Elysium: Power, Money and Four English Gardens; Birthday Bash and Books.

A threshold crossed this month. A number to blame for the stamina reduction, typed letter reversing, and creaky joints.  An excuse.

Or an opportunity?

Changed perspectives threaten.

The slippery slope beckons beyond the summit. Or will it be more of a precipice? A vertical plunge?

Who knows?

So what better idea for a few days away, than Fiona’s suggestion to build a trip around a visit to see Thenford, the estate and garden that Lord Michael Heseltine (MH) and his wife Anne have created over the past 40 years, commenced in good time whilst bodies were still fit, and the money was flowing in, just outside Banbury. For, as has always been the case, large scale garden creation is a labour both of love and resources. 

Sitting in the very middle of the country we planned an afternoon visit to Hidcote en route. I hadn’t been for a couple of decades and we were both again hugely impressed by Hidcote’s vistas and plantings. It is a garden to walk through slowly, observe, sit down, rest, admire and think.

Few photos from here, because in a rush to leave I hadn’t checked my camera to confirm that it had a Flash card inserted! Many thanks to Fiona and her mobile phone for these four images. We contented ourselves with simply enjoying the scenes and buying a copy of an excellent review of the history and maintenance of the garden on DVD – “The Quiet American Gardener“.

I would recommend this film record to anyone who visits Hidcote, since you’ll appreciate much more the breadth of vision of Hidcote’s American creator, and also how the current gardening team manage this iconic historic English garden. Its distinctive “rooms” concept, with the intrigue of what you will see next as you pass from one area to another, and consciously allowing very few views outside the garden into the distant landscape, have influenced so many who’ve designed gardens since its completion.

The excellent script for this lovely film exploration of Hidcote is written by locally based historian, and friend, Penny David. The whole production is of a very high standard and inspires revisits to see the garden during other seasons.

Major Lawrence Johnston, the quiet American, was born into a wealthy American family of stockbrokers, which gave him the necessary funds to create this now revered English garden, once his mother had bought the Cotswold estate in the early twentieth century. Lacking heirs or income to maintain the gardens beyond his tenure, it was indeed fortunate that it was passed to the National Trust (NT) in 1948, to ensure its continuity as a jewel in the NT’s estate. Click here for more on Lawrence Johnston.

Fortunately, early the following morning, we negotiated the roundabouts of Banbury to find a PC World and a Flash card for the Friday after the night before.

Not the cloud burst that dumped on Edge Hill ((famous for being the site of the first pitched battle of the English Civil War in 1642 – the power struggle between Charles and Cromwell – click here for more) just as we arrived at “The Castle” for dinner. Rather the fall out, as the 10 pm post general election exit poll was announced, and politics in the UK once more lurched and teetered into unfamiliar territory, and a different sort of power struggle.

Our ability to follow events on the novelty of a TV in our Airbnb base in Tysoe Manor  (above) was disrupted by reception issues, just one of a number of problems which will make us wary of using this type of accommodation again. A shame because the property was historic and lovely. However, we did manage to see Osborne and Balls side by side, pontificating, and indeed the now infamous Theresa May wheat field naughtiness, Q&A exchange.

It was strange to see how this ambush and skirmish began with such an apparently innocent, though bulleted question, which clearly provoked terror in our current Prime Minister. We realised just how much missing such visual cues, as we normally do at home, alters our perception of those wielding power over us from positions of authority. Later in the month Jeremy Corbyn apparently wooed the masses at Glastonbury. Click here for how place and presence was used by this more media savvy leader, or at least political party, in today’s UK. The idea of addressing a seething mass of humanity, crammed into a Somerset field, holds no appeal for this fellow Adam’s Grammar school lad.

How would Charles and Cromwell have fared under today’s media glare, I wonder? No hiding of warts or anything else, it seems, which is probably why we persist with just the leaders who are currently still standing.


Thenford only opens publicly on a few occasions by pre-booked tickets, timed to begin at 2 pm, so we reckoned we could fit in another local garden in the morning. (Click here for Thenford contact details).

