|Part of the Red Border at Hadspen, (c) Clive Nichols Photography|
Hadspen House Gardens were, from 1988 to 2005, one of the most talked-about gardens in Britain, and one of the most passionately loved. They had been known before, it was where Penelope Hobhouse started gardening, and after she had left for Tintinhull, when two of the gardeners took it over, keeping it open to the public but letting it sink into a genteel decline, and trying to run a nursery at the same time. Which is when I first discovered it. One of those really romantic secret garden places - go through a door into a sheltered world, of embracing walls, clambering roses and other climbers, sprawling borders, down at heel, a garden taking over the running of itself. It was a kind of a ruin, there had been greenhouses, and vegetable beds and now there were tenderish things taking advantage of the shelter and the south-facing aspect.
The next thing I heard that a Canadian couple, visiting on a tour of English gardens, had heard that it was up for a rent, as a garden+nursery, and stayed, bunked ship, leaving their almost-grown-up children in BC. They had fallen in love with the secret garden, and had taken it on as a business. The next few years saw their reputation grow. They were unusual, clover, skillful, imaginative, disciplined gardeners who worked with color. They were also both so good-looking (which shouldn’t matter, but it does, as we are dealing with something of a myth here, and in myths it always helps if the heroes and heroines are drop-dead gorgeous).
Nori and Sandra had a theory, about how men and women seen color differently, that women have more cones in their retinas. and so see color with more detail, they can see differences that men can’t. I don’t know whether this has ever been tested, but it is certainly true that more men are color-blind. Sandra experimented with color combinations and Nori refined them, specializing in single-color borders. The garden magazines loved them. They were just the right people at the right time. Their work with color was just so thoughtful, so sophisticated.
Hadspen’s reputation spread. It became one of the most discussed gardens in Britain. Needless to say they did a book, with pictures by Clive Nichols, but it seemed sadly inadequate - it needed to be much longer (Nori had written far more, but it got edited out). Then, in 2005, with grand-children back home and Nori needing a hip replacement they left. The garden was stripped by the local gardening ladies (by invitation of the owner Niall Hobhouse). The rest of the story is well-known. Niall got a bulldozer in and announced a competition for a gardener/designer. Which nobody really won, and the garden just became a sad empty space. No decision made. Yet. I suppose one day it might be.
Recently though, we have launched ‘The Hadspen Archive’
to try to encourage as many people to send in pictures or other anything else which enables us to do something about documenting this remarkable garden and what the Popes learnt there. Other people will want to carry on from where they left off, and it would be nice if new garden-colorists could have a record of what they
did. If you've ever been and have pictures, we'd love to hear from you.
I am now Tweeting on @noelk57