To Exbury the morning after the pre-Christmas storm. Remarkably little damage: almost none to the high oaks that provide the principle cover – or any of the deciduous trees. Cedars with their heavy rigid branches and Scots pines with their sinuous ones are always the main casualties. But below them, washed and polished by the rain, the rhododendrons and camellias and all the other evergreens gleamed in the sun with a thrilling look of promise.
It must surely be an illusion that immediately after the shortest day plants take on an attitude, or at least an appearance, of expectation and hope. I know primroses do: their leaves prick up with just one extra minute of daylight. The buds of rhododendrons seem especially alert this morning. Excited and exciting, in fact.
It is sad to contrast this thriving Rothschild garden with the family’s former estate in the western suburbs of London at Gunnersbury. Once Gunnersbury was almost as big and almost as horticulturally exceptional as Exbury is today. Its place in history reflected the
Rothschild fortune: Disraeli was an habitué; it is where Britain bought the Suez Canal. It is still in existence, but the only reminder is the anonymous green backdrop to a row of post-modern office blocks along the Great West Road flyover where it crosses the NorthCircular Road. Gunnersbury was one of the group of great houses that graced the approach to London from the west, or down the Thames: Chiswick, Kew, Syon, Osterley, Marble Hill, Strawberry Hill, Ham and further upstream Hampton Court.
The creator of Exbury, Lionel de Rothschild, was brought up at Gunnersbury, but when his father Leopold died his mother sold the estate to the local councils of Acton and Ealing (at a fraction of its potential value) to remain as pleasure grounds in perpetuity.
Sadly the ratepayers have seen it more as a burden than an asset. Some said that the other historic parks were plenty; no need for another. The grounds at Gunnersbury are merely maintained, the houses (there are two) in disrepair, the remaining great trees rotting and tottering. Today it has more archaeological than horticultural allure.
But there is hope. The two boroughs (now Ealing and Hounslow) have a plan for restoration and future use of the house (now a modest museum) and the grounds, are consulting the public and have appealed for Lottery grants of £17 million. It will be too late, alas, for the garden to recover its old importance. But I shall go in the spring to see the buds begin to swell.