I trawled around the road map of the area and happened on Rousham. I couldn’t find a huge amount of information on line, but the recent trip advisor comments were enlightening and uniformly positive. So we aimed to get there early, with a picnic lunch, since part of its strategy to avoid huge numbers is not to have a tea room, not to allow dogs, and not to allow children under 15. Click here for garden visiting details.

Inserting this link reminded me.

Don’t be put off by their simple website. There are very few actual photos of the garden on it, but by the time we’d reflected on our visit we reckon that overall, it was the most beautiful garden visiting experience we’ve ever enjoyed, even trumping this spring’s Cornwall gardens.

Buying your entrance ticket from an old parking ticket machine, you walk in front of the historic mansion, clutching a small estate map and guide, before entering the garden at the side of the house, through a simple elegant gate with a ditch and ha-ha separating you from a herd of ancient breed cattle. Fabulously patinated, mahogany flanked beasts, these are prize winning British Longhorns, one of the UK’s most ancient cattle breeds. Long in the back, with downward facing curved horns, the herd was on the move as we passed.

And a simple low key, white arrowed sign, pointed us to the gardens.

What lay ahead? We had no idea, save that we knew that Dan Pearson rated the garden highly, and that Julie of her “GardeningJules” blog, had written a favourable post about it a couple of years ago. Much of the design was laid out by William Kent, (1685-1748), a polymath designer and genius of the Georgian era, who tackled a vast range of creative endeavours. Click here for text from a recent V&A exhibition on his life and works, and here for more details. Perhaps a quote from Horace Walpole, a writer from a similar era (1717-1797) summarises how unique Kent was in this regard.

“He was a painter, an architect, and the father of modern gardening. In the first character he was below mediocrity; in the second, he was a restorer of the science; in the last, an original, and the inventor of an art that realizes painting and improves nature. Mahomet imagined an elysium, Kent created many.”

There’s classical stone statuary here, but on a modest aesthetic scale, blending into the scene with the aged charm of centuries past.

And a grand old house, golden stoned, simply topped with flag and vane and framed immaculately with perfect lawn and ancient clipped wavy yews. But garden?

Beyond, in a leisurely walk beneath mature trees, classical buildings, grotto and polygonal pools grabbed the attention and invited exploration.  

By the time we’d reached the rill, which lazily and sinuously snakes through intense summer shade, down a slight incline to a cold bathing pool, still and deserted save a solitary emerald damselfly which rested on the draping foliage overhead, we were entranced.

Gardening on a grand scale, but personal and intimate at the same time. Helped I’m sure by the lack of people on this warm Friday morning.

No flowers here, just greens.

Light and shade and form. 

A route back beside the lazily flowing River Cherwell, jewelled with resting Banded demosielles, Calopteryx splendens, we reached a perfect end point seat, to open and eat our picnic. We were alone, tucked away in this peaceful world, in the middle of a very bustling part of the UK. A perfect place for reflections.

Fed and watered, and with little time to linger, we clambered up the steep wooded bank and followed the line of the walled garden, along a narrow path until we found a painted door.

Opening into a hitherto unglimpsed and secret garden. A world of vibrant colours. A spectacular kitchen garden, with fruit, vegetables, cutting flowers, and finely tilled rich dark earth.

And an appropriately exquisite, tail fanning, free range peacock. Hence some of the protective mesh, and a clearly tolerant view of peacock vegetable tastes.

Another opening.Another vista.

Walking through, an enormously long, immaculate, wide herbaceous border opened up, with an orchard and more borders on the right. Everywhere was immaculately maintained, for a garden on such a scale, and brilliantly planned for floral continuity. Wall trained and shrub roses were at their peak.The final thrill was turning through yet another narrow, shaded opening, cut through a mature yew hedge, to see the old stone pigeonnier, still occupied, and surrounded by a stunning parterre. The inter-hedge spaces filled with beginning to flower roses, but in early June also resplendent with multi-coloured foxgloves. We’ve rarely seen a single garden view better imagined and executed. From any angle.

