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WHY I’M GIV­ING UP THE GAR­DEN WE GREW WITH L VE

Sir Roy Strong is leav­ing his Here­ford­shire home af­ter 47 years – and the glo­ri­ous four-acre gar­den he cre­ated there with his wife. Here he re­veals...

- nre­becca Hardy Oman · England · Austria · National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty · Prince Andrew, Duke of York · London · Herefordshire · Victoria and Albert Museum · Herefordshire · Helen Ghosh · Ledbury

Ear­lier this year, the art his­to­rian, writer and land­scape de­signer Sir Roy Strong made a life-chang­ing de­ci­sion. He re­alised that there was noth­ing more for him to do at The Las­kett, his home and glo­ri­ous gar­dens in Much Birch, Here­ford­shire. At 85, it was time to start a new chap­ter in his life.

Sir Roy, the for­mer di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery and the Vic­to­ria And Al­bert Mu­seum, fash­ioned the gar­dens with his late wife, the set de­signer Ju­lia Trevelyan Oman, from a four-acre field at their home in Here­ford­shire af­ter mov­ing here in 1973. To­day, they are among the largest pri­vate for­mal gar­dens to be cre­ated in Eng­land since the war. They are also, Sir Roy says, ‘about two peo­ple who had a very good life to­gether’.

To­day we ven­ture into the gar­den, and the ex­tra­or­di­nary life Sir Roy lived with Ju­lia, who died of pan­cre­atic can­cer in 2003, blos­soms ev­ery­where. ‘She was the only per­son I ever loved,’ he says. ‘Any com­ing to­gether of two peo­ple al­ways re­quires a giv­ing up of some things like cer­tain friends who don’t fit in. Mar­riage has to be a com­pro­mise,

but the ben­e­fits of com­ing to­gether far ex­ceed any­thing else.’

Sir Roy and Ju­lia were re­turn­ing from Aus­tria when she fell ill and she was dead within six weeks. ‘She was mar­vel­lous,’ he says. ‘She never shed a tear. We sat down and planned the whole fu­neral. I re­mem­ber once she looked at me and said, “You have so much to give still.” It’s a won­der­ful thing to have said to me, isn’t it?

‘Ju­lia had an in­cred­i­ble sweet­ness of na­ture and huge strength of char­ac­ter. She was some­one I just loved be­ing with. When I pro­posed to her – she was 40 and I was 35 – she said,

“You don’t want any chil­dren do you?” I said, “Not par­tic­u­larly,” and that was the last of it.

‘I mar­ried some­one who was some­one in their own right. She was far more im­por­tant than me and I loved that. I needed some­one who wasn’t just hang­ing on as Lady Strong. In fact, it was summed up when the let­ter came say­ing would I agree to be knighted. I said, “Dar­ling, I’ve got bad news for you. I’m go­ing to be made a knight of the realm. You won’t like that, will you?”’

Sir Roy pulls a sort of chew­ing-ona-lemon face as he im­i­tates his wife, ‘“No.”’ He laughs fondly.

In Ju­lia’s fi­nal weeks, Sir Roy says

‘She was far more im­por­tant than me and I loved that’

they went into ‘lock­down’ as ‘all the peo­ple she wanted to see for the last time came here. The worst thing I could do was to show I was thrown in any way. She didn’t want that. In the af­ter­noons I’d go for a two-mile walk down the lane and cry my eyes out. Then I’d come back. We drifted through the sum­mer and she died on 10 Oc­to­ber. It was very swift.

‘I re­mem­ber the last thing I said to her was, “Re­mem­ber I’ll love you for­ever.” They al­ways die when you’re out of the room. I came down­stairs, the nurse called me up and she was dead...’

Sir Roy’s voice breaks as he wres­tles with his tears. This is the first time he has spo­ken so openly about his wife’s death. The sad­ness will never com­pletely go away.

In truth his de­ci­sion to leave The Las­kett was prompted by a fall he suf­fered a year ago which should, he says, have killed him outright. ‘I made a mirac­u­lous re­turn. Blood was spurt­ing out of the ear. I’d got to the fridge, opened the door and the next thing I re­mem­ber was stand­ing look­ing at a pool of blood. The door­bell went. It was a de­liv­ery of wine for my 84th birth­day. I wasn’t aware I was trail­ing blood ev­ery­where.’

Sir Roy was taken to hos­pi­tal where he re­mained for three days. ‘All I know is there was an enor­mous swelling on the back of my head. Peo­ple were mar­vel­lous. They all ral­lied round. But your li­cence to drive is taken from you. I re­alised I was to­tally iso­lated here go­ing into old age, when you can­not drive your­self or even walk to a shop. I be­gan to go on a bit of a down. Then a friend said to me, “I’ve read all your diaries and you’re al­ways the same. You go into a place. change it, it comes alive again, then you leave and never go back.”

