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‘I had no idea my children had been paying attention to me’
The Prince of Wales talks to Alex Preston about Highgrove, horticulture, and the passions he hopes to pass on to future generations
Years ahead of the conversation, the Prince of Wales has made it his life’s work to embrace environmentalism and fight pollution. Here, he tells Alex Preston how he’s put these beliefs into practice at Highgrove, creating a garden legacy that inspires not just visitors but his children and grandchildren. Photographs by Jane Hilton. Portrait by Chris Jackson
Iremember as a child at Sandringham, there was the most wonderful topiary garden Queen Alexandra, my great-great-grandmother, had established at the old dairy building. I can still remember being taken as a child, being wheeled in my pram even, and it was so special, these clipped animal shapes, peacocks, birds. I’ve never forgotten it. I would say it had a profound influence on me.’ The obsessions of our adult lives are shaped in childhood, and HRH The Prince of Wales spent his early days being led through a parade of glorious gardens, from Sandringham to Balmoral, from the historic private park attached to Buckingham Palace to the ornamental splendour of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s garden in Windsor Great Park. It’s no surprise that gardening has been the central passion of Prince Charles’s life, a passion that finds its ultimate expression in the garden he has established in the Gloucestershire countryside.
The first thing you notice as you step into the grounds of Highgrove, near Tetbury, is the birdsong: a complex wash of wrens, thrushes and warblers. Then the colour: it’s early May, every gardener’s ‘golden hour’, and the place is at its most beautiful, with azaleas and rhododendrons in full flower, camassias and the last of the tulips dancing in the breeze, and all the greens of the architectural yew and hornbeam hedges bright with new growth. The gardens of country houses can feel formulaic, designed by committee, and yet
Highgrove is something else – a place that is both a work of exquisite, often eccentric art, and an advertisement for a way of thinking about our own relationship to the land we walk upon and cultivate. It’s also a garden that feels deeply personal, with every border, vegetable patch, topiarised hedge and ornamental flourish bearing the mark of its creator.
I’m shown around the 15 acres of Highgrove by head gardener Debs Goodenough, one of a team of 10, a likeable, self-effacing Canadian who, after an early life of high adventure – she was a coastguard and then a fire-watcher in the Rockies – turned to gardening. She was charged with restoring the gardens at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s palatial holiday home on the Isle of Wight, and did so while adhering to strict organic principles. She has been at Highgrove since 2008 and is quiet, intensely knowledgeable and clearly devoted to her royal employer and his vision for this very special corner of Gloucestershire.
Highgrove has a number of significant birthdays coming up – it is currently celebrating a quarter-century of the gardens being open to the public and next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Prince’s purchase of this Georgian manor house of Cotswold stone. From April to October, around 40,000 visitors come on pre-booked, small-group tours of the garden, with all of the profits from these visits – £600,000 at the last count – going to the Prince’s various charitable endeavours. There’s something more than a merely philanthropic impulse at work here, though. ‘He’s always wanted to share it,’ Goodenough tells me. ‘People come here again and again. They collect the seasons.’ The Prince is very much a hands-on gardener, laying out new plants where he wants them, giving Goodenough extensive notes on his plans for the garden and then helping to put them into practice. ‘Whenever he’s been away, I can count the moments until he’s out here in his gardening clothes, looking to see what we’ve been up to,’ Goodenough tells me.
Highgrove provides a unique insight into the Prince and his life – the garden is dotted with gifts from family and friends, with numerous personal touches, from two Grecian urns given to the Prince by the Duchess of Cornwall for his 70th birthday, to the bronze relief of the late Queen Elizabeth in her favourite gardening hat, and the thatched treehouse built for Prince William’s seventh birthday in 1989. Where many stately homes can feel like stiff and grandiose expressions of power, pompously overlooking their terraced lawns, Highgrove is very much still what it always was: a family home, a place of secluded nooks and corners, of high, topiarised hedges, a garden that reveals itself gradually, episodically, with each ‘room’ recounting a different story of its creator’s life.
I spoke to the Prince on the telephone after my
‘I’ve tried to create vistas… so there’s always something to catch the eye’
tour and he told me that when he purchased Highgrove (from Maurice Macmillan, the son of the former Prime Minister, Harold) the garden was almost non-existent, a blank canvas. ‘The house itself had nothing round it at all,’ he said. ‘There were no hedges; large open areas came right up to the house, with just a brown path that went round it. So we had to create “rooms”.’
The Prince’s love of gardening was particularly encouraged by the late Queen Elizabeth. ‘I adored being a child in my grandmother’s garden at Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park,’ he told me. ‘My grandfather, King George VI, made a lot of it himself. He hacked out clearings and planted lots of rhododendrons and azaleas. I’ve always had a passion for them. There was an azalea walk with the common yellow azalea, which smells magical. As a child it had a profound influence on me, as did other parts of the garden. There was an old yew maze at Sandringham and my sister and I adored running round and playing in it. I’ve had such fun planting two mazes at Dumfries House, the 18th-century house I rescued in south-west Scotland, and it’s been immensely rewarding to see children enjoying them exactly as I did.’ The Prince and Princess Anne were also allowed to have their own patches of garden at Buckingham Palace as children. ‘We had a tiny bit at the back of the garden where we could grow a few vegetables and tomatoes. That experience is very valuable
and I hope my grandchildren can have the same.’