As we left we spotted a couple of gardeners, on their way back to the buildings for lunch, and we complemented them on their work. Apparently just 3 part time, and 2 full time gardeners manage this, along with the owners. Extraordinary!

If you can get to see this garden, do go. An elegant and inspirational place to linger and savour. Imaginative yet restrained. Indeed a garden Elysium.

Perhaps not “the place at the ends of the earth where favoured Greek heroes were conveyed after death by the Gods“.

But certainly a place where one could enjoy a state of perfect happiness. And we did.

It’s open 365 days of the year, and one of the gardeners said he almost preferred it on a still, quiet winter’s day. We are already planning a return. How wonderful though that the owners do allow others to share their fabulous private garden. We did appreciate it.

Like any garden on this scale, a huge amount of money must have been required to create it in the first place. I could find little on the source of the Dormer – Cottrell’s wealth, save that Robert, son of the original Robert Dormer who purchased Rousham manor in the 1630’s apparently “restored the family fortunes” by marrying twice – both wives being heiresses, and the second one being the daughter of Charles Cottrell, a courtier of Charles the Second. Click here for more.

Difficult to find much about the current owners on line either. Low key, and off the mainstream internet access radar.  And since quite a lot of funds would be required to maintain Rousham over the centuries, this lack of information is intriguing.

Perhaps though such reticence is indeed fundamentally linked with the garden’s aura of tranquility and harmony.

Power, money or influence didn’t impinge on our consciousness. Like Hidcote, but two centuries earlier in design and creation, a quintessential English garden.

So how to compare such a visit, and a garden maintained and nurtured over 300 years, by the same family, with Thenford?  A short drive away, but a world apart in overall impact, as we would soon discover.

The immediate obvious difference was the visitor numbers. Advance ticket sales only maybe, and twice the entry charge, but a steady stream of cars driving onto the grassy meadow (lacking any floral diversity, interestingly), due North of the house, and many stewards guiding visitors to the garden entrance. But what of first impressions?

A lovely house, but do the bronze dogs, apparently found in the Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen Parisian flea market, add or detract from the view?

A statement. You have arrived.

Where to go first? This is a vast site of 70 acres, with multiple areas, so we aimed to finish near the tea barn, and headed for some of the more formal parts of the garden first. But not before the very special treat of having a close encounter with a hare.

Which seemed unfazed by the many people milling around in front of the elegant house, where a feature throughout the garden – large bronze sculptures of a pair of cormorants – dominated the scene overlooking the re-landscaped lake. Many objects and ideas at Thenford are super-sized, appropriate to the scale of the garden and its ambitions.

This set a theme for much of the garden.

There is much to admire at Thenford, and in the opening to their jointly authored book, “Thenford – The Creation Of An English Garden”, Anne acknowledges that Michael is a very wealthy man, thanks to building up his Haymarket publishing firm, after first cutting his teeth on property development, as a student. Click here for the Michael Heseltine wikipedia page. You will notice it’s a very lengthy record of a very busy existence. Or here for a more human slant on the couple, and discover how the lad from Swansea has done very well for himself after a risky, or risqué, early venture in founding the Tit Club (for bird enthusiasts) at prep school, progressing via Shrewsbury School, and then Oxford, to a life clearly driven by ambition and great achievements.

And he has chosen to spend a lot of his money on this very long term project. Much of this works well, but to our eyes, some was overdone – particularly perhaps in the design concepts of the reworking of the walled garden where domed structures, sentry boxes, or “pavilions” punctuate criss-crossing paths and vistas. I struggled to find an explanation in their book for the apparently Indian or Asian influence, save that Anne had found the 2 marble elephant sculptures on a trip to that part of the world, and that they wanted pavilions to display the other more classical sculptures which they’d already acquired.There are also colourful jewelled birds in this walled garden (a selection of parakeets), though they aren’t free to wander, but caged. A long border outside the walled garden has lovely perennial planting, but little in the way of landscape views. Possibly an idea borrowed from Hidcote, or a necessary security concept for a high-ranking politician? From seats with an almost Napoleonic grandeur, one could however see glimpses of scenery through “moon gates” – round hedge window openings.

