Paradise lost – a review of Abbey House Gardens, Malmesbury by Kate Morgan

November 26, 2014

in Garden Reviews, General Interest

A sad thing, divorce. And this is a tale of more than one parting –  the gardeners of Abbey House Gardens, not known for any kind of modesty, are splitting up and leaving the garden.

Abbey House Gardens used to do that silly and misleading thing of telling people they owned any pictures of the garden. Rightly or wrongly this cannot be the case – the photographer owns copyright in their own pictures. It does mean that Kate didn’t take the pictures she might have done, so I am grateful to Rachel Cassidy and Kate Durr for supplying extras.

Anne Wareham, editor

(And just a note – the RHS are happy to take on Partnership Gardens under 20 years old. Ours must have been about ten years old when we became one.)

Abbey House 1 Rachel

Kate Morgan:

“Eve has left the Garden of Eden”. That was how Ian Pollard, eponymous Naked Gardener and creator of the five-acre Abbey House gardens in Malmesbury, recently announced to the world that his wife Barbara was suing for divorce. Barbara used to be naked too, but she’s hinted that she was less enamoured of the lifestyle than her husband was. Though you might not realise this if you had seen her being interviewed in the buff by Matt Baker on Countryfile. She was not shy about flaunting her undergrowth then, and his palpable discomfort was a joy to watch.

Regardless, she has gone and they have to sell the garden, plus the attached Grade One listed 11-bedroomed house. Uproar and turmoil in Malmesbury, dismay and sadness for garden lovers and people who enjoy taking their clothes off in public.

We moved to Wiltshire four years ago and have visited the garden many times since. For some reason the visits have often coincided with significant events in our lives – a bereavement, a big wedding anniversary, a visit from an American we will never see again. So maybe in the past I’ve allowed my critical faculties to lie dormant when I’ve looked at Abbey House gardens, distracted by personal issues and lulled by the charm of the place, its historic interest and comfortable Englishness. I just knew that I really liked them.

Abbey House Garden 1 copyright Kate Durr

Learning that the place is to be sold has given a new focus to my visits, though. For one thing I fully intend to buy it when I win the Euromillions (I explained this plan to the man selling tickets last time I went, and he was very gracious about it and promised to stay on in his job).

I went in September and October of what may be its last year of opening, and two strands of thought were with me. One, what price a famous garden? Quite literally – the Pollards bought Abbey House twenty years ago for £300,000 and today it is yours for offers in excess of £3.5 million. It hasn’t sold, though – during my last visit I witnessed an interesting vignette of potential buyers + estate agent. They were obviously a London couple. She was fascinated and keen. He looked alternately bored and horrified. They won’t be buying.

And really, who would? If you have that kind of money are you really going to want hordes trampling over your lawns on a regular basis, some of whom will have no clothes on, unless you want to ban the naturists of Britain who have made a home-from-home here? Alternatively, you can shut your gates and go private – but then nobody in Malmesbury will ever speak to you, since the garden is now a major earner for the town and has put Malmesbury on the map tourism-wise.

Abbey House 2 RachelIn between mulling over all of this, I considered what was around me. The design divides the site in two distinct parts. First, the formal bits, based on good old rooms. A knot garden next to the house, then a large lawn with a great many roses (tulips in the spring) and through to the small, atmospheric Lady Chapel garden. High yew hedges divide the rooms and incorporate interesting historic features – a medieval stone gate, a well, a monk’s coffin.

Then there is an enormous herb garden, a double herbaceous border, a laburnum walk (bit of a cliché this, now) and an orchard. There’s the stewpond, the odd fountain, and an appropriate amount of well-chosen statuary – the hooded monk who suddenly looms up at you as you round the corner into the Lady Chapel garden gave me a shock the first time and still provides a pleasant thrill.

At the back, the second part. Two acres of drama – the land falls away steeply to the river Avon and the monks’ fishponds, and has been made into a woodland wander. You can cross the river by bridge or stepping-stone, saunter up to the waterfall, climb the Stumpe and sit in the (slightly bizarre) Japanese bamboo bower. There are trout and rare birds, azaleas and maples, all that kind of stuff. The planting throughout is lavish – the Pollards have been obsessive collectors and have crammed a phenomenal number of plants into their acres, not least 2000 roses for the Millennium.

Abbey House Garden 4 copyright Kate DurrOne of the aspects I love the most is that they have not been afraid to be deeply unfashionable. Take the roses. There are plenty of climbers and ramblers, it’s true. But what there are most of, are Floribundas and Hybrid Teas. Yes! You don’t get those very often in gardens like this do you? (Truth be told, they don’t even grow that well – the light free-draining soil that suits the tulips does nothing for the roses). But what a treat for the average middle-aged to elderly visitor, who grew up with these flowers. The hell with Cuisse de Nymphe – who needs it when you can have Mini Metro! Subtle colouring no, strident shades yes, all jumbled together with what looks like very little consideration (and all of the above applies equally to the tulip planting). I’ve seen it described as brash and OK, it is, but the effect is exuberant and lifts my spirits.

And these observations bring me to the realisation of what I like so much – this place entertains my inner six-year-old. There’s really nothing sophisticated about any of it. They’ve splashed colour about like a kid with a new box of paints. The riverside areas have the distinct mien of an adventure playground or Cub Scout camp. There’s plenty of fruit – nobody would miss an apple if you wanted to scrump one. There are lots of good places to hide. There are fish to look at or feed, and a tortoise. What child wouldn’t enjoy all this, and who is to say that grown-ups can’t too?

Although the gardens were made almost from scratch, the planting everywhere looks mature, though apparently the gardening establishment was traditionally sniffy about it – after eight years someone suggested to the RHS that they might like to go and look and they apparently replied that no garden was of any interest until it was at least twenty years old.

Abbey House 3 Rachel

Well, after twenty years this garden is finished, in both senses of the word. And this was the second theme of my musings. What is the lifetime of a garden? Those National Trust places are embalmed, to my way of thinking – Sissinghurst, Hidcote et al. The spirit of the original owners is gone and they are a pastiche of what was one there. If gardens die with their owners, does divorce have the same effect?

The Pollards arrived at Malmesbury in early middle age with a young family and everything they needed to make a go of this garden. Knowledge and experience (Ian Pollard said he made his mistakes in his previous garden at Hazelbury Manor). They had energy, enough money, some historical awareness, and a unique selling point in the nudism. The garden has been a success, but the family has grown up and the love is gone. Adam and Eve must relocate.

Anney House Garden 3 copyright Kate DurrAt the end I let a gentle melancholy envelop me while I drank a cup of tea and looked at the fish. Efforts are being made to keep the garden looking neat – there are potential buyers to impress after all, and when I was there preparations were underway for a wedding. The hedges are tidy, the grass is cut and the roses are still giving a vivid display. But elsewhere are signs that all has not been well for quite a while – the oak boards in the herb garden’s raised beds are rotting, for example.

So, uncertainty and change. For now, if you visit, Ian Pollard is still to be seen working away in his garden. His creation has taken on a life of its own – what will become of it? How interesting and sad when personal misfortune collides with public interest like this.

Now, time to buy my next Euromillions ticket …

Kate Morgan

Kate portrait


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