After St Paul’s, Exbury the next weekend came as a complete contrast: a garden that shows off its astonishing collection of plants like a museum.
The Rothschild style (Exbury was largely the creation of Lionel de Rothschild in the 1920’s) is full-on; what J C London would have called “gardenesque”. If nature never made sylvan glades with smooth straight hedges, still less did it fill woods to the brim with a kaleidoscope of flowers of different species and varieties in the full spectrum of colours.
Both gardens, Exbury and St Paul’s, gain their dignity from their high vaults of towering trees – above all oaks – that moderate light and
temperature in their shade. St Paul’s is decorated with Augustan restraint; the confident simplicity of the Georgian age. Exbury revels in the excitable showmanship of the Victorians. In fact the Rothschild style, indoors or out. You see it at Waddesdon Manor in the rich recipe of Gainsboroughs and Versailles furniture and the extravagant full-dress bedding of the parterres. In the New Forest it takes the form of a dazzling display of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and every flowering plant and tree that can be fitted in 220 acres of immaculate woodland – along with the smartest of miniature steam railways.
Perhaps its high point, for this romantic gardener, is where after a sustained passage of ravishing camellias the flower power moderates, the trees thin out, and glimpses of sparkling water allow you to see white sails gliding by. You are, after all, on the Beaulieu River, the Solent is round the corner, and there is that faint smell of salt in the air.