In the mid 20th century, the rose was the undisputed queen of garden flowers, when every novice garden-maker planted the popular Hybrid Teas and Floribundas in the thin border framing their neat rectangular lawn.
The Victorian forebears of those roses, the big, ungainly shrubs named after forgotten French businessmen’s wives, were largely forgotten, dismissed long ago as dinosaurs unsuited to modern gardens because of their bulky form and short flowering season.
But Britain was, and is, a nation of specialist enthusiasts, and there is always someone, somewhere, quietly keeping things going in the hope that the flame of enthusiasm will once again flicker into life over their precious collection. So it was that James Russell, the owner of Sunningdale Nursery, and his manager, Graham Stuart Thomas, maintained a vast and evergrowing living catalogue of the old shrub roses, so that anyone sharing their love of these creatures could beat a path to their expert door.
In the late 1960s, Russell decided to sell up and moved the contents of the nursery to his new home in the grounds of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. There, he persuaded his friend, George Howard, to let him plant up part of the former kitchen garden as a decorative garden focused on the display of these roses. The garden was opened in 1975. Thomas was doing something remarkably similar in the south of England.
He had long been the senior gardens adviser and consultant to the National Trust and repeatedly found himself faced with the awkward question of what to do with the abandoned enclosure of the former kitchen garden, sealed away within its pink-brick walls. At Mottisfont, he saw the great opportunity. Since the National Trust had acquired Mottisfont from its last private owner, Mrs Maud Russell (no relation to James), the kitchen garden had been in a gradual decline. Half the space continued to be used by Mrs Russell for her private garden, although this must have seemed a far cry from her pre-Second World War golden age as a hostess of elegant gatherings of artists and aesthetes, with Norah Lindsay, Russell Page and Geoffrey Jellicoe all contributing to the wider garden layout.
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The other half seemed destined for use as the car park, the most dismal of fates, until Thomas had his vision of glory. The rest is history. The kitchen garden had not been cultivated for a decade when the new proposal was advanced, so the worst of the residual soil-borne problems would have been greatly reduced by this long fallow period and the soil hungry for a new crop. On the face of it, the soil in the Test Valley was unpromising, being composed of a terrace of gravel over compacted chalk, but two centuries of kitchen-garden cultivation had left a desirable top layer of 2ft of rich, dark topsoil.
The traditional layout of broad borders along the foot of the framing walls and crosswalks joining at a central water feature was wisely retained and has proved ideal both for the collection and the desire of visitors to approach, admire and identify the hundreds of specimens. Mottisfont has also been fortunate in its head gardener, David Stone, who has been in charge here since 1978. Mr Stone, a quietly correct man, has many recollections of Thomas and his visits to advise on the layout and maintenance of the rose garden. The senior man, liable to arrive with a handful of distinguished foreign rosarians in tow, was insistently meticulous, once asking Mr Stone to move a bench 3in to the left to make things just so. For all the changes enforced by time and circumstances, Thomas would immediately recognise the garden as his own ideal if he could return today.
Over the years, his conservative approach of essentially replanting the kitchen-garden layout with a vast collection of old roses (balanced with his favourite herbaceous borders) has proved an irresistible draw to the crowds, which have grown hugely since all this was first imagined. In 1978, about 5,000 came. In 2012, the visitor count was 210,000.
If those visitors come in search of a sea of beauty in summer, especially in June and early July, they will not be disappointed. Like many good gardens, this one can be readily appreciated on more than one level. The sheer knockout effect of all that harmonious flower power is there for all to see. If you were in search of a particular scale, form, colour or scent in a rose, this would be the place to bring your notebook and companion. And for the person with any feeling for the history of gardens, there is the added thrill of recognizing old friends honoured by a labeled place in this distinguished collection.
We come to Mottisfont to view the grandes dames of horticulture, the shrub and climbing roses of the 19th century. I found myself constantly lifting my hat to familiar names from my garden past, such as the climber Gloire de Dijon, an apricot-coloured free flowerer, which always looks so wonderful trained against a brick wall. Having dropped into that visual groove, I was charmed by the floppy beauty of the equally apricot-hued Crépuscule, which presumably looks particularly lovely at twilight. This is how we learn our plants: here’s an old favourite, but something unfamiliar nearby then catches our eye.
And then there was, for me at least, the surprise of finding that delicate creature Maréchal Niel, with its cream-puff flowers hanging from spindly shoots, having a go out of doors, whereas, in this country, we have always expected to find it in the conservatory. The parade of shrub roses here is an overwhelming surfeit, as each step brings us either to some famous name or, unnervingly, to yet another creature quite new to us, but which, like a wonderful painting in a gallery, has the telling power to stop us in our tracks, however great the need to keep striding by.
These are the choicest encounters of all, with selections of Rosa spinosissima not so very far removed from its native form on the sand dunes of the Northumberland coast or some novel cultivar of the otherwise over-familiar Rosa rugosa, always a such a picture of health and well able to hold up its head in such distinguished company. Thomas did us all a terrific favour by parking his accumulated living museum here. He could not have found a better custodian than Mr Stone. His successor has a job on his hands, but what an opportunity among these velvet riches.
Mottisfont Abbey Gardens, near Romsey, Hampshire (01794 340757; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mottisfont). Open daily, 10am-5pm and in June open on fairweather days until 8pm. Please check the website for late openings that week or call 01794 340 757.
Simply the best
Borde Hill, West Sussex
Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
Coughton Court, Warwickshire
David Austin Rose Gardens, Shropshire
Gardens of the Rose, Hertfordshire
Helmingham Hall, Suffolk
Malleny Garden, Midlothian
Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire
Peter Beales Rose Garden, Norfolk
Queen Mary’s Gardens, London
Sissinghurst Castle, Kent
Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire
The Alnwick Garden,Northumberland
The Savill Garden, Surrey
Great garden societies
The varied geology and landscapes of Britain and the nation’s long history of plant discovery that dates back four centuries and longer have ensured that we’ve become a nation of plant enthusiasts, conservers and collectors, sharing knowledge through a range of active clubs:
Alpine Garden Society
The Cottage Garden Society
Garden History Society
Hardy Plant Society
National Gardens Scheme
National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners
Royal Horticultural Society
Royal National Rose Society
Scottish Rock Garden Club
Welsh Historic Gardens Trust
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