A secret garden

After The King’s Speech, I have been to check out the ex-King’s retreat. With his Duchess, Wallis Simpson, the abdicated Edward VIII spent 20 years on the garden round an 18th-century mill in France, the first house he ever owned. The ground plan survives but the flowers and soft planting have long gone. So have the weekend visitors, Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, Henry Ford, Cecil Beaton and the others who brought Saturday nights at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie to life. Maybe I am a snoop, but most keen historians are. On an escorted visit I like to think I have left few stones unturned.

The Moulin is a flour mill, one of four in its valley at Gif-sur-Yvette, about 20 miles from Paris. When you see the site you understand why the mills clustered here. The ex-King’s garden looks on to a fast-flowing river, dividing it from the steep wooded slope which Edward used to describe to his guests as Cardiac Hill. Before climbing it and risking a seizure, I nosed inside the house for an answer to the question you would all like settled. In their postwar life did the Duke and Duchess sleep together or not?

In the upstairs hall Wallis commissioned an inscription which says something for her spirit, even after 20 years of abdicated life. “I’m not the Miller’s daughter,” it announces, “But I Have Been Through the Mill.” I remembered how an acute visitor to Le Moulin, James Pope-Hennessy, described her as “tremendously American and specifically Southern: it was like being back in Montgomery, Alabama, without the tree moss.” Through the mill, maybe, but she no longer expected to go through the night. My survey of the sleeping quarters established that the Duke and Duchess slept in separate bedrooms.

Across the courtyard I was then offered a mid-morning drink in the Duke’s study, the huge room which he made from a detached barn. Beside it stands the Tulip tree that he planted, but like so many of us he planted it with insufficient thought for its height and spread. It has had to be pruned severely. Inside his study the carpet is gone, the curious tufted carpet in three shades of green which Wallis used to call “my lawn”. Outdoor gardening was not at all her thing and flower-arranging was as far as her secateurs went. Ever loyal, the Duke once explained to a gardening magazine that “arranging the flowers is quite an operation and the Duchess gives it a lot of her time and thought”. The magazine then illustrated her looking down on 10 red and yellow dahlias which she had just crammed into a vase.

Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, 2011

Between 1950 and his death in 1972, Edward himself became very keen on his garden. At weekends he worked in it and was enabled to maintain a staff of at least four under the direction of the head gardener, Edouard Kruch. His time was not all spent on pruning and weeding. Mrs Kruch still recalls how Edward would go off into the garden and read comics with her children in an Indian wigwam that he had given them as a present. In what language did he read? With the gardeners, I discovered, he would usually speak German. The reason was not political sympathy, although while at the mill he had to rebut the malicious allegations that he had planned to help Germany when war broke out. Kruch came from Alsace and German had been freely spoken at Windsor Castle by members of Edward’s family in his youth. With a bump I found myself among some of the ex-King’s flowerpots while words of German came back to my mind too. While he was still planting them I was scrubbing flower pots as a junior gardener in Munich’s great Botanischer Garten.

The heart of his flower garden was an enclosed area, divided by paths of grey granite setts which criss-cross the densely planted beds. The site is especially interesting for the link between Edward and the great guru of upper-class French gardening, Russell Page. Recently I wrote a prefatory essay for a reissue of Page’s classic book, The Education of A Gardener, and was struck by two things. Page was admirably discreet about the identities of the gardens in France and north Italy for which he devised plans. He did, however, name the Windsors and referred to frequent discussions with the Duke about the mill garden’s planting. He is clear that Edward had definite ideas of his own. Only once does Page give any hint that he himself was a devotee of the mystical boloney of the notorious Russian exile Gurdjieff whose daughter, even, he once married. At the mill, copies of old magazines show Russell Page and Edward together among the garden’s sea of flowers. This imposing couple provokes thought, the king who melodramatically put “the woman I love” before the throne and the landscape gardener who believed the nonsense about “natural harmony”, which was taught by Gurdjieff and his followers at their Institute in France.

The main archive of Page’s garden plans is now in Belgium but it contains no plans for the Windsors’ garden. I suspect that the criss-cross pattern of paths is his, but I respect his comments on Edward’s own strong tastes. Photographs show how boldly the garden outside the royal study was planted. Pink phloxes clashed with red valerian and groups of yellow and red celosias bedded among them. In June there were masses of mixed blue delphiniums for height and emphasis. Strong, fiery colours in flower gardening are often said to have been out of fashion in the 1950s and 1960s and one myth is that they were only sanctified recently by the gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd. Le Moulin and its gardeners were some way ahead of Great Dixter.

Wallis in flower-arranging mode, Biarritz, 1951

Wallis much preferred the south of France. While her husband was engaged with his brightly clashing borders she would swim in the pool beneath Cardiac Hill. The pool’s changing house for bathers is circular but the emblem on the roof says it all. It is a copy of the crown of England.

On the rebound I climbed Cardiac Hill on which Edward had planted some excellent azaleas. On its testing slopes stood the graves of Wallis’s pug dogs: she specified in the property’s sale particulars that they should not be moved. One pug never made it so far, the one called Peter Townsend after Princess Margaret’s controversial suitor. “We gave the Group Captain away”, Wallis used to tell visitors, but history has had the last word. The mill has been saved from dilapidation with the help of Patrick Deedes-Vincke. He is married to Group Captain Townsend’s daughter.

Latterly, as his health failed, Edward took a different view. Once again he was ironically ahead of his time. He applied for permission to build no fewer than 350 houses in the mill’s grounds, anticipating the preference for “sustainable development” with which the coalition government is now menacing Britain. There were even plans for underground garages. After several approving hearings the scheme was defeated, but only by the tenacity of the local French mayor.

The Duke, the Duchess and pug at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, c1967

Nowadays the mill is on lease to the admirable Landmark Trust whose paying guests can rent it for holidays and play at being Windsors. There will be no shortage.

We are about to be subjected to a film in favour of Wallis, produced by Madonna. We have just been treated to a book by Anne Sebba with letters that Wallis wrote to her first husband, showing that she certainly had reservations about marrying her royal lover. In his new biography, Behind Closed Doors, Hugo Vickers includes two items for which I too can vouch. For a while Wallis fell in love with the flashy Jimmy Donahue, a lightweight who made the mistake of telling the great society beauty, Diana Cooper, “Don’t you think Wallis is the best Duchess you know?” “My mother”, Lady Diana justly retorted, “was my favourite duchess.” She had known the Windsors since the mid-1930s and concluded, ever observant, that “Wallis never loved Edward”. It is a conclusion I too heard her express.

If so, there was an asymmetry down at the mill. In 1970 the Windsors made a TV film with Kenneth Harris in which Wallis assured her interviewer, “We’re really very happy.” I remember how Edward was visibly moved by the words and reached out to take her hand. The garden was not the only thing he loved.

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