When it came to the gardens at Highgrove, the Prince sought the advice of two notable garden designers – Lady Salisbury and Rosemary Verey. ‘Certainly I had great help from Mollie Salisbury, of whom I was very fond and thought it was rather marvellous how she had made her gardens at Hatfield and at Cranborne House in Dorset. Rosemary Verey, who lived down the road, was a great help with selecting plants for the cottage garden.’ The principal challenge at first, he said, was the question of how to frame the house’s neo-classical façade. It is now clad in creeping ivy and swags of exquisitely scented wisteria – the Prince, Goodenough tells me, leaves the windows open as often as he can when the wisteria is in bloom. At the front of the house are evergreen oaks topiarised into the shape of umbrellas, while around it are planted rhododendrons and yellow azaleas, and a host of other scented shrubs and herbs – lavender, rosemary, choisya and curry plants.
From each aspect of the house, there is the interplay of close-in details with distant views, the eye constantly being drawn along paths of interest. It could be the Thyme Walk leading down through ornate golden yew to the bronze Borghese gladiator given to the Prince by his friend the film-maker Lord Cholmondeley; or the pleached hornbeams whose regulated formality clashes pleasingly with areas of lawn left to go wild; or the high crowns of the arboretum with bursts of colour shining up from underplanted rhododendrons. ‘With the garden here,’ the Prince told me, ‘I felt that because the area is so flat, you had to try and create vistas, so I’ve tried to create them from each part of the house, so there’s always something to catch the eye in the distance. It seems to me that half the secrets you pick up when you visit a great garden are these important details. If the landscape around the house had been undulating it would have been quite different.’
To the southern side of the house is a formal box parterre surrounded by topiarised yew, originally planned by Lady Salisbury as a rose garden, but now known as the Sundial Garden. Around the sundial at the centre are box beds with Royal Star magnolia trees planted inside, their last flowers just dimming. Camassias are one of the garden’s signature spring sights, and the tall violet spires provide a link between the decorum of the parterre and the wildness of the Meadow Walk beyond, which is viewed through high wroughtiron gates and leads between an avenue of hornbeam towards a stand of acers. The combination of the dark yew hedges, the vibrant green of the hornbeam, the camassias and the wine-dark leaves of the acers is breathtaking. It’s this experimentation with colour that is one of the Prince’s great pleasures in the garden. ‘The things I’ve learnt from various wonderful artists over the years have been hugely helpful, particularly when it comes to colour. I love the business of colour combination. You came down here and saw the garden when the camassias were out – what I’ve tried to do as you look from the house towards
the Kitchen Garden is to mix the camassias with the combination of those copper-coloured acers which run along either side of the Meadow Walk.’
When Prince Charles bought Highgrove, there was a venerable 200-year-old cedar of Lebanon at the west-facing rear of the house. It was 60ft high and overhung the terrace, providing a link between the house and the garden. Cedars are dying out all over the country just now. While they reach great ages in the Levantine mountains from which they originate, their lifespan in the UK appears to be 200 to 300 years – most of the country’s great cedars were planted in Georgian and early Victorian times. It slowly became clear that Highgrove’s cedar was dying. ‘The old cedar tree by the house had a unique character of its own and somehow framed the house beautifully. It meant a great deal to me and I began to worry about the gap it would leave if I lost it, so I planted a new one over 30 years ago to take its place in the future. The maddening thing was that I couldn’t plant the new one in the same place, because I’d already put in the pleached hornbeams. So I had to put it further away. And it doesn’t now frame the house in the way the old one did. So you can imagine it was a real agonising moment when to my horror it gradually died, these awful fungi appeared and began eating it up.’ On the site of the old cedar, the Prince commissioned an oak pavilion, designed by Mark Hoare, an ecological architect who studied at the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.
But of all Highgrove’s many treasures, the Stumpery is the most memorable. There’s something truly magical about the place, as if you’re stepping into a mossy cave, green light filtering down on to ferns and hostas, the stumps arranged in gnarled, sculptural knots. It feels pagan, ancient, as if Pan or the Green Man might spring out from behind one of the stumps (instead, we come upon a garden gnome hidden in a mossgrown declivity). At the heart of the one-and-ahalf-acre Stumpery stand two classical temples, their pediments inlaid with loch driftwood. At first they appear to be made of stone, but when you look closer, you see they’re hewn from green oak. David Wynne’s sculpture of the Goddess of the Woods crouches outside one of them – the guardian spirit of this enchanted place. It’s like something out of a children’s story, and it’s no surprise that Prince William’s thatched treehouse – known jokingly as Holyrood House – was resituated here when the tree it was in died.
