A Friend, a Book and a Garden… Posted on July 3, 2013

….. that was the title Tom Stuart-Smith gave to a Literary Festival organised by The Garden Museum in the Stuart-Smith’s garden last weekend.

 

The timing was propitious: only the second weekend this year when a festival in a garden had no need for umbrellas. Saturday was warm and partly sunny, Sunday was a proper summer day. We needed the shade of the tent for the lectures that were the centrepiece; a tent you discovered within beech hedges in the heart of a garden as lovely, and in as beautifully-timed perfection, as I could imagine. So beautifully-timed, in fact, that groups of flowers that had been in promisingly imminent bud on the first day showed their colours to the sun on the second.

 

The garden crests a modest ridge in a corner of Hertfordshire miraculously preserved from new towns and motorways, sheltering among its high hedges, then suddenly bursting out into a long view over fields and woods. There are few gardens these days where perennials hold sway: here not in conventional borders but in great plats thirty feet or so across and deep. Their early summer costume is predominantly cream and white and a dozen shades of purply blue; in one room shading into pale pink, in another into stronger yellows – but in gentle transitions that only dawn on you as you rest your eyes on the whole panorama.

The Festival unfolded in the same seamless way, moving from the fundamentals of garden philosophy to depths of practical experience, represented by Piet Oudolf, the blunt authoritative Dutch designer who has made the whole world plant grasses. (No grasses could be more beautiful, though, than the rippling filigree of the meadows round the garden we were in).

 

Christopher Woodward, the museum’s hyper-energized director, pursued the vision of Arcadia with Adam Nicholson – himself a practitioner of moving prose. Sue Stuart-Smith spoke with extraordinary insight on the therapeutic properties of gardening, Hugh Cavendish talked about Holker, his Cumbrian estate, Sarah Raven about Vita Sackville-West. Anna Pavord talked to John Sales, Penelope Hobhouse to Tom Stuart-Smith…. the cast was exceptional and there wasn’t time to hear them all.

 

There was music, there were oysters, when night fell the colours of the garden deepened and glowed and a slow river of pale smoke rose vertically from the barbecue fire. It was an ambitious event that succeeded to perfection. How lucky we were to be there.  The museum that does this deserves massive support.

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