Who’s who

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS AM­BRA ED­WARDS POR­TRAIT CHAR­LIE HOP­KIN­SON

The pas­sion­ate plants­man and owner of Wild­side, Keith Wi­ley be­lieves the only way to gar­den is to be bold, ex­per­i­men­tal and will­ing to take a few risks

Peo­ple some­times talk about hav­ing a pas­sion for gar­den­ing, which gen­er­ally means they like it a lot. But for true pas­sion, few mea­sure up to Keith Wi­ley. His gar­den, Wild­side, on the fringes of Dart­moor, has been ac­claimed as the most ex­cit­ing and in­no­va­tive in the UK. “We haven’t even be­gun to ex­plore all of the pos­si­bil­i­ties for where gar­den­ing can go,” he de­clares, eyes glit­ter­ing. “We’ve all done it in the same way, year after year, gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion.” At Wild­side, how­ever, he is de­ter­mined to push the bound­aries of an ex­per­i­men­tal, ‘style’ of gar­den­ing – one in­spired by close ob­ser­va­tion of na­ture, but with an un­der­stand­ing of form, a sense of nar­ra­tive and a lyric in­ten­sity that lifts it on to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent plane from more fa­mil­iar forms of nat­u­ral­ist or oth­er­wise gar­den­ing.

Over the past 14 years he has moved some 100,000 tonnes of rock and soil, three times over, to cre­ate the spec­tac­u­lar land­scape that is Wild­side – a labyrinth of ser­pen­tine paths and tree- clad hum­mocks, of ponds and canyons and shady groves – cap­tur­ing the essence of a myr­iad habi­tats from damp Cor­nish val­leys to the Tem­blor Moun­tains of Cal­i­for­nia, from the flow­er­ing deserts of South Africa to the tum­ble­down barns of his Som­er­set child­hood.

Keith de­scribes that child­hood as ‘ feral’, roam­ing the coun­try­side in search of birds’ nests, study­ing their habi­tats with a foren­sic ex­act­ness of ob­ser­va­tion. Most of us lose that fe­ro­cious power of con­cen­tra­tion as we grow older, but Keith has re­tained it, not­ing the pre­cise mo­ment at which the move­ment of the sun gilds a curve of the land, or rel­ish­ing the freck­ling of red in the shaggy bark of a pine. His fa­ther, too, was an am­bi­tious gar­den- maker – al­ways one for the grand ges­ture – but not so good at fin­ish­ing a project, con­fides Keith. He has clearly in­her­ited the bravura gene.

After train­ing at Wye, in 1978 he was ap­pointed head gar­dener for punc­til­ious plants­man Lionel Fortes­cue at The Gar­den House. ( The pre­vi­ous head gar­dener had quit, con­vinced, as were the gar­den’s trustees, that it was un­vi­able.) Keith turned it around. By the 1990s vis­i­tor num­bers had soared from 200 a year to around 45,000, at­tracted by Keith’s bold new nat­u­ral­is­tic plant­ings – glo­ri­ous bulb and wild­flower meadows, a cot­tage gar­den in­spired by the land­scapes of Crete, a mythic stone cir­cle guarded by pinkstemmed birches, and above all a South African gar­den that spec­tac­u­larly evoked the heat and daz­zle of Na­maqua­land un­der the milky Devon skies. After 25 years of un­stint­ing com­mit­ment at The Gar­den House, Keith came un­ex­pect­edly to log­ger­heads with the trustees and quit. On his 50th birth­day, Keith found him­self job­less, home­less and pen­ni­less. “We didn’t have enough money to buy a house. We had just enough to buy a field, and hoped we would get plan­ning per­mis­sion for a nurs­ery and even­tu­ally a house.” And thus, on a flat, south-fac­ing, four-acre field, just down the lane from The Gar­den House, be­gan Wild­side, which he set about trans­form­ing with a su­per­hu­man en­ergy, fu­elled by anger and a deep sense of be­trayal.

It is im­pos­si­ble to speak of Keith Wi­ley with­out men­tion­ing his wife, Ros. They met at Wye, and have been in­sep­a­ra­ble ever since. An­other wo­man might have been grumpy at wait­ing 14 years for her house to be built. She might have ob­jected to the 80- hour weeks at The Gar­den House, and the years of un­paid toil ever since, at the lack of time for her own art ( Ros is an ac­com­plished painter), or the dearth of crea­ture com­forts. In­stead, she is un­flinch­ing in her sup­port. At one point, Keith took a few steps into the well-paid in­ter­na­tional lec­ture cir­cuit, but he found it too lonely with­out Ros at his side, un­will­ing to ex­plore new lands and lay down new mem­o­ries un­less he could share them with her. She couldn’t go with him; there were 40,000 plants to be tended.

They man­age the gar­den and nurs­ery them­selves, but rather than be­ing daunted by the scale of the work, they are afire with new projects: a serene, faintly Oriental pond, a new and bet­ter South African gar­den, a se­ries of sum­mer­houses, each fac­ing a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. Keith will reach state pen­sion age next year – not a rea­son to slow down, but a wel­come source of ad­di­tional in­come to fund the works. The pair’s only con­ces­sion is a plan is to give up the nurs­ery, to al­low them time and head-space for paint­ing – she in pig­ments, he in plants.

“The po­ten­tial here is just mas­sive,” says Keith. So charged is he with a driv­ing joy, I half ex­pect him to shoot up into the strato­sphere. “I go to bed ev­ery night dream­ing about the next day. I sup­pose you could call it ob­ses­sion.” USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Wild­side Nurs­ery and Gar­den, Green Lane, Buck­land Mona­cho­rum, Devon PL20 7NP. Tel 01822 855755, wi­ley­atwild­side.com The nurs­ery is not open to the pub­lic, but plants are on sale at the gar­den en­trance on gar­den open days. See web­site for de­tails. NEXT MONTH Stephen Crisp, head gar­dener at Win­field House, Lon­don home of the US Am­bas­sador to the UK.


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