Lord Heseltine: Why Thenford is my therapy

—31st October 2019

Michael Heseltine speaks to RedBook about what he has learned from his ambitious garden projects at his family estate Thenford in Oxfordshire, how his trees will be his greatest legacy and why gardening is the best therapy for the pressures of political life

When you embarked on the Thenford project in 1976, how much did you know about gardens then?

I knew what a dandelion was. I knew lupines and delphiniums – it was pretty restricted. But I’ve always been a gardener from a very early age because my parents had an interest and at school I developed this. It was domestic gardening and wherever I lived – and I moved quite a bit looking for a constituency – I gardened, I did things like restore a greenhouse or plant a few flowers, so it was always there. But the transformation came when we bought Thenford. The decision was about buying a certain sort of house. My wife Anne and I had very clear views even before we were married about the sort of the house we were looking for. We assumed there would be some sort of garden, but the garden was not on the critical list. – it was the house which was the absolute determining factor.

Michael and Anne Heseltine on the massive roots of a centuries-old ash at the start of the project

So once you bought Thenford did you and Anne have an overall vision for what wanted to do with the gardens and creating an arboretum?

No. We started with over 400 acres in 1976. A lot of it was farm, but around the house were the remnants of a horseshoe of woodland which also contained medieval fishponds, a lake, a canal, and a walled garden. It was all in a state of, at very best, survival and in many cases obliterated history. Where a tree fell, it fell, and where an elder bush grew, it grew. The place was completely run down with a tiny area of domestic garden. The walled garden, a magnificent 18th century walled garden, was used as a field to rear lambs. So we started with remnants of hundreds years of English history.

We started clearing near the house, where there was detritus of Victorian rubbish, old medical bottles and rusted saucepans, and we created a 2-acre aviary to house a collection of ducks, geese, swans, and pheasants. It was a nightmare.

How important was it to take advice?

Very. I think there were three big steps. First we were lucky enough to get a landscape architect called Lanning Roper to help us, but he tragically died four years later. After that Roy Lancaster came. But looking back on it, the most evolutionary process was when we met Harold Hillier and he of course was one of the great plantsmen of the age. Thinking that I might be on the verge of becoming a Cabinet Minister if the Tories won the next election. I asked Harold Hillier for advice. He spent quite a lot of time at Thenford and he produced a list of things we could buy. It was huge and we bought the lot. What he had done without us really realising is that he made us collectors. The list would have contained four or five different types of chestnut, a dozen different types of viburnum. In the conventional way one might have said, “Let’s plant chestnuts” or “Let’s plant birch or oaks”, they would all be standard versions. What we had got were the rudiments of a collection. Then with Roy Lancaster becoming involved, that process gathered pace to a point now where we have over 4,000 different types of trees and shrubs and 113 champion trees [the largest known tree of a particular species].

The walled garden, transformed from 2 acres of neglect to splendour, complete with fruit cages, herb garden, aviary, mirror pools, cottage ornée and fountain

What advice would you give to someone today who is embarking on a major garden project and wants to hire the right landscape designer?

You’ve got to know the person asking the question. If for example, some wealthy person buys an estate which they’re going to visit occasionally or use as a sporting estate, and they have a lifestyle which means they are travelling extensively, then employing a consultant, a landscape architect or designer is probably an absolutely essential feature. But if they are going to make anything of it, the key thing afterwards is the Head Gardener, because someone’s got to keep the whole thing going and impart a degree of love. So the absolute first question is who are you and what do you want to achieve?

There is a tension that comes with this – it’s quite easy to recognise garden design in the idiom of the designer, they have their favourite plants. Lanning Roper had his Alchemilla mollis and the little blue violas. 

So if you bring in the professionals, you’ve got to be happy with the idea that it may be as much their garden as it is yours. We started on that track, but I think there was always a tension. I was devoted to Lanning, but he was always saying: “Michael, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run.” I was trying to get ahead faster! After a period with Roy I started doing it myself.

Basically the big things that we’ve done are because Anne or I had an idea we wanted to develop. Anne was particularly keen on the sculpture garden and outside ornamentation, which is a very important part of the landscaping feature.