Privacy, or protection? Borrowing views or blocking them off? My guess is that anyone with Lord Heseltine’s status would have opted for such privacy.

The rill looked fabulous on a sunny day – the book describes just how much hard landscaping, concrete pouring, valve and pipework went into creating this visual tour de force, topped by an ornate mosaic motif set into the ground, which I could only capture a fragment of, due to the numbers of people standing on it, when we reached it.

There are several garden areas or projects linked to special family events – for example a trough garden commemorating their golden wedding anniversary, with nearly 50 ancient stone troughs. And ornate, painted, wrought iron gate.And a series of hedged enclosures housing more sculptures, and more painted wrought iron, this time in pink.

Lenin doesn’t seem too bothered by these two ladies focusing on their phones, rather than him. But he’s probably seen a lot in his time. Originating from the old KGB headquarters in Latvia this 7 ton bronze was apparently bought for scrap by a dealer, and the Heseltines picked it up at a Sotheby’s auction and arranged to have it shipped and installed in this specially created, hedge enclosed, private “room “.We preferred the more naturalistic areas of the garden – the stream side plantings and walks through the arboretum, where there are thousands of fine developing cultivars of familiar and rare trees, many grown from seeds gleaned during MH’s international travels. In the Tatler interview link above, MH comments that no one remembers politicians, but they might remember his aboretum. I’m sure that this is an accurate assessment.  This is also a garden which would clearly look very different, and be equally enjoyable, at other seasons.

We dropped down the gentle incline, round the lake and headed for a much needed sit down and tea, where to our surprise, and hugely impressively, the catering staff all seemed to be members of the Heseltine family. And there by the doorway of the barn, with a pile of books to autograph was Lord Heseltine himself, gamely chatting to the punters, and indeed another signed “for grumpy hobbit” book, now sits on our bookshelf.

No doubt this pre-planned open day, with some relief, side stepped immediate media requests for his thoughts on the previous night’s events.

One wouldn’t have guessed from this happy scene, the turmoil of the night before, in one of the most badly judged political events of recent times.

As we left, we appreciated a people free view from the front of the house, the crowds by now dispersing. We admired the vision, ambition and hard work that has been lavished on this garden. However perhaps it needs more time, to judge its long term place in the list of great English gardens. Will it eventually rank alongside Hidcote? Or Rousham? As well maintained and regarded as these historically tested gardens now are.

Certainly, its vast scale, which currently requires a team of 10 to 12 gardeners to manage, will require a huge long term income stream, and vast effort, to keep it at its current peak of perfection.

Will the Heseltine clan take up the baton from the founding generation, and tackle the task with similar enthusiasm and commitment to the creators? Or even keep running the show for three hundred years, like the understated Cottrell-Dormers have managed to do so successfully at Rousham? Time will tell.

Or will it gradually fade, over decades, and end up like the final house and garden I’ll mention from this trip, that of Upton House.Just North of Banbury, towards the base of the Edge Hill escarpment and now also owned by the National Trust. Click here for more about the history of the property.

Built of yellow sandstone, it was acquired in the 1927 by the second Viscount Bearsted, and considerably enlarged, as well as having the gardens reworked. The Viscount’s father made his money by founding the Shell Transport and Trading (oil) company and inside the house are significant art, porcelain and advertising poster collections from the early days of Shell. Yet in spite of this background wealth, in 1948 the property, collections and garden were all gifted to the National Trust.

The gardens are now a little run down. Glimpses of former grandeur, and the terraced hard landscaping leading down to a pool, have huge potential. But I’m guessing in its heyday it would have looked far grander. _______

So a birthday bash to remember, and back home my own way of celebrating, thanks to Fiona’s inspiration and quite a bit of her time spent online, was to splash out on getting the first 6 years of this blog turned into hard copy books. There are a number of firms doing this. We used Blog2Print, click here if interested.

