The existence of Hillier’s nurseries has always been a given in my gardening life. Of course I realised, when I began to collect trees in the early 1970s, that we were incredibly lucky to have a single source for almost any tree or shrub we had heard of. And what’s more a reliable one, whose plants actually corresponded to their labels. At one time I was ordering and receiving thirty or forty at a time, sometimes with apologetic little notes saying I might have to wait a year or two. They were so healthy, in the main, that one didn’t stop to think of the miracle of logistics involved, getting them together from several separate Hampshire fields. A story went that one customer telegramed ‘Plants arrived safely. Presume roots follow’ – but that must have been some other nursery.
Now I am thrilled to find that the Hillier history has just been published. Discussions about a possible writer had been going on for several years. In the event they have found the ideal person – in the bosom of the family. Jean Hillier is Sir Harold’s daughter-in-law, married to his younger son Robert. She has produced as attractive a family company history as I have ever seen, gleaned from archives going back beyond the date of founding, 1864, and packed with family lore, records of rare plants, ingenious propagators, the constant hunt for more nursery land and above all the extraordinary personality of the third Hillier inheritor, Harold, surely the greatest and most driven plantsman of the 20th century.I was starting work on my first tree book in 1972, luckily for me at the very moment when Hillier’s Manual appeared. Is there a gardener who hasn’t handled this astonishing production? Does any other craft or trade have a catalogue/bible like this? It is effectively Harold Hillier’s life’s work between covers, put there, largely, by an extraordinary young man, Roy Lancaster. My original dog-eared copy, bought the year we moved into Saling Hall, sits where it always has, within reach of my desk – now with its current, more grown-up successor smartly bound by its side.
Jean Hillier weaves many of the threads of a century and a half of garden history into a story that kept me engrossed over a whole weekend. The climax, in one sense, comes when Harold’s dream of a complete arboretum open to the public comes true. In 1977 Hampshire County Council, after some persuasion, accepts the ownership, and the responsibility. It is a time I remember vividly: negotiations were iffy. I had the idea (this is not in the book) of introducing another great Hampshireman, John Arlott, into the discussion. Arlott was of course the voice of cricket, with a vast audience for his Hampshire bur. He was also mad about wine, a keen collector and the wine correspondent of The Guardian. He lived at Alresford. I asked him over lunch one day if he was keen on trees. ‘Love ’em ‘ he said. A few weeks later we went to lunch together to Jermyns. He and Harold found they had more in common than you might think. I don’t know what John said to whom at the county council, but it can have done no harm.