High Sum­mer

Grass­roots diplo­macy rules at Stoke Lodge, the Lon­don res­i­dence of Aus­tralia’s High Com­mis­sioner to the UK, where the beau­ti­ful gar­den is of­ten the set­ting for of­fi­cial events dur­ing the warmer months.

Australian House & Garden - - News - STORY Janna Schreier | PHO­TOG­RA­PHY Claire Takacs

In Lon­don, the fine arts of diplo­macy and hor­ti­cul­ture merge in the gar­dens of Stoke Lodge.

When Alexan­der Downer kicked a footy around the back­yard dur­ing his fa­ther’s post­ing to Lon­don as High Com­mis­sioner from 1964 to 1972, he had no idea he would re­turn to live in the same house some 50 years later. But diplo­macy was clearly des­tined to run in the fam­ily, as Alexan­der fol­lowed in the foot­steps of his fa­ther (also Alexan­der Downer) and be­came Aus­tralia’s High Com­mis­sioner to the UK in 2014, af­ter a long ca­reer in Fed­eral pol­i­tics.

Stoke Lodge, the High Com­mis­sioner’s of­fi­cial res­i­dence, is in Kens­ing­ton, not far from Hyde Park in West Lon­don. Built in the 1830s and pur­chased by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment in 1950, it’s home to Alexan­der and his wife Nicky un­til at least the end of the year, and a new gen­er­a­tion of Down­ers – their grand­chil­dren – now play on its im­mac­u­late striped lawns. The vel­vety greens have been tra­versed by many no­table fig­ures over the years, from the Queen, hosted by then High Com­mis­sioner Philip Flood in the late1990s, to Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn bull in July this year. In ad­di­tion, many prom­i­nent Aus­tralians have vis­ited, from dig­ni­taries to cul­tural icons and sport­ing le­gends.

While the tow­er­ing Lon­don plane trees date back to the early days of the prop­erty, other el­e­ments are con­stantly evolv­ing. “Each suc­ces­sive High Com­mis­sioner has con­trib­uted some­thing of his own to the gar­den,” says Paul Bur­nage, Stoke Lodge’s head gar­dener of 18 years. He notes the tree ferns and grass trees brought in by Philip Flood in 1999, a top­i­ary kan­ga­roo added by Richard Al­ston in the 2000s and the Wollemi pine planted by John Dauth in 2011. Paul’s eyes light up as he talks of the gar­den, mak­ing his green-fin­gered pas­sion clear. Nicky Downer de­scribes him as “the glue that holds it all to­gether”.

This lay­er­ing of his­tory en­sures the high-pro­file gar­den, tak­ing up over a quar­ter of a hectare, feels quite per­sonal. The cur­rent cus­to­di­ans have con­tin­ued with tra­di­tion, ad­ding a flo­ral bor­der around the mag­nif­i­cent con­ser­va­tory, where of­fi­cial din­ners

are held. Nicky, who was made a Mem­ber of the Or­der of Aus­tralia for her ser­vice to the arts, has quite a flair for botan­i­cal de­sign. With a few point­ers from fel­low Aus­tralian and noted gar­dener Mary­lyn Ab­bott, she has cre­ated a stun­ning plant­ing scheme for the new sec­tion, fea­tur­ing pops of colour from a range of Per­si­caria, echi­nacea and dahlia cul­ti­vars. Nicky is hands-on in the gar­den, of­ten bran­dish­ing a pair of se­ca­teurs. “We move things about quite a lot,” she says. “I had some dahlias here that grew so tall they had to be given a new spot.”

Nicky knows the sto­ries of many of the plants. There’s a Cor­rea gifted by Vic­to­rian Richard Bar­ley, now di­rec­tor of hor­ti­cul­ture at Kew Royal Botanic Gar­dens, when he gave a talk to a group of diplo­matic spouses at Stoke Lodge. The Aca­cia melanoxy­lon was given to Nicky by UK gar­den de­signer An­drew Fisher Tom­lin, af­ter she hosted a fundrais­ing event to sup­port the Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Gar­den­ers’ Fu­ture Gar­den­ers pro­gram.

The gar­den’s lay­out also boasts what must be the largest veg­etable gar­den in Kens­ing­ton, where car­rots, beans, beet­root and toma­toes thrive. There’s an in­cred­i­ble mix of plant­ings, yet they all merge in­toa­co­he­sive­w­hole,with­Lon­don­plane­sand­florif­er­oushy­drangeas re­peated around the lawn to ef­fect an en­tirely uni­fied de­sign.

Nicky de­scribes some sur­pris­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties to gar­den­ing in Aus­tralia, with thirsty trees suck­ing mois­ture out of the soil. Lon­don, in fact, has a lower av­er­age rain­fall than Can­berra, al­low­ing many un­likely Aus­tralian na­tives to grow quite hap­pily on the other side of the world. “We don’t get many frosts here,” she adds.

Over the years, the gar­den at Stoke Lodge has been the fo­cus of much ac­tiv­ity. “Vis­i­tors tell of how their chil­dren came over to kick a ball on these lawns with the five L’Es­trange boys in the early 2000s,” says Nicky. And all sum­mer the gar­den is used to host a se­ries of Cham­pagne re­cep­tions, ex­tend­ing into spring and au­tumn with the use of the ter­race. Re­cent high­lights have in­cluded an al­fresco per­for­mance by the Aus­tralian String Quar­tet, and the much-an­tic­i­pated an­nual Wim­ble­don din­ner, at­tended by ten­nis le­gends such as Rod Laver and Pat Cash.

When asked which time of the year she likes best, Nicky doesn’t hes­i­tate. “My favourite sea­son is sum­mer, when we can share the gar­den with oth­ers,” she ex­plains. As a born host with a bub­bly per­son­al­ity, she loves noth­ing more than to see the grounds full of life. The Down­ers are clearly mak­ing the most of their time at Stoke Lodge, and their gen­eros­ity has en­abled this unique cen­tral-Lon­don gar­den to be en­joyed by so many from around the globe.

ABOVE Be­tween the con­ser­va­tory and man­i­cured lawn, a new bank of plants de­signed by Nicky Downer fea­tures dahlia, echi­nacea and Per­si­caria cul­ti­vars. OP­PO­SITE Anemone hu­pe­hen­sis and Hy­drangea macro­phylla. Sil­ver wat­tle ( Aca­cia deal­bata), one of many...

ABOVE Fresh hy­drangeas adorn a ta­ble set for af­ter­noon tea. In the bed be­hind are pink Hy­drangea macro­phylla and white Anemone hu­pe­hen­sis blooms, along with a much-loved top­i­ary kan­ga­roo. OP­PO­SITE The Aus­tralian flag flies above the por­tico of the...

Nicky pops the first bot­tle of Cham­pagne for guests at a sum­mer re­cep­tion, where lam­ing­tons are a nos­tal­gic re­minder of Aus­tralia. The plates are stamped with the Aus­tralian coat of arms and topped with cerise Ja­panese anemones ( Anemone hu­pe­hen­sis)...

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