Our main criterion was that I couldn’t face doing any more editorial work. So whilst the formatting isn’t absolutely perfect, and there’s no scope for including comments made, the quality of production and photographic reproduction is very good. Even more amazing was that from doing the necessary computer work, to having the books produced in the USA and shipped over here, took less than 2 weeks, so some even arrived before my birthday bash.

A couple of thousand pages. Thousands of photos. And all this for just 6 years of garden making, thinking and observations in our small patch of upland Welsh garden.

But for me a unique record of what has become a very special place, as far removed from real power and influence in these small islands, as one could imagine.

At least now the dire prospect of losing all my scribblings and photos in a digital wipe out, is less of a concern to me, and there’s actually a bit of fun to be had in picking one of the books up, letting it fall open at a page, and thinking.

Did I really see, or think, that?”


Indeed age doesn’t come alone.




15 thoughts on “Elysium: Power, Money and Four English Gardens; Birthday Bash and Books.

  1. What a birthday trip! Rousham garden looks like a hidden gem that not many people would find but much more exciting to visit to discover its secrets. I never realised that there were so many gardens in England and I enjoyed my virtual visit. The British Longhorn cow looked very solid with a “primitive” silhouette compared with the cows I am more used to seeing. Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia. The cows were really strikingly beautiful – not an adjective I’d normally use for cows! But probably hopelessly inefficient food converters which is why you don’t see more of them. Rousham is probably within striking distance if you ever visit the S.East of the UK, and very well worth a visit if you could spare a day,
      best wishes

  2. Excellent post Julian – very interesting. Congratulations on publishing your blogs. I’m sure the books will travel down the generations with many progeny wondering at the state of mind of their ancestor!

    On the origins of the Shell company, it was started as Shell Transport and Trading by Marcus Samuel, and believe it or not, the business was mostly trading seashells from the Far East for interior decorating! The oil business was confined to kerosene for lighting lamps and making lubricants until demand for petrol was ignited by Mr Benz of Germany.

    The import export business grew and eventually Marcus (ultimately Viscount Bearsted) became interested in importing oil from Azerbaijan, of all places. The first bulk carrier, the MV Murex, used the Suez Canal and the combination revolutionised the cost of oil transportation.
    Meanwhile The Royal Dutch Petroleum company had started operations in Sumatra, then a Dutch colony but the Samuel brothers had much lower import costs. Eventually the two companies joined forces to protect themselves against the mighty Standard Oil in the US. Thus emerged the Royal Dutch Shell Group of companies (two separate holding companies with profits split 60% Dutch, 40% British), with a unique structure in that these two holding companies shared ownership of operating companies around the world. This meant that individual opcos had far more autonomy than in other multinationals, which was a huge advantage in adapting to local circumstances. This mostly accounted for Shell’s success, eventually making it the biggest company in the world for a few short years in the nineteen eighties. Ultimately the structure proved to be a major disadvantage in the the era of globalisation, and Shell’s relative success has declined ever since. Lately the structure has changed to that of a conventional company, head-quartered in The Hague, but quoted on both the London and Amsterdam stock markets.

    It may well be that Marcus bought his country estate from Lord Romney, complete with furniture, pictures and gardens, because of his interest in interior decorating and seashells, but I suspect it had more to do with what was expected of a plutocrat in the City at the turn of the century!

    • Hello KTB,
      Thanks indeed for this fascinating insight into Shell’s history. Inside Upton House there is quite a lot of interesting info on Marcus Samuel -though having suffered overload in the previous 36 hours and also taken in Dryden’s house/garden at Canon’s Ashby on Saturday morning we were flagging a little, so rushed round the internal exhibits. I’m sure you’re right though that it was bought as an appropriate country pile with potential…this is indeed how the NT has opted to portray the site, with visitors viewed as potential purchasers of the estate in the 1920’s – something I found slightly irritating. I can’t indeed recall any display of shells at the property.
      As to the state of mind of this blogger, I think his offspring are in little doubt anyway, and have indeed been so for some considerable time…
      Very best wishes to you both,

  3. I am glad that the publishing worked out well. I am considering going down that route so I was pleased to see that it is possible.

