100 years of Rosemary Verey
To celebrate the centenary of the birth of the writer and designer Rosemary Verey, Anna Pavord visits her former home at Barnsley House, to see how this very particular kind of English garden has changed
In the centenary year of Rosemary Verey’s birth, Anna Pavord visits Verey’s own garden at Barnsley House to see how it has changed
THE FIRST TIME I MOWED THE LAWN, I PUT STRIPES ON IT. MRS VEREY WASN’T VERY HAPPY ABOUT THAT
Rosemary Verey was an important inspiration for the generation of gardeners who took to their trowels in the 1980s. Her book The Englishwoman’s Garden (1980) was the first she’d written, but it was a huge success and highlighted a very particular kind of English garden, with formal framework, billowing borders, and as many bits of architectural salvage as could be managed.
The book, a collection of essays by garden owners, included one by Rosemary herself, setting out her thoughts on what a good garden should contain. ‘Use must be made of the longest distances to create vistas, to lead the eye on and on. Each area of the garden must merge smoothly into the next, each have different moods and areas of light and shade. The garden must be designed to look inviting even in winter, when evergreens and shapes assume importance. Sweet smelling winter f lowering shrubs should be near the house. An element of surprise is essential.’
Few of us now have gardens that can lead the eye ‘on and on’ without bumping into something it would rather not see. But the lessons in that masterly essay are still relevant to anyone making a garden for the first time. We can borrow from Barnsley, as Rosemary herself borrowed. Her famous Laburnum Walk was modelled on one she had seen at Bodnant in north Wales. Alongside a fine stone terrace overlooked by a crenellated verandah, she laid out a knot garden, a clever over-and-under pattern of box, both plain and variegated, interlaced with Teucrium, the design taken from an early book by Gervase Markham. The complex potager that she made in a field adjoining the garden was inspired by a visit to Villandry. The design was taken from a gardening book by William Lawson, first published in 1617. She had a fine library of antiquarian gardening books, collected before anyone else thought they mattered.
When Rosemary and her husband, David Verey, first moved to his family home, Barnsley, gardening was not a priority. Rosemary grassed over the borders that had been laid out by his parents; space for croquet, tennis (at which she excelled) and ponies was more important. But she was galvanised into action when her husband arranged for the garden designer Percy Cane to advise on a scheme. She would do it herself, she said. And she did. She started work when she was in her mid-forties, taking her first planting inspiration from Norah Lindsay’s work at Sutton Courtenay. Barnsley House subsequently became so famous, that 30,000 visitors each year made the pilgrimage to see it. And Rosemary’s own fame grew as she began to design gardens for some seriously famous (and rich) clients, such as Prince Charles at nearby Highgrove and Sir Elton John.
Barnsley House is now a hotel, but head gardener Richard Gatenby was hired by Rosemary herself, two years before she died in 2001. “We both liked whippets. I think that got me the job,” he says. He admits that his employer was a woman of strong opinions, trenchantly expressed.
“The first time I mowed the lawn, I put stripes on it. Mrs Verey wasn’t very happy about that.” Inevitably, some things have changed, some plantings have been simplified, but the iconic elements are all in place: the knot garden, the long stone-f lagged path that provides the central axis of the garden, lined with drums of yew topiary, the beautiful lily pool with its classical temple and tumble of ‘Cecile Brunner’ roses. And the Laburnum Walk.
The tunnelled walk presented Richard with his most anxious moments at Barnsley. The laburnums ( L. x watereri ‘Vossii’), which had been there for almost 50 years, were beginning to fail. In February 2015, he stood in the tunnel, chainsaw in hand, feeling, he says, “like an executioner”, and cut down the old plants. The supports were shifted slightly so the new laburnums could be planted in fresh ground and, fortunately, they are all doing well. The advantage, as he points out, is that the underplanting has benefited from the increased space and light. Hostas (a present to Rosemary from garden writer and designer Penelope Hobhouse) and epimediums are growing with renewed vigour.
Here, a replica of what had gone before was the only option. The Laburnum Walk is an iconic Barnsley image. But Richard “doesn’t feel shackled” by how things used to be. By the time he arrived at Barnsley, the garden had already changed from the one Rosemary had described in her earlier books. “Keep it vigorous. That’s my aim.” Gently, canopies have been raised on some of the fine trees that David Verey introduced – the snake-bark maple ( Acer capillipes), a beautiful Acer griseum, a variegated tulip tree ( Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Aureomarginatum’) and Magnolia x soulangeana planted in the 1960s in the pool garden. Hebe pinguifolia ‘Sutherlandii’ now edges some of the beds in place of blighted box. Some of the borders, which had become infested with bindweed and ground elder, are gradually being renovated, with mixes of annuals in place of perennials. And on the lawn, Richard has now dared to introduce stripes.
At the front of the house, much of Rosemary Verey’s strong structure survives, especially in the cupcake-shaped yew columns that line the path. Within the structure the planting is kept soft in the Verey style with generous groups of tulips ‘Flaming...