a lovely old dark blue larkspur which we never see in Britain and she startled me with purple flowered gladioli growing as much as 6ft high. She has chosen her roses carefully, preferring ones which not even Nancy Lancaster knew. Bushes of the tall Rose Gold Bunny break up her double borders. Her Pierre Ronsard roses are so much better than the few to be seen in Britain. It is easy to feel calmly at home in box-edged parts of the garden with clematis on the wooden tripods which I remember from Nancy Lancaster. I would like to credit my book for her fine purple and white Clematis Minuet but she probably knew it already. It is she who added a tank of water lilies and tadpoles and a surrounding cluster of classy camellias.
We walked round to the Villa’s far side and a formal court which at first made me rather proud. Its main trees were all golden-leaved Robinias, which I had once recommended in a Chapter One. Never credit yourself with other people’s brilliance. Helen had worked out the proportions and the planting in 1998, cleverly matching the Robinias’ golden leaves with upright columnar cypress trees variegated with gold. A visit to Rome had been far more important for the design than anything written in England.
To close off the courtyard she has designed a formal garden-house with a pediment and a pillared classical style. In the front of it is set a big medallion of the Roman emperor Domitian, complete with a Latin inscription. “What do we know about him?” she asked me, having bought him in a local junk shop. He was the most vicious and psychopathic of emperors, I told her and was known as the “bald Nero”. He was so hated that the palace servant who killed him cut off his testicles and stuffed them down his throat.
She seemed undeterred. “He would enjoy my parties, then.” In the court she has held spectacular costumed parties, including a Roman orgy for more than 200 neighbours. “We started it off with a can-can, danced on the upper terrace by my fellow over-60s.” The steps to the balcony are wreathed in the most magnificent scented white flowered Mandevilla. “I am descended from Quakers,” she explained. Tasmania’s Central Highlands sound much more fun than modern Kensington. I was invited inside to meet other members of the can-can chorus.
Among blue and white china, below the print of a French painting by Lancret, six elderly ladies plied me with scones and layers of butter. It was like a tea party from a Somerset Maugham short story, punctuated with humour and laughter, except that all those present shared with me the trials of gardening Tasmania-style. Wombats are not a problem, but possums eat the shoots of the roses on their pergolas. The way to catch a possum is to bait a trap with bread and jam. Eating the scones, I could see why possums cannot resist. “Otherwise I hit them with my trenching tool,” a lady told me, offering me more cake. “I call my spade a ‘trenching tool’, of course.” Of course?
The most famous trenching tool in literature is the one which was kept by the inimitable Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s classic novel, The Pursuit of Love. It is one of the icons of English comic fiction and its fame lives on in Tasmania, thousands of miles from its original home, the Oxfordshire valley of Swinbrook.
“I have not had a husband for years,” Helen told me, after three who have predeceased her. Prospect Villa is now on the market as at last, she plans to move nearer her son in Tasmania for her older age. She will be gardening, but differently. Her son is planning to rebuild the expatriate house called Montacute, which an English émigré tried to establish in the 1880s, bringing birds and deer out from England to help him. She will take on a cottage with a natural garden on the river banks below. Her mission is to take out the blackberries and intrusive English foxgloves, allowing the local flora to regain strength. The rainfall is high and the wallabies will do her mowing, cropping the sphagnum moss into a lawn.
“There is a bit of romance in your soul,” she told me, “which I saw when I first read your book.” There is plenty, still, in hers. There is no knowing where it will turn up in life, but across thousands of miles there is a similar outlook to real gardeners’ souls.
Robin Lane Fox was a guest of Tourism Tasmania, www.discovertasmania.co.uk