But there was no overall strategy. If we had looked at the present 70 acres and said, “This is the plan”, it might have been the plan, but we would never have done it, because we would have said, “We can’t afford this”. So it was bit by bit and in effect the consequence is ‘room by room’. One of the commonest observations by people walking around the garden is: “I love the way it changes pace.” The inspiration if there is one comes from Hidcote, which is a wonderful garden created by Lawrence Johnston at the beginning of the last century. It is a series of rooms.

How were you able to have input creatively when you employed a series of established designers with their own ideas?

You got to look at the context. We bought in ‘76, Lanning came in’78, Roy came about ‘82 and worked for four years. And in the whole of that time only a very small part of the 70 acres underwent change, but they gave us the confidence to do it ourselves eventually. That doesn’t mean we didn’t use outside consultants – we did use them and we have used very extensively a guy called George Carter. We used George because he had an idea which was relevant to a challenge we had, and we saw his work, which if adapted to our garden would work. So he came in order to do something we wanted and he knew what we wanted. And he has helped us significantly since. So it was not saying to a designer “What shall we do?”, it was saying “this is what we want and here’s a sketch of what it could look like”. For our rill I sketched the idea out,but what I couldn’t do was turn the sketch into the engineering and design structures. We’ve done a significant border outside the walled garden using one of the walls, and again we sketched it out and George did the working drawings. We went to visit Vaux-le-Vicomte in France and saw a museum celebrating the work of [André] Le Nôtre. I sketched out how that could be adapted to our walled garden, again George did the technicalities.

The Rill is conceived: Michael’s initial sketch which designer George Carter worked from

The Rill begins to take shape

For someone who wants to create a fabulous garden but perhaps isn’t quite sure about what they want or isn’t able to sketch out a plan, what would be your advice to them?

Visit other gardens. We did. Particularly in the early days we visited Thorpe Perrow Hall in North Yorkshire, which was developed by a former Member of Parliament Sir Leonard Ropner in the ‘20s and it had gone into disrepair. I got to know his son John Ropner and together we walked around Thorpe Perrow which was in a regrettable state at that stage, but now it’s been turned into a show place under the leadership of John who has since died, but his wife is carrying on. The second advice is to look carefully at the land you’re developing. The third advice is put in shelterbelts – where you plant close shelter on the fringe of your land because the enemy you have to be constantly vigilant about is wind. So fast-growing shelter is needed to give you a protected site.

You’re been a successful businessman as the founder of Haymarket publishing group – why invest in a garden?

First of all Haymarket is a big horticultural publisher in this country and Germany, so there is a considerable commercial overlap. We have leading trade magazines and we’ve just won the contract to produce Kew’s magazine.

But I don’t think you can overstate the benefits of the creativity, the therapy, the escapism, the everyday satisfaction a garden offers. Every day there is a new phenomenon you don’t know what it is, but you turn a corner and it stares you n the face. It may be a bug or a leaf or a twig or a vista, just a mixture of colour and pace and the noise of streams, it’s endless.

The finished Rill is a central part of the water features, which cause much delight but many headaches

Has there has ever been a connection between your garden and your political life?

In terms of my political life, I would mention the Liverpool Garden Festival. I was instrumental in bringing the garden festival concept to this country in the ‘80s. The first garden festival was in Liverpool which was an international festival where other countries contributed their own gardens to the festival. And one of the gardens was produced by Italy. And then in 1984, I was at a NATO conference as Defence Secretary, Before flying back to England I visited a nursery in Italy which incidentally had provided the trees for the Liverpool garden. During the course of the conversation the owner of the nursery said “would you like some?”. I couldn’t believe my luck so I became the proud owner of 20 huge trees. The down side was there were all in Liverpool and it never occurred to me that it could cost so much to move trees to Thenford. Anyway, there they are now, hugely bigger than when they first came. It was a wonderful linkage.

You mentioned gardens as therapy and escapism. Did your gardens and connection with nature help with the pressures of your wider political life?

There is no doubt whatsoever. I would go back to Thenford at a weekend armed inevitably with the red boxes, and I tried to discipline myself to do the red boxes, and then I set out to the garden. You just left everything behind. It’s a different world, You felt completely divorced from the pressures of every day Cabinet life. Today, it’s the best escape from Brexit!

