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On a dreamy summer evening there is no lovelier park in the care of the National Trust than the park in front of Petworth House in West Sussex. The design by the master landscaper Capability Brown has been unusually well maintained. There are not quite so many birds and animals as Turner painted in his view of the lake as if they were lining up to meet the park’s then owner, the third Earl of Egremont. As the sun sets over the fine grass, the view from the house’s slender front terrace is much too good to need a garden.
The house has a garden, nonetheless, the work of the present countess since she moved into the house in 1978. Caroline Egremont recalls a childhood in a very different landscape, the Scottish hills of Argyll. As a child she was deployed with her brother and sister to help their father destroy the rhododendrons that he had planted on his wooded property until the age of 50. In later life he came to think that they spoiled the Scottish landscape. Her concern for design and colour began with stoking a rhodo-bonfire. Petworth garden has patches of neutral soil but there are no rhododendrons on view.
The previous earl and countess bequeathed her a difficult challenge. Below the house’s side entrance there was a lawn but not a garden. The gardens were shut away behind the huge stone walls of the old kitchen garden, on an 18th-century scale. Parts of this vast space were kept as grazing for horses. One walled section served as a tennis court with a net, enclosed only by the surrounding walls, without any need for wire. The cultivated areas had been the responsibility of Petworth’s head gardener, the famous Fred Streeter himself. Streeter had to satisfy the lordly demands of a vanishing era, the dispatch every week of fine cut flowers by train to London and the north or the transport of superbly-grown orchids in boxes of moss.
Streeter’s gardening shoes are ones which few of us would be brave enough to fill. In a vast walled space, with few major features, most of us would give up or try a feeble sort of meadow. Ingeniously, Caroline has reversed the usual pattern of wild and formal gardens. Up near her family’s side of the big house she has introduced informal meadow-plantings, complementing but in no way competing with Brown’s park beyond. Further away, she has used a formal design. Inside the huge kitchen garden walls, where Streeter once ruled like Mr MacGregor, she has divided the space with excellently placed yew hedges and opened up long views from one boundary wall through to the other. She has planted as cleverly as anyone could wish. Unexpectedly, she began at the walled garden’s further end, planting nothing but green shrubs where most of us would have gone too crazy with insubstantial flowers. She then moved back nearer the main entrance and linked each of her self-imposed sections to a colour-themed planting. The garden is now a dream, restfully spaced, firmly conceived and planted with exceptional sensitivity.
Lady Egremont has a rare distinction. Years ago, I used to dance with her and patiently she survived the toe-crushing experience. As we endured the dazzle of the London season, she had no idea that, mostly, I was thinking about whether I had watered the cuttings in my parents’ greenhouse before leaving home. Crushing her toes, I had no idea that she would become one of the best garden designers and planters of my generation. Here is an example of her art. Up apple trees which she has planted herself, the Worcester Pearmain variety to the fore, she has run the single white-pink Rose Francis E Lester, observing that its flowers have the colouring of apple blossom and that the single flowers drop their petals and do not turn to dirty deadheads. On a Sussex post and rail fence beyond, she has planted neatly pruned white roses and intertwined them with varieties of Clematis viticella. Under trees of Malus transitoria, a favourite of her former dancing partner, she has planted great circles of scented Galium odoratum which he has never even grown. They match the malus’s flowers above and then look green and fresh below.
Her parents-in-law’s tennis court has been brilliantly transformed. Around it she has devised green pillars, each planted with evergreen, white-flowered trachelospermum. This scented climber sometimes turns up in London or in Mediterranean gardens as a green wall or on a column. At Petworth, Caroline realised that the best variety for her purpose is Trachelospermum asiaticum, neater in leaf and freer in flower when clipped. It is entirely hardy, but she keeps it trimmed and twines its shoots to their supports so as to make a pillared, neat shape about 10ft high. A longer pergola of classic wisteria borders the gravel garden but is broken up by more of these trachelospermum green pillars, moderating the one-sided effect of wisteria leaves. Anyone with a garden in London could develop this brilliant use of a fine evergreen plant, willing to be columned, shaped or clipped into patterns on a wall. Be sure to use Trachelospermum asiaticum, not jasminoides which does not flower so freely.
The centre of the gravel garden is another lesson to us all. In the early 1980s, Caroline worked with the designer and architect John Brookes, once my choice for a series of gold-winning Chelsea gardens for the FT in the early 1970s. Brookes’s example helped her to think and draw spatially. He also taught her the charm of plantings in gravel, not dense or seedy and weedy ones, but plantings in groups which allow the planter to walk between the plants and enjoy them at new angles. Her own gravel planting carries the idea forwards. The gravel lies on a weed proof sheet, Mypex being the modern option. Into holes through it she has planted gauras and cistus and some suitably pale lilac verbenas. Agapanthus loves gravel life. Some enviable Californian Tree Poppy marks the edges, while the Gallica Rose, Duc de Guiche, is seen at its best. Someone’s passing remark made Caroline aware that Gallica roses love to grow down through gravel. They certainly do and at Petworth are beautifully set off by tall grey-white leaved verbascums, a strong vertical contrast. Throughout, I note how Caroline has thought of the vertical dimension, crucial to the best summer plantings.
Under a huge, suckering pterocarya tree, in full green catkin, I say how I envy her the big trees she inherited. “I planted it,” she corrects me, and rightly observes how this excellent fast-growing tree suckers so freely round its base. How time flies since the dance floors of our youth. On BBC radio, many of us recall Fred Streeter in old age, looking forward to his future life. At Heaven’s gate, he imagined, St Peter, that hairy old apostle, waiting to welcome him. “Come on in, Fred,” Streeter imagined Peter saying, “You’re just the man we need. The roses need deadheading and there is so much clipping to be done.” On a heavenly summer evening I thought how Streeter would see a different heaven nowadays in his successor’s style of perennial planting. I promise you, she and I did not celebrate it with one more dance among the lilies.
Photographs: Brotherton-Lock; Alamy; Joel Douillet; Tim Gainey