It’s forty years now that I have known the Banks family’s garden on the Welsh border – almost a quarter of the garden’s long life. Four generations of Bankses have been passionate plantsmen and distinguished dendrologists. William Harland B, who bought Hergest Croft in 1912, was inspired by William Robinson and an eager customer of Veitch’s Exeter Nursery when EH Wilson was among those scouring China on their behalf. Many of his introductions thrive here still.
Just how and why the 40 inches of rain, neutral loamy soil and the altitude of 700-odd feet allow or provoke the mighty growth that gives Hergest Croft so many champion or near-champion trees is unclear. I am inclined to give as much of the credit to their proprietors. The biggest plants tend to belong, naturally enough, to those who planted them first.
I was at school with Lawrence, the third Banks to own the garden, and sat at the feet of his father Dick – a wonderfully benign authority. It is easy to see why plants should want to reward such dedicated and expert overseers. Lawrence was Treasurer of the RHS for many years and his wife Elizabeth its first woman (and first horticulturally professional) President until earlier this year.
Today the garden and its adjacent Park Wood are best known for their National Collections of maples and birches. It is easy to be distracted, though, by the awesome firs and pines, oaks, limes and walnuts, ashes, larches, cedars and far rarer things that tower in the arboretum and shade the sheep in the park-like farmland around.
Elizabeth Banks Associates is one of the foremost landscape practices in the country. Is it despite or because of this that there is no sniff of modern or fashionable design to be seen? The Hergest garden remains largely as it was conceived a century ago, its structural elements disguised, of course, by the growth of what were once almost incidental trees and shrubs. Now they spread their branches over path and terrace and hedge. How many gardens, though, keep the deliberate unadorned geometry of orchard and vegetables, soft fruit and perennial borders, greenhouses, rose garden and tennis court, almost in the manner of a farm, where function needs no justification?
How calming it is; how unaffected and truthful. Do you detect a partiality here? Can you tell that I find Hergest Croft one of the holy places of horticulture? I don’t deny it.