Rose to the occasion

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Gardeners are in a perpetual duet with nurserymen. One party encourages the other but the nurseries usually get less credit than the gardeners when the story of the best gardens is written down. For nearly 45 years the fame of British rose gardens has owed so much to two individuals, David Austin in the Midlands and Peter Beales in Norfolk. Austin is more of a breeder, concerned to improve the shape and stamina of the older roses. Beales bred roses too but his life and business were devoted to historic roses wherever they could still be discovered and grown. Between them their nurseries have been star turns at the Chelsea Flower Show, reaching new heights of beauty in the past 20 years. Peter Beales will not see yet another gold medal for the exhibits over which he and his devoted family preside. Before the 20th gold goes to their roses, he died in late January, aged 76.

Every keen rose-grower and historian owes this remarkable man so much. When I first called on him for advice, 32 years ago, his Norfolk nursery was only 12 years old. It was a memorable day, already so hot in July that it seemed the world could hardly become warmer. Beales, dressed in khaki shorts, spent a day with me among his roses, too polite and too interested to bother whether the time was economically justified. I wanted to consult him about roses fit for a most prominent pair of beds, set beneath the ornamental iron railings at the entrance to my Oxford college’s main historic garden. For years the beds had been planted with crimson-red Lili Marlene roses edged with woolly grey leaved Lamb’s Ear. “How could they?” I muttered to myself aged 20, when I first came to be taught as an undergraduate in the college. I never imagined that 15 years later, after a tetchy public debate, I would be empowered to remove them and start all over again.

Peter Beales

The challenge appealed to Beales. He was no university man himself but he had a natural sense of what academic argument might be like. I did not want the obvious – bushes of hybrid musk roses – but I could not risk a failure or disease. He guided me towards varieties which are still admired year after year. Pink-flowered, the roses Jacques Cartier and Comte de Chambord occupy the margins of the Portland and the Damask groups. I had seen neither of them before but when Beales explained that they will flower twice, my main choices were settled. To this day they are magnificent, though Jacques Cartier is the one which always repeats in autumn. We circled round to find fit companions and it was only Beales’s persistence that made me opt for an exquisite alba rose, Félicité Parmentier, on the grounds that she would never fall sick. She too is still wondrous, the most beautifully shaped small flowers of white flushed with pink. Only this year I had to grant “tripod permission” to a Japanese lady who had come all the way to see England’s roses and had decided to photograph this one as the most beautiful she had seen. When she had finished in close-up in the flower bed, she clapped in its honour.

Trying to be slightly different, I insisted on a backing of the lilac-pink flowered rugosa rose Belle Poitevine. Beales was not opposed but it is the choice which has been less successful. I think he preferred the superb pink Fritz Nobis.

“I like the way you are hard to please,” he told me, “and that I cannot guess what will actually please you most.” Already he knew so many more roses than I ever will and to him there were virtues and vices in almost all. A few years later he published his superb book Classic Roses, still the one rose-book which every keen gardener needs. By now, as Belle Poitevine had trundled along, I had learnt to trust his taste more than mine. Thanks to this outstanding volume I met the roses which remain my own garden’s “Beales backbone”, the wonderful white-flowered climber Long John Silver or the essential pair of roses for all gardens with poor, rose-hostile soil, Rose “Rose d’Amour” and Rose “Rose d’Orsay”. When Beales guided me to the magnificent yellow-flowered rambler Aviateur Blériot, I enjoyed two fantastic seasons of flower. I then praised it highly in this column and FT readers swamped him with so many orders for it that it took three years to build up stocks and satisfy them all.

Beales was the heir to a great tradition, one which owed nothing to universities like mine. He did National Service and then began as a practical nurseryman. He had the luck to work in Surrey at Hillings nursery with another self-taught icon, Graham Thomas. From Thomas he learnt ever more about the scope and range of old roses and through his own nursery, books and researches he became the carrier of the torch which Thomas had inimitably lit. The roses to which he guided me that afternoon had been Thomas favourites, too. He carried forward the unending search for forgotten roses worth saving and in his own Norfolk came on several neglected winners. Several of them came through his long friendship with his neighbour and rosarian Humphrey Brooke, including one of the earliest of all Moss roses, rescued and propagated as Hunslet Moss. Many of his discoveries still bear the names of the East Anglian villages and churches where they were found.

Elizabeth, Duchess of York with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1936 in the rose garden at the Royal Lodge in Windsor – later redesigned by Beales

Increasingly fame brought honours and travels to this unassuming man. He was invited to redesign the Queen Mother’s rose garden at Royal Lodge, Windsor. He held the medals and high offices of the world of roses where societies and groups were always part of his devoted concern. His customers and admirers ranged from New Zealand to Japan. Above all he passed on a love of the subject and a willingness to run the business to his own children, now its active forces. His daughter Amanda is herself a rose-breeder and his son Richard is the man who has dazzled us with those arches of climbing roses and views through pergolas at recent Chelsea Shows.

I do not believe that Beales ever willingly dropped an old rose from commerce. It became necessary to pre-book and be patient but his one nursery has kept in circulation the most amazing diversity of roses we would otherwise have lost. I would tremble for the future, as so much depends on a single nursery’s dedication, but Beales’s family will not depart from it lightly. If you want the almost thornless Rose Henri Fouquier or the mossy purple Mme de la Roche-Lambert, it is through Beales’ determination that you can still buy and grow them. He remained optimistic for the rose family to which he gladly devoted his life. When global warming became news, he was admirably upbeat. “The effect of climate change on the genus,” he wrote to his customers, “can only be positive. Being deep-rooted and adaptable the Rose will continue as our Nation’s favourite flower well into the future.” It needed him, however, to see that so many roses have a chance of that future too.

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