Turf for the Fairy Queen

A wet summer is no time to be running a garden in which 1,200 daily visitors expect to walk, picnic and sometimes complain. The most famous evening picnic site in Britain is the garden round the Glyndebourne Opera House in Sussex. As a break from policing our lawn edgings in Oxford, I have been out to discover whether gardening round an opera house is easier than gardening among summer schools in a college garden.

When I first went to Glyndebourne in 1962, I admired pale flowers by twilight and the willingness of audiences to dress in dinner jackets and eat a picnic not far from a cowpat. When I returned in the early 1990s, it was early June and some of the picnic rugs had been abandoned for smart collapsible tables with white tablecloths. Their imperious diners expected that flowers could be picked from the Glyndebourne garden and pirated for arrangements among their glasses of champagne. Insistent fathers were on mobile phones in the interval, pressing to discover whether their sons had attempted enough questions and had remembered about Hitler’s invasion of Russia. It was the season of the life-changing Common Entrance exams to Britain’s private schools. One father rang off in my hearing and reduced his wife to tears by remarking that Will had only done half of the maths paper, that London schools would obviously now reject him and there was nothing for it except to send him to board all term in the country. Two tables of diners were even being attended by butlers. They had waited in the car park, not the upper circle, during the first two acts of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

On a summer’s evening, the black-tie Glyndebourne picnic is a surreal but dreamy sight. “More marriages have been broken at Glyndebourne,” the opera’s legendary president, Sir George Christie, told me over an asparagus tart in the restaurant, “than almost anywhere else in Britain.” It must be the moonlight and yew hedges, he remarked, with a smile. Next year the blocks of yew on the upper terrace are due to be severely trimmed.

His wife, Mary Christie, has been a mainstay of the garden for more than 35 years, even surviving the unpredictable suggestions of her one-time adviser, the famous Sussex gardener Christopher Lloyd. Glyndebourne’s garden has to serve a range of interests. The garden is part of the singers’ and musicians’ experience during the weeks of rehearsal and performance. The orchestra likes to play croquet on a proper lawn. The conductor William Christie sometimes withdraws to relax in the greenhouse and take cuttings off the pelargoniums. I had come to see my superstar of an Oxford classical ex-pupil singing as a black-winged fairy in Purcell’s Fairy Queen. The designer, Paul Brown, is a flower lover too, reducing the stress of the fairy tableaux in acts four and five by enjoying the borders in breaks from rehearsals.

The opera house has been the concern of the Christie family since its inception in 1934. Amazingly it does not receive public subsidies, except for its tours round Britain. The present executive chairman is Gus Christie, who also brings his own concerns. He wants weedkillers to be kept to a minimum. He encourages the raising of as much of the garden planting as possible from seeds and cuttings in the big supporting greenhouses. As a former zoology student, the publicity tells me, he encourages “the gardens team to strive to support the abundant wildlife within the grounds through their gardening choices”. At Glyndebourne, apparently, the rabbits only “occasionally nibble” on the plants. It is extremely lucky for all of us that I and my shoot-to-kill policy am not the garden manager. Glyndebourne has a staff of four gardeners and a part-time garden adviser. One abiding duty is to grow vegetables for the house and family in the kitchen garden. The gardens cost £185,000 a year to run, including a lake and up to 20 acres of accompanying grass park. In Oxford, our seven acres and nine outlying gardens cost about £45,000 a year. I buy in whatever we plant and although our opera season is only a week long, the Glyndebourne prototype is visible. The Friends of the Oxford Botanic Garden reserve a night with a black-tie dress code on the Glyndebourne model ... we do not house stoats and weasels.

Dicksonia Antarctica

Under the heavens’ overhead sprinklers, I walked round the main garden with the head gardener, Kevin Martin, and the garden adviser John Hoyland, now in his early fifties. I admired their clearing of the view down to the lake, the raising of the lower canopy of several trees and the sense of a greater prospect than in 1962. I admired, too, the recently placed iron supports that give height to a main border and are planted with good modern roses like Penny Lane. We then came to an island bed of brown grasses, purple-leaved sedums and rosy pink dianthus, interspersed with the suckering silvery leaved Eleagnus Quicksilver, whose leaves lose their charm from August onwards.

“Have it out,” I told them. This contemporary cliché sits in the wrong place, breaking the sweep of the view across the ha-ha. The dirty brown grasses look at odds with the mown green lawns. “I put it in,” John Hoyland corrected me, and so far from throwing me to a resident weasel in the grasses, he proceeded to correct my view that the dianthus in question, Dianthus carthusianorum, has become plainer from seed. “The darker one,” he pointed out, “is Dianthus cruentus.”

I do not envy Glyndebourne’s gardeners their soil or aspect. The site is at the mercy of strong winds and the soil is a difficult chalky mix, which is hellish to work in dry weather. Even so, there are plans to revitalise the borders. One aim, a good one, is to go back to the pale and white planting of the earlier garden’s important crescent-shaped borders. Glyndebourne has to look good both for matinees and evening intervals. I remember the white planting by twilight in the early 1960s and if it was artificially lit from within the borders, it could be splendid. The range of available border plants has widened so wonderfully nowadays. Better ones need to be brought in, multiplied and used to give a new look. Glyndebourne takes two students on short placements each summer from France’s Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Nature et du Paysage. It would be good to send them back in the next 10 years with a sense of the best that the best British nurseries now stock.

Warming to modernity, I even ventured a suggestion that I bet they reject. In the 1990s, one major walkway beside the opera house was replanted with big-leaved plants to give a fashionable pseudo-tropical look. The problem is that the audiences all spill down the flights of brick steps between the banana bushes and mangle the grass into brown mud. Why not build on the starry setting and lay some of the best of today’s artificial turf? It is resistant to high heels and picnic hampers. Better still, a concealed pattern of little lights could be woven into the sham turf and at night would give the sensation of walking from the musical stars on to a starry carpet.

Vita Sackville-West once called Glyndebourne a peak of gracious civilisation where the “arts of music, architecture and gardening combine for the delight of man”. She never considered that top-class artificial turf and lighting could add a new dimension. I do not know about the rabbits but those fairy lights would surely appeal to the fairies.

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