Australian House & Garden
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.
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.