    • Hello TP,
      I’d explore other options as well to Blog2Print ….if you look at Corriegendus’s comment on this post – F’s BIL – he has a brilliant blog -Time to Walk, and he got his blog of the Land’s End to JOG walk that he did, produced as a book by, I think Lulu??…. he was also very happy with it, and he had much more editorial control, but of course that took a lot more effort on his part,
      best wishes,

      • Quite right GH! The service I used was “Blurb”. They have an option where you can download software (called Bookwright) to your PC. You can then download all posts from a blog to Bookwright, where you can edit them as you like. As you suggest, the editing isn’t much fun, but it does mean you have a chance to correct all the mistakes previously made!

      • The lack of editorial effort is attractive. I just want a non digital record to guard against losing the digital material.

  4. Hi Julian, Happy belated birthday, it sounds as if you and Fiona had a lovely time! By coincidence we came back on Saturday from a narrow boat trip along the South Oxford Canal travelling from Napton down to Thrupp, the canal mixes and crosses around Rousham with the River Cherwell. (Upper Heyford) And the surrounding countryside quite beautiful. We couldn’t stop to visit this time, as we had our dog with us, so really enjoyed your photos and descriptions, the gardens look so perfect.
    We finally sold our house, put everything into storage, bar a couple of suitcases and the dog and are still exploring areas to live, hence the narrow boat trip, its a good way to see inside the countryside.
    Turning your blog into books is a wonderful idea, great to have the thing in your hands rather than on a screen, I bet its a really rewarding thing to do. I’ve been hopeless this year at WP, selling and house hunting has been all consuming, but very glad to at least caught up with your last post.
    Best wishes, Julie

  5. Hello Julie,
    Thanks for the comment and great to hear your news. We really enjoyed the villages and countryside around Banbury, though obviously not as hilly, and more well populated than around here!
    Great to hear that you’ve finally sold, and are therefore in a great position for house hunting, though it must be a bit strange to be without a garden for now?
    For me the blog books are a really big thing and record. I’ve no idea how much longer I’ll feel like doing the blog posts – occasionally I have little breaks and you then realise just how much of a pressure it can be to keep them up. Still for now, I keep plugging away…
    I wish you both good luck in researching where you’re going to settle, and I guess that indeed there is a real sense of freedom in not being tied to one particular place…at least for now!
    Hope you enjoy a great summer anyway,
    best wishes

  6. Studied Rousham’s design elements during the 80’s but have never been. Your wonderful travelogue and photos rounds out the video/ film of Monty Don’s visit there a few years ago. Have you seen that? I loved how as he walked through the gardens he seemed genuinely surprised at the magnificence of the place. Thanks and I’m so happy to have discovered you in the latest Gardens Illustrated. I’m on 3 1/2 acres of woods in Apex, North Carolina. I have the same ethics as you in keepingbthe garden self regulating with a mix of native and ornaments ntal plants from the world over. You can see a little over my woodland garden ( gosh if you have time) by looking up my name on the web. Suzanne Edney. customlandscapesnc.com will come up as well as my one year blog in 2015 “gardens in woodlands. Thanks again and if you are ever visiting the Raleigh Durham area of NC I’d love to meet you both.

    • Hello Suzanne,
      Thanks for the kind comment … we haven’t owned a TV for over 30 years, so have missed Monty Don’s TV series, but it would be nice to hear what he thought of Rousham sometime …. as you gathered we loved it….such a contrast to the hordes at gardens like Giverny, and sublime design and planting. I’ll try to look you up when we next get a wet day, and can catch up… currently constructing a shed for our loose hay, and indeed trying to make it…
      I’m always interested by the garden variations in a country as large as the USA We currently find it very difficult to escape for anything longer than a few days, though Fiona would love a trip to the USA sometime!!
      Maybe it’ll happen eventually,
      best wishes

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