Beauty in a state of déshabille is a stiff test for a garden. It can be poignant, though, and it can reveal the quality of a good design. We went to her garden to remember the peerless Jill Cowley last Sunday; the garden she made with her architect husband Derek Bracey at Great Waltham. Jill suffered for ten years with a bone cancer that put her through hell. Only in the last two years did it stop her gardening, though, or playing a key role as deputy chairman of the National Gardens Scheme (she was its Essex County Organizer for ten years).
For two years now the grass has been cut and the hedges trimmed; in the borders, though, among the roses (they clamber up every tree) and the unpruned shrubs, it has been the survival of the fittest, The result? A revelation of the gardening style of the 1970s and ’80s, powerfully geometrical, decisively linked to the old farmhouse and dairy and linking them to a garden house, a pergola, statues, a bridge over a (now dry) pond, and memorable views into the surrounding farmland. We have an advantage here in Essex: the fields are lined with shimmering silver willows, now in autumn the precise shade of olive green that seems to be de rigueur in fashionable decorating.
The Gibberd Garden at Harlow belongs to the same school of design. So, to a point, does our own at Saling. The difference in Jill’s is the intelligent exuberance of her planting, still traceable in its déshabille. Jill was a traveller, a reader and writer, a gambler, a person who filled more spiritual space than others – which, perhaps inevitably, made her a great gardener too.