Sometimes there was the odd fun thing – when I was Defence Secretary I had protection and I can remember seeing this large pair of boots just hidden behind a tree – because I was gardening away in the rain.

Which is easier – running a garden or running a country?

There is one very important difference. Plants don’t talk back to you.

Actually that’s not entirely true, if they don’t like you, they’ll go away and die.

Do you ever make a suggestion and then you are told it’s a bad idea?

Oh yes! I have excellent Head Gardener Darren [Webster] .And whilst of course I am the boss, there is that moment as to whose advice is going to prevail. I have the good sense to know when the Head Gardener is the boss. But we have an excellent relationship. 

Anne in front of the Tazza fountain and two fastigate oaks transported from Liverpool at a surprising cost

Do you and Anne always agree?

Anne and I sometimes have differences of views. We always find an agreement that is true, but we may not often start with an agreement… We share a huge pride in what we have achieved and sometimes it’s her idea and sometimes it’s mine, sometimes one thing leads to something between the two. It’s what you’d expect.

What can go wrong?

Waterworks. We have created ponds and lakes, we’ve put fountains in and we’ve got rills so we have a lot of water features and they are always going wrong. First of all they silt up, secondly they clog up. Thirdly they get full of scum or algae, Fourthly they get overgrown with invasive plant life. So it’s one long battle which is very difficult to win.

This is more controversial but I’m unapologetic about it. We’re also very keen on birds and we see the garden as a haven for birds. So we’re a squirrel-free zone, and in the arboretum squirrels are not allowed. Our guy would love to bring back red squirrels which are much less harmful. That’s another enemy we have to cope with.

We wanted to call our book “Mistake by Mistake” and we were told by the publisher you will never sell a book called “Mistake by Mistake” – it’s too depressing. We gave in and we both think it was a terrible mistake! Anyone who’s in gardening knows you keep making mistakes and the trick is to recognise and undo them. But the positive side is that you plant very small of course but 10, 15, 20, in our case 40 years later, you begin to see what you’ve done. What is very interesting is how things you had no idea would work out do by complete serendipity, the way in which the trees and the shrubs or the herbaceous stuff have grown into each other and creates opportunities. And one of the most exciting is when you look at things you have planted and you suddenly realise you’ve blocked a vista and if you took out perhaps a dozen things you’ve got a hundred yards of vista. That has happened to us several times; it’s very exciting when you spot it.

What would you do differently now?

I wouldn’t do anything different because you can’t jog back. If we were starting now we could have afforded to do things now which we couldn’t have afforded then. But we would be the poorer, because we wouldn’t have had the fun and excitement of the chaos and the memories.

‘Standing Man’ by Elizabeth Frink, with hands cast from Frink’s own, dominates the Sculpture Garden

You mentioned Anne’s passion for the sculpture garden. For someone starting out on a large project, how easy is it to combine art with nature?

You only have to think of the huge landscaping of historic buildings, and the ornamentation that can set into those landscapes, whether they’re sculptures or buildings or water features, the whole history of human habitation has been linked to the design context.

Are there lessons you would apply to a much smaller garden such as a London town garden?

I’m not a garden designer, but in the end our garden at Thenford is a series of gardens. You can have a garden on a balcony, I know friends who do, and they reverse the pots in order to bring forward the flowering season and then put them in the shade for the next season. You can have a garden on a window sill and that means you’ll go for very tiny things. We have an alpine garden and I don’t suppose it occupies more than quarter of an acre but there are 40 troughs and each trough can have 10 different things in it, so you can have 400 different plants on a quarter of acre. Or think about a green house. We have a collection of bulbs which I’m building up from seed and they occupy a tiny amount of space. We’re a nation of gardeners and there are huge variations on how you garden.

“My trees will be my legacy”. The rare and the pretty: Pyrus amygdaliformis var. cuneifolia on the front lawn

Is it true that you said your greatest legacy will be your trees?

Oh yes. My trees. How many politicians are remembered in anything other than a fortnight’s timescale? I have no doubt people will look back in hundreds years at my trees and ask who created this?


 For information about private tours at Thenford and the book “Thenford, The Creation of an English Garden”, by Michael and Anne Heseltine please visit http://thenfordarboretum.com/





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