A flattish, hazel framed “wild” garden lies beside the lower left hand corner of the wildflower meadow. At this time of year a winding mown path leads into it, flanked by tall grasses and low shrubs. It is “wild” partly because we have not yet worked out a plan for this area but also because, luckily, fashion has caught up with us and although it has been so named for the last 15 years, today a wild garden is a rather modish thing to have.
When Geordie and I first began to contemplate what a stately home was and how to encourage visitors both to come here and fall in love with it, we realised we needed gardens: that we should both re-discover and reveal the old gardens and walks and make some new ones.
The constant changes in fashion over the centuries followed by the enormous loss of available manpower following the First World War and the sheer economics of employing so many gardeners meant that most of Highclere’s original gardens had all but disappeared. It was a research project in books, papers, maps and on foot. Where had others walked, what had they created and what had given our predecessors joy when they ventured outside during the various seasons.
For my part, I have found it a truly wonderful journey, and one that continues every day. From highlighting an 18th century woodland garden (perhaps the hand of Steven Switzer) to unwrapping from mountains of brambles the azalea “American Garde” from 1820, or maintaining the 1000 year old Monk’s Garden, it has led to hundreds of thousands of bulbs and the delight of planting shrubs and trees according to what money we could allocate. It has been and continues to be a complete joy to plant, to lead the eye and the walker through to views and to ask them to wonder what lies around a corner or what comes next. It is never ending.
When we began, we had two gardeners, Don and Philip with some small manageable borders. These began to grow into spaces of a further 20 acres and then another 20 acres and so on… so it clearly had to be as low maintenance as possible.
However, despite only mowing where people walk and the lawns around the castle, even this gardening model was not sustainable.
As Don wished to retire and continue to work just part time (he never wanted to retire entirely) we found a new head Gardener: Paul. Paul was very kind to Don and would collect him to bring him up to sit in the green houses as his health waned. He had been here for 42 years and knew so much. I loved his stories. Don also always said whatever I proposed would never work which I assume was because then he could argue himself out of doing something. He is now looking down on us and probably still holding strong views.
Meanwhile, we have expanded to a team of four working under Paul’s direction. Whilst there are herbaceous borders in the Secret Garden, Monk’s Garden, White Garden, Rose Arbour and Jeanie’s Garden, much of the gardens are “wild”. Wild never exactly means un-curated but they are not manicured.
It has been a revelation as the removal of the closely planted dark softwoods now some 18 years ago has led to the re-emergence of bee orchids and a strengthening diversity of natural chalk downland wildflowers. Time and thyme ..
Around the Rose Arbour which connects the “Wild Garden” to the Six Sisters Walk it is full of nettles and other weeds. Again we do not have the manpower or desire to mow and manage but I have planted five orchards trees off to one side. Thus it all encourages as much insect and bird wild life as possible which then helps keep rose problems at bay. I am not sure of the science behind it all but from observing the health of the roses, it all seems to work and to contribute to the delight and beauty.
Just at the back in the “Wild Garden” is a spindly tree against which some years ago I decided to plant some roses. I then completely forgot about them but, despite no care whatsoever, they have managed to scramble toward the skies and then shower down in a way which is just so beautiful I feel lucky to be looking at the show. Nature does indeed always find a way.