‘I said, “You’re right.” When Ju­lia died I thought, “I’ll have to make an­other life.” You’ve got to make change. It’s the key. That phase of my life was over. Then my friend said, “You have noth­ing more to do here.”’

Within a week Sir Roy had made an of­fer on a house in the mar­ket town of Led­bury. ‘It has an 1840 room which I’m go­ing to re­store,’ he says. ‘It’s a ten-minute stroll to the sta­tion one way and ten min­utes the other way to the su­per­mar­ket. It’s changed ev­ery­thing. I’ve got the ex­cite­ment of cre­at­ing a new his­toric house. It’s given me a new lease of life.’

It had been Ju­lia’s dear­est wish to be­queath The Las­kett to the Na­tional Trust, but around 1999 two peo­ple on the ‘big­wigs com­mit­tee’ voted against it. Years of dis­cus­sions fol­lowed un­til con­tro­ver­sial di­rec­tor Dame He­len Ghosh took over and ev­ery­thing went quiet. In 2015 Sir Roy asked for an up­date. ‘I was told it wasn’t up to their high stan­dards,’ he says. ‘That re­ally shook me. I’m sorry, it’s a bloody good gar­den.’

He doesn’t mince his words when he tells me he could stran­gle the ‘lit­tle zom­bies’ who run it now. ‘How have those peo­ple got in there? Who re­cruited them?’ he asks.

‘Those peo­ple’ are re­spon­si­ble for the Trust’s (to bor­row its cor­po­rate jar­gon) ‘re­set pro­gramme’ – a con­sul­ta­tive doc­u­ment that, as re­vealed by the Mail last month, pro­poses dis­miss­ing ex­pert cu­ra­tors, schol­ars and prop­erty man­agers as it ‘di­als down’ its tra­di­tional role as ‘a ma­jor na­tional cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion’. In­stead this once-tweedy or­gan­i­sa­tion, cher­ished by many for pre­serv­ing our coun­try’s great houses, talks of plans to ‘re­pur­pose’ it­self as a sort of flashy en­ter­tain­ment provider and ‘gate­way to the out­doors’ for the public.

Sir Roy shud­ders. ‘In the old days ev­ery head of a great in­sti­tu­tion was also a scholar in their own right. Now ev­ery­thing’s driven by money.’ He has said the Trust is ob­sessed with ‘tick­ing the boxes of the dis­abled, the aged, LGBT and eth­nic mi­nori­ties’. He shakes his head. ‘You never know who’s got into it or what it’s about.’

He pauses in front of a statue of Bri­tan­nia. ‘There is the in­scrip­tion from Vir­gil’s First Eclogue re­fer­ring to this coun­try as some mys­te­ri­ous world apart,’ he says. ‘I’m very proud of be­ing English and Bri­tish. I love this coun­try. There’s a strong el­e­ment of want­ing to tear ev­ery­thing down, isn’t there? I don’t like statue top­pling.

‘Ev­ery­thing’s up for grabs at the mo­ment. Look at the monar­chy. I’m ter­ri­bly wor­ried about that. I think as long as the Queen’s there we’re fine and it looks as though Kate and Wil­liam are good news, but what is still to come out about Prince Andrew makes one’s hair stand on end.’ In Novem­ber he will hand the gar­den to Peren­nial, the Gar­den­ers’ Royal Benev­o­lent So­ci­ety. ‘They’re lovely peo­ple to deal with. Very dif­fer­ent to the Na­tional Trust. I’m happy to hand it over. I would have achieved what my wife most wanted.’

We reach the Christ­mas Orchard, where he ges­tures to the urn con­tain­ing Ju­lia’s ashes. ‘Our two wed­ding rings and my ashes will be min­gled with hers when I die,’ he says. ‘Other than that I won’t be back. I be­lieve the fall was my body giv­ing me a mes­sage say­ing, “You can’t go on like this, up and down to Lon­don, do­ing, per­form­ing, giv­ing.” I’m 85. I’ve spent 50 years in public life. I just want some peace and quiet. I feel I’ve done my stint.’

‘I wasn’t aware I was trail­ing blood ev­ery­where’ OVER­LEAF A TOUR OF HIS PRIDE AND JOY

 ??  ?? Sir Roy with his wife Ju­lia in the 1990s
Sir Roy with his wife Ju­lia in the 1990s
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 ??  ?? Sir Roy at The Las­kett. Right: how the gar­dens used to look, and (be­low) how they look to­day
Sir Roy at The Las­kett. Right: how the gar­dens used to look, and (be­low) how they look to­day
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