I asked the Prince if it was his memories of gardening as a child with his grandmother that informed the whimsical, fantastical nature of the Stumpery – it was the late Queen Elizabeth who helped him lay out the planting and this is where her memorial stands. ‘Children respond to timelessly intriguing things like small, hidden paths which you never quite know where they’re leading. Or little tunnels and little places that make it exciting and interesting. That’s what I love. And the Stumpery has been a bit like that. I could have made it even more interesting and rather bigger if I’d had a chance. I had these wonderful, talented
and imaginative friends, Julian and Isabel Bannerman, whose design the Stumpery was.’ The Bannermans are two of the country’s most soughtafter garden designers, best-known for their work on the garden at Asthall Manor, the Mitfords’ former home in Oxfordshire.
Highgrove and the 900-acre Duchy Estate are run on strictly organic terms. ‘The Prince’s environmentalism is central to what we do here,’ Goodenough tells me. ‘We work in harmony with the soil and the seasons. The Prince is wholly against the quick-fix approach to gardening, the use of chemicals.’ When the Prince championed organic horticulture with the founding of Duchy Originals in 1982, he was regarded as something of an oddball, pressing ahead with a form of gardening and agriculture that felt nostalgic and impractical, counter to the forward-looking spirit of the age. Since then, the organic movement has gained extraordinary momentum, with recent studies on the biodiversity of the British countryside revealing the astonishing damage wrought by chemically intensive industrial agriculture. I asked the Prince if he feels vindicated by the now widespread acceptance of organic methods of gardening and agriculture? ‘Not exactly vindicated,’ he replied. ‘If change is happening, it’s happening very slowly – too slowly – and it’s coming too late. This is what frightens me. The increasing loss of biological diversity terrifies me, and the fact that we seem to have forgotten that everything in nature is interconnected, including ourselves. Unfortunately, the destruction is continuing at a rapid pace – chemicals of every description, artificial fertilisers and antibiotics are still being used in all kinds of ways, all of them entering the rivers and going out to sea where they’re causing untold damage to the marine environment, often without people knowing it. To a certain extent much of this can be rescued, but the really difficult thing is to persuade people that there’s an alternative way of doing it, as there is for plastics. But of course it’s very tempting to resort to a can of this or a can of that when you have a particular problem.’
If the Prince’s environmentalism was one of the horticultural sticks used to beat him, another was his habit of talking to his plants. Here again, though, there’s a sense that science is proving plants to be more complex and sentient than we ever imagined. In Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful new book Underland, there’s a chapter on the vast fungal systems beneath the soil and the way that plants use these pathways – known as mycorrhizal networks – to share nutrients, to warn of fires and predators, to communicate. I was struck by the fact that Goodenough seems to speak as much about mulch and soil structure as about what is above ground, clearly something she has picked up from her employer. ‘I don’t know what it is, but
I’d always felt that there was this interconnectedness in nature long ago,’ the Prince told me. ‘Without it, nothing is sacred any more and we lose that fundamental understanding of the need for harmony – or balance – with nature. I remember before I began the process of organic conversion here all those years ago, you only had to feel the soil, pick up handfuls of it, and there was no earthworm activity at all. And that’s one of the things that you so often find with land that has been subjected to intensive agriculture and the overuse of chemicals and artificial fertilisers. The key is how do you maintain the health and fertility of the soil through ensuring that there is enough mycorrhizal activity and all the bacteria and everything else that is needed? There’s an immense world underground of astonishing numbers of species all living in a kind of symbiotic relationship with each other, particularly in woodland. And you only have to look at the soil to see these little white filaments running through it all. Everything is connected.’
The Prince even believes that we might be able to learn something from these below-soil relationships. ‘These fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with trees and plants,’ he said. ‘If the trees are stressed in any way, or if they suffer damage, then it changes the relationship with the fungi, which then can eat them up. And this is what we need to recognise: that the things we do in one direction can have a profound effect in another.’
‘The really difficult thing is to persuade people that there’s an alternative way’
Finally, I asked the Prince whether he thought his own grandchildren, the latest of them, Archie, only a few days old when we spoke, would learn about gardening from him the way he inherited his own passion for horticulture from his grandmother. ‘Who knows? I hope so. You never quite know what influence you’re having or what difference the garden is making, but it’s only years later that people will admit it. I had no idea, for instance, that my own children might have been paying attention to me about rubbish and plastic waste. They suddenly announced that they had actually been listening, but you think you’ve been having no influence at all.’
Highgrove is an inspirational place – the idea that a garden so beautiful and multilayered has been built in such a relatively short time gives hope to those of us with young plots cheering every inch of growth. I come back from the (excellent) shop loaded down with delphiniums and camassias, and with a new spring in my horticultural step. As for the Prince, he sees himself as the caretaker of this garden for future generations, and, rather than resenting the hordes that tramp through from spring to autumn, draws deep satisfaction from their presence. ‘The whole point of gardening is to give pleasure to other people, not just me. I see it as an exhibition. It’s rather like painting my bad watercolours – I just try to ensure they – and the garden – are as good as possible.’ For more information, visit highgrovegardens.com