Inside the Prince’s plot

Alnwick Garden volunteers, family and friends at Highgrove. Photo by Margaret Whittaker.
Alnwick Garden volunteers, family and friends at Highgrove. Photo by Margaret Whittaker.

DID you manage to take in a special garden visit while on holiday? You may well love your own plot best of all but opening the mind to other ideas can be so inspiring, intriguing, puzzling and amusing.

Such were the rewards of a long-planned trip to Gloucestershire, a detour from visiting relatives ‘down south’.

The garden was Highgrove, home of HRH the Prince of Wales, and the occasion was organised with almost military precision by friends Margaret and John for 20 or so volunteers from The Alnwick Garden.

A tour of Highgrove, just outside Tetbury, can be arranged by appointment, but it involves a long journey and overnight stay.

Nor is it your typical Sunday afternoon ‘gardens open’ visit.

Security is naturally tight and even our roadside entry access had no signage. There is a police control post along the approach track and we all had to produce photographic evidence of identity.

Cameras and mobile phones are not allowed inside the garden but Margaret did manage to snap our happy group in the grounds afterwards without being dragged off to The Tower.

Having assembled in The Orchard House after a retail therapy stop in the prosperous town of Tetbury, we met Debbie, our guide for the two-hour sojourn.

She belongs to a team of 15 volunteers who conduct regular tours set at 20-minute intervals and to our good fortune recognised one of our number as having taken her NAFAS (flower arranging) group around The Alnwick Garden.

What a small world we live in! The rapport grew from there.

We were ushered into seats in a small marquee setting to watch a 10-minute DVD introduction to the garden featuring HRH and this proved most helpful.

Intricate gardens, and I saw this as one, can be so difficult to interpret and appreciate if there is no prior explanation. In this respect, the short briefing from the owner brought the whole ethos to life.

Starting with a blank canvas 27 years ago, he set out to create a garden that ‘enhanced the setting of the house in the landscape, pleased the eye, warmed the heart and fed the soul’.

He acknowledges that along the way he has enlisted the help of various people whose professional skills he admired, in order to blend the arts of imagination and architecture.

This is no ordinary garden and HRH clearly wants to share it with everyone.

Profits from the entry fees, gift shops and on-site tearoom are ploughed back into his charities. He acknowledges the reliance on volunteers in achieving this.

There is evidence of encouraging youth in The Wall of Gifts feature. Diverse pieces constructed in stone by students from The Prince’s Foundation have been built into a wall by Julian and Isobel Bannerman, two of several designers whose work is celebrated here. We also noted a water feature that betrayed William Pye’s touch.

Members of the gardening staff have also been encouraged by Prince Charles to showcase their creative talents.

A high-profile avenue of golden yew, which lines the thyme walk front of house, has been clipped into eccentric geometric shapes.

This contrasts with a stunning yew hedge nearby designed by Sir Roy Strong. It takes three months to trim.

Quirkiness abounds in the woodland garden. The Stumpery comprises ferns growing among tree stumps.

There is a water feature whose focal point is a tower of reused stone, topped with giant gunnera manicata.

Alongside stands a stork constructed from car parts, one of many foreign visit gifts. A blue tit nested in it this year, much to the Prince’s delight. A thatched treehouse which he and his brothers played in as children is also re-erected here.

The arboretum and sanctuary is special and clearly a place of contemplation. In a small clearing there is a stunning bronze by the late American sculptor Frederic Hart ‘The Daughters of Odessa: ‘Martyrs of Modernism’, dedicated to all the oppressed people of the world. A curved stone seat nearby is dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.

So many gifts from visits home and abroad have been incorporated into this fascinating garden, yet they all tend to blend in.

And as you’d expect there are plant attractions. This garden holds two national collections; hosta and fagus (beech).

The small enclosed garden, front of house, has a formal outline but is filled with flowers and good ideas for natural supports where floppy herbaceous perennials reside.

The Carpet Garden reconstructed here, was a silver gilt medal-winner at Chelsea.

Favourite for me was the walled kitchen garden. Beautifully symmetrical, it is filled with fruit, vegetables and cut flowers.

There were several heritage pear cultivars growing against the walls and a super inner circle of malus ‘Golden Hornet’.

HRH has spoken of his interest in organic cultivation on two formal visits to Alnwick and enquired about the wildlife presence. So, although not in residence during our visit to his garden, what we did experience was a deeper insight to the sensitivity and values of the man.

Bearing in mind his organic stance, the surrounding farmland and garden have accredited status, but what of pest and disease incidence?

It appeared that honey fungus and red spider mite had claimed several mature trees despite helpful advice from the neighbouring Westonbirt Arboretum.

Box hedging in the vegetable garden had fallen victim to blight and interestingly, the replacement was teuchrium (germander).

This said, we all thought it a privilege to be shown around a very special garden and reassuring to see that even royal Brussels sprouts suffer from cabbage white butterfly damage.