June 8, 2006

It was Sir Thomas Browne, 400 years old this year, who wrote so hauntingly of raising up ‘the ghost of a rose’. This weekend, that is just what will be happening at an Oxfordshire inn. The event may turn out to be little better than a seance. But, if gardeners are keen of eye and swift of secateur, it may signal the reopening of a glorious chapter in our horticultural history.

Longworth is one of a chain of villages that lies on a ridge of fertile, fast-draining loam that runs north as far as Oxford itself. In the late 18th century, this terrain gave farmers a strong advantage: their crops were more bountiful than those of their less favoured neighbours; they ripened sooner, and they needed no dry storage post-harvest. As they beat everyone to market and came home with a premium, so the Longworth farmers began to trade up. Farmhouses became small but significant manors. Land was acquired for purposes other than growing cereals, hunting, forestry and, of course, gardening.

Gentrification came early to the Oxfordshire ridgeway, and the gentry proper responded by joining in the fun, sometimes in flamboyant form. Fyfield Manor, Longworth Manor, Barcote, Buckland House, Faringdon House and Buscot Park are all the result. But they needed something to grow and show, these squires. So, in the 19th century, the rose arrived, courtesy of five families of nurserymen who found ideal soil conditions in Oxfordshire, and a captive market. Over 175 years, their names Prince, Mattock, Drew, Tucker and Hill became synonyms for the best of British rose growing.

The archives of the Longworth Historical Society are replete with vivid memories of a com-munity that was bound together by the rose of blushing rose queens crowned at village fêtes, of celebrations on the receipt of royal warrants, of new varieties concocted with all the furtiveness of a secret weapon. There were rosarian rivalries that amounted to feuds, followed by a long, painful end as changes in horticultural fashion killed off this most fragrant of local industries.

There is one survivor, however Robert Mattock Roses, which continues to produce ravishing containerised roses near Abingdon. For the scion of an Oxfordshire rose growing dynasty that spans seven generations, its current proprietor, Robert Mattock fils is a remarkably prickle-free chap to have a drink with. But some months ago, I found him in reflective mood. ‘Some of those roses that the Princes and others produced were unbeatable,’ he told me. ‘I can just remember some of them, but if you talk to the old boys or read the nursery catalogues going back to the 1880s, you realise how much more treasure has been lost.’

There followed a threnody for such vanished glories as Longworth Rambler, a beautiful and vigorous red climber from 1880; Longworth Beauty, a pink-and-apricot tea rose from 1902; the virginal and intensely perfumed Elizabeth Arden (1929); and the celebrated Isis, a Garbo of a rose sensuously scented but glacial looking that Robert’s family produced as recently as 1973.But that melancholy episode has been transformed into action. Descriptive lists were compiled of the missing rose varieties; appeals went out for gardeners and landowners in Oxfordshire’s rose belt to scour borders, smallholdings and hedgerows for living relics.

On June 11, Robert and a crack troop of rosarians will repair to the Blue Boar in Longworth to stage the Antique Rose Show. They hope that their panel will be swamped with mystery blooms, some of which may prove to be Oxford’s finest. From them, they hope to restore not just one generation, but over a century’s worth of cultivars that would otherwise be garlands for oblivion. Whether or not you are Oxford-based, if you have an old rose that is puzzling you, do take it along to put the experts to the test.

The Antique Rose Show starts at 11am on Sunday June 11 at the Blue Boar, Longworth, Oxfordshire (eight miles south-west of Oxford, off the A420). A panel of experts will be on hand to identify any mystery roses brought in by the public. Flowering size plants will also be on sale.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on June 8, 2006