I dislike this paper’s abuse of the phrase “gardening leave”. It is not used as a caption for an idyllic week in the flower beds. It has become the euphemism for ousted businessmen’s time in limbo. Do any of them ever use the leave for gardening? To find out, I have been to call on Stephen Hester, the banker set to leave as chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland. In the past 15 years he has surrounded his country house with what is billed as a large garden. What, if anything much, does it mean to him?
At Broughton Grange, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, the terrace overlooks a green and gorgeous hillside. On it, Hester and his wife, Suzy, are gallantly waiting for what may well be a critical ordeal. I give him initial credit for buying this house of orange-brown stone because of its magnificent view. He has owned it for some 15 years, besides a big house in London and another in Switzerland, bought for the skiing. Has he really had time to improve its setting?
Indeed he has. “You will see two gardens, one good, one not up to much,” he tells me. “I designed the not so good one. Which do you want to see first?” Broughton’s garden has sprung to fame through the design of one part of it by the rising star of landscape gardening, Tom Stuart-Smith. Naturally, I choose to see Hester’s own garden first.
The front lawn slopes so steeply that it almost conceals a garden of formal box-edged beds on a level below. They are unusually shaped and contain sweet peas on cane wigwams. “I have been most impressed by Villandry,” Hester explains, that restored French garden with so many box parterres and so much ornamental cabbage that, personally, I never want to see it again. Beyond Villandry-in-Oxfordshire stretches a wide double border, cleverly aligned on a sycamore tree beyond. “I like the line and width,” I tell him. “They are my ideas,” he says. The border has two clumps of magenta-flowered hardy geraniums in the centre. My own garden has them, too, and I have been wondering whether to take them out. Sedums and so forth are there to extend the season, although Hester’s time at Broughton has usually been limited to a few summer weekends. The planting is left to head gardener Andrew Woodall, but Hester keeps the team on its toes. “I rip pages out of magazines,” he says, “and I am strict about colours. No orange. It annoys me. It’s municipal planting.”
I forbear to ask in what spirit he may rip out this page of FT Weekend. I do not wage war on orange and I do not agree with House & Home’s editress that orange is a turn-off to women. My pot marigolds, dotted individually round the garden, are looking good this weekend. “I have often pushed for plants which do not grow well,” he reveals. Throughout, I note the active ripping and pushing, but I am marvelling that he has time and interest to engage with a garden on this scale. I like him for it very much.
The scale turns out to be increasingly big. Some light woodland has had its soil enhanced so as to grow azaleas, shrubs which somehow appeal to the hyperactive in alkaline surroundings. Peat blocks, even, edge the shaded beds, planted with ferns and green-yellow flowered Lady’s Mantle. I am more taken with the garden on the way out of the trees, a natural stumpery of fallen tree trunks, planted with more Lady’s Mantle and self-seeded hieracium, despite its orange flowers. “That is phuopsis,” he tells me, as I bend to smell a pink plant with a scent of foxes. The impetus for the stumps came from Prince Charles’s garden at Highgrove. Broughton’s stumpery fits in better than Highgrove’s where this copse runs out into wild grass.
Beyond lie large water meadows, kept damp by diverting streams from the brook. Hester seems unstoppable. Up the hill again is a field arboretum covered with trees in plastic growing tubes. The entire garden, he reveals, covers 80 acres.
We stop next on his Mediterranean terrace. It has Italian cypresses, amazingly unscathed by frosts. Two monkey puzzle trees surprise me. “They are my favourites,” he muses. “They are South American,” I tell him, “so take them out of the Med.” “If you go to St Tropez,” he retorts, “you will see them along the front where I like to walk.” Hester, I am learning, is self-deprecating, but not a pushover.
Up the rest of the hill, beyond the swimming pool, the planting and proportions change dramatically. Hester is the first to give happy credit. “I shortlisted three designers, and took Tom Stuart-Smith because he was young, on the up and imaginative. He is strong enough to stop me doing tasteless things and I am soft enough to put up with it.” Hester defines himself as a “projects man”, not a ground-level gardener. So many businessmen with gardens say the same. Where he shines is as a thoughtful patron and catalyst. He gave Stuart-Smith his own “hopeless” drawing, discussed alternatives and ended up with a garden on three terraced levels. It is one which Stuart-Smith now shows in PowerPoint presentation as among his best designs.
Each terrace differs in style. The lowest has a brilliant box-edged parterre, not Villandry but wavily pruned to give the impression of movement. Its patterning copies the veining of oak, ash and beech leaves, magnified on a computer. I wonder aloud if the gaps in his beech hedges are too small. “Not if you stand here, where you are meant to.” He is quite right.
The second terrace has a waterfall and stone steps. I am less sure about this one. It reminds me of a show design and I wonder why it is all on this hillside and not to scale in front of Hester’s house. The reason is that it came later than the Hester garden.
The top terrace is superbly planted. Drifts of perennial plants run “naturally” into each other, giving a “matrix” look in colours of yellow, deep blue and white. The sun is out, Hester knows the main plants’ Latin names and I even admire his cage of fruit bushes arranged in concentric circles. The gooseberries are so much healthier than mine.
On this terrace there is an excellent, broad pond. Hester began with a team of 10 gardeners to push ahead the design’s many themes. The team has now been cut to six. If a bank pays you massively, why not spend your non-charitable outlay on a team of gardeners and projects about which they will talk for the rest of their lives? Across the pond splash dozens of coloured koi carp, fighting for first place and gaping at Hester with their mouths wide open. “You still have your pack of bankers with you,” I comment. “No,” he replies in a flash, “They are journalists.”
I like Hester. He is frank that he is not going to take up landscape gardening and have a new career. Nonetheless he loves the massive garden he has shaped in such varying ways. Stand forward, other chief executives, who show such joy, but not conceit, at the imprint they are leaving with flowers and trees.