This year’s new political leaders will have problems enough in running their countries. It is lucky that they will not have to run a garden too. Except for those vegetables in the Obamas’ backyard, there is little sign that any of them would know what to do. I discount Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that he would have been a gardener if he had not become a politician. He cannot run a party, let alone a flower bed.
There is one shining exception, Michael Heseltine, veteran Tory and the man for whom the office of UK deputy prime minister was created in 1995. During all his years of ministerial office, Heseltine and his like-minded wife Anne were planting and planning what has become one of the biggest private flower gardens to be laid out in Britain in the past 40 years. They have now reviewed their decades of effort in a finely illustrated account of their work. At times it reads like one massive project after another, as tons of earth are moved, hundreds of trees are planted and streams and rivers are unblocked to make an entire lake and a series of fountains and rills. The garden now employs 10 gardeners, beyond the scale of normal mortals. However, there is a love, a spirit of generous acknowledgment and a frank admission of occasional failure which make it an exceptional story. As the garden grows bigger, the love and confidence in planting it increase in a winningly human way.
In 1976, at the bottom of the English property market, the Heseltines bought Thenford House on the southern border of Northamptonshire, a fine Georgian country house of the 1760s set in 400 acres of grounds and farmland. Before long this sleeping beauty must have trembled at the Prince and Princess Charming who had resolved to kiss it forcefully awake. Overgrown woods and ponds were cleared with the help of modern machinery. Advice was sought from the inimitable Lanning Roper, that quiet American master of garden planning in the 1960s and 1970s, whom Michael evokes in a just and touching manner. What Roper began was carried forward by the great Harold Hillier, king of trees and shrubs and initiator of the high standards which have since prevailed in Thenford’s shelterbelts and gardens. Hillier was followed by the expert Roy Lancaster who gave detailed attention in a tireless steam of letters about the next steps. The Heseltines knew how to work with top-class advisers without overpowering them. Michael describes engagingly how he later helped to secure a well-merited knighthood for Hillier and a CBE for Lancaster, but not, as he wryly observes, on his list while minister for defence.
The trees and shrubs at Thenford are now as remarkable as any in private hands. Individual genera have never been grouped into segregated areas, but the gardens now contain more than 30 types of sorbus and an amazing range of 350 different cotoneasters. One good thing attracts another. The book is a fascinating record of the gifts and collections which Michael’s travels and friendships have attracted, whether a Quercus x bushii from President George HW Bush or a very rare lime tree, Tilia endochrysea, ultimately from Guangdong, which flowered for the first time last year. When Thenford proved able to look after rare trees and shrubs, important collections arrived seeking a haven. The entire rose collection of the famous Mattocks nursery is now there, along with field collections from China and presents from many major botanic gardens. There is nothing from Margaret Thatcher who never went near the place. On a high-level trip to the US Michael did ask her for permission to take cuttings off the excellent box bushes at Chequers. They now flourish at Thenford, a link to the prime ministerial house which many feel should have been his in 1990.
Michael traces his love of gardening to that seminal source, a flower bed at prep school which he kept as a nine-year-old. Later in life, at weekends, he would let off tension, he once recalled for me, by slashing nettles in the garden of his constituency home near Henley-on-Thames during the 1970s years of socialist misrule and neglect. His gardening has progressed far beyond those early years of slash-and-Tarzan. His book remarks, as few ever do, how gardeners owe much to what they see and imitate from others’ examples. This recycling is endemic in gardening style.
I am not the person to assess Thenford’s arresting collection of garden sculptures, many of them Anne’s initiatives from top artists but including a massive black bust of Lenin which once scowled on the roof of a KGB building in Latvia. The plants are another matter. Throughout his years of political travelling and speaking Michael has applied a magpie eye to items worth collecting or pursuing. Thenford’s garden has grown by bolt-on projects, a rill garden, a massive walled garden, a big herbaceous border and even a sink garden. How much do they owe to their proud proprietors?
The answer is a very great deal. Of course, experts have continued to help and some excellent working gardeners have turned visions into reality. Head gardener Darren Webster has been a crucial link between the projects man, Michael, and the buying and planting since his appointment in 1997. Thenford’s walled garden is laid out with big rectangular water pools, beds and fruit trees in a pattern which is explicitly credited to a design by George Carter. However, the Heseltines saw and picked up on it at Chelsea Flower Show. I can testify that most of the choices are Heseltine choices too. I have watched them progress for more than 20 years. Outside the big brick walled garden a long herbaceous border had to be designed from scratch. Offices of state did not stop Michael from choosing and arranging many of the plants himself. I confess to having borrowed from him in turn, copying his use of giant Ferula, the 9ft-high fennel, as a bold feature early in the year in the back row.
A recent project shows Michael at his best. On a visit to the Cornish garden of the then-president of the RHS he was sure he had seen a big wisteria growing in a stone trough. Troughs therefore became his next project. Job lots of these iconic objects were pounced on far and wide and planted with small hardy plants, including a spectacular range of autumn gentians. However, on returning to the Cornish garden which had kick-started the idea Michael could not find any wisteria in a trough. The entire project had been powered by a misremembered mirage. It had also been driven by a man in his eighties with no signs of losing heart.
All summer the one politician who wrote and spoke with inspiring passion for the Remain campaign was Michael Heseltine. A towering performance on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions earned an ovation from the listeners across any political divide. To their glee a final question about possible disenfranchisement of the elderly caused Michael to reply that he considered himself probably to be immortal. Through his astonishing garden, his trees and shrubs will carry his impact far into the next century. No recent prime minister can say as much.
‘Thenford: The Creation of an English Garden’ by Michael and Anne Heseltine is published by Head of Zeus, £40