... is a great gardener.
If you are interested in Historic Garden Conservation, Chiswick House is a good place to see what can be done. A huge injection of Heritage Lottery funding, plus donations from big business and generous individuals have enabled a thorough and careful restoration of this most important of London gardens. Designed originally by Lord Burlington and William Kent in 1729 - he who 'Leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden' - the garden has several layers of design contributed by the generations of owners, until it became a private mental asylum in the Victorian era and thence a public park.
By the turn of this century it was woefully neglected, and whilst the house was under English Heritage the garden was maintained by the cash strapped local authority. An ill advised restoration project in the 1970's had filled the main lawn with trees, graffiti covered the entrance walls, dogs fouled the grounds and mattresses lurked under the brambles in the undergrowth.
The grounds have been transformed by the injection of money, the paths are resurfaced, the follies are gleaming and the exedra now has statues with heads above the hedge as they should be, rather than hidden in the hedge as they were.
An iconic cafe and toddlers' playground brings a twentieth century layer and the garden now welcomes thirty thousand people a year, but what really makes the garden special is the people.
One cannot help immediately liking the quietly spoken Head Gardener Fiona Crumley. Former Head Gardener at Chelsea Physic garden she was enjoying being at home organising funding for young gardeners to get started on their careers (see The Merlin Trust) when her arm was twisted to take on Chiswick. Despite early scepticism she soon won the hearts of the Chiswick House Friends group, a very influential and well organised set of local people who came together to protect their park at its lowest point, and were understandably at first unsure about plans to remove hundreds of trees from the gardens, until Fiona's good communication explained the historic reasons and replacements planned.
Fiona maintains the garden with two - yes two - grounds contractors, but they are supplemented with 25 volunteers in the main garden, and 25 volunteers in the kitchen gardens.
The huge amount of good will and time that has been invested by local people has turned the kitchen garden into a community project, where local school children come to pick and picnic on the fresh produce - tasting their first lettuce in several cases. The gardens are tended by a cheerful group of mostly retired barristers, journalists and other professionals with occasional younger work experience gardeners. They called themselves the Goosefoot Volunteers after the famous patte d'oie layout of the main avenues:
The Greenwich BA Garden Design students who came with me last week were impressed by the restoration and particularly interested in the current exhibition of Rysbrack paintings which show the garden in its original splendour. But what really bowled us all away was the volunteers, and none more so than our Continental European students. A very well educated mature student looked on in disbelief as Fiona spoke of being able to double the volunteers next year; until eventually he raised a question: 'Excuse me... these volunteers, how does it work - is it that they makes for free?' 'Oh yes' said Fiona, 'they all 'makes for free'.'