Spectator – Carla Carlisle

The invitation sits on my desk, the indigo blue shirt and bright red hand-knit waistcoat as vibrant as his Long Border in June. And the face in full sun, a halo of white hair and a smile that has just stifled a chuckle. The message reads: ‘Christo wanted his friends to celebrate his life. He would have wanted you to be there, so bring your fond memories of him, and come and join the party’. Christopher Lloyd forbade any memorial service, but he wanted a party on what would have been his 85th birthday. And so, on Saturday, I took the train to Great Dixter. It was a cold, sunny day in early March, and the first sight on entering the front gate, as if planned by Christo, was a carpet of Dutch crocuses.

The horticulturally grand, the great and the good of the gardening world were there: Beth Chatto, Anna Pavord, Roy Lancaster, Joy Larkcom, Sarah Raven, as well as the not yet famous young people whom Christo encouraged, educated and enjoyed. A generous host who cooked and served memorable meals, Christo loved filling Great Dixter with friends. On Saturday, it felt like he was there: vivid photographs by Jonathan Buckley Christo and his beloved dachshund, Canna; Christo and Fergus Garrett, ‘my head gardener and closest friend’; Christo, Fergus and Anne Wright, his devoted sub-editor at Country Life looking out on his friends gathered in the Great Hall. Christo’s parents used this magnificent timber framed hall as their dining and living room until the Second World War, and Christo used it for large dinner parties, although it is a fair trek to the kitchen and he was the cook.

Christo was one of a passing breed: he lived the whole of his long life in the house where he was born. In many ways, Great Dixter looks as if time has stood still since Lutyens designed the additions to the house and laid out the garden in 1911. But Christo believed that gardeners should ‘live on the frontier of their experience’, and was always keen to discover something new and exciting, finding space at Dixter for the works of contemporary potters, writers and furniture makers. He felt privileged to live at Great Dixter, writing: ‘I tried to deserve my luck by taking my responsibilities seriously. Dixter is a lovely place to live in and for others it is an oasis’.

After a lunch that would have pleased Christo, a stroll around the famous garden. Around each corner, I expected to see his colourful shape, weeding or checking out the survival skills of a tender plant. At tea-time, we gathered in the Great Hall to listen to Christo’s recording in August 2000 of Desert Island Discs. What pleasure to hear his beautiful deep voice, his outspoken sense of humour and his choice of music. Christo’s love of music was only surpassed by his love of plants. He began with Poulenc’s oboe sonata, before weaving his life through Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Janacek. And when forced to choose: Bach’s Goldberg Variations; the Letters of Gustave Flaubert; a caseless supply of his beloved ‘Syndicate’ Scotch whisky.

A few years ago, Christo was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It was a mistaken diagnosis, and a triple bypass operation gave him renewed energy and optimism. He set about creating the Great Dixter Charitable Trust so that the garden could continue to inspire and educate. Knowing that Dixter was in the capable hands of Fergus gave him happy peace of mind. Knowing that Great Dixter lives on also goes some way in filling the hole left in the lives of Christo’s readers and friends.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on March 16, 2006.