29: Spring 2012

Author: Carole Webb

A Visit to the Laskett

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A Visit to the Laskett
Carole Webb

Are gardens like buses? -I asked myself – when two unexpected opportunities came up recently to visit gardens near to the top of my ‘must visit’ list. I had dismissed the possibility of going to either in the foreseeable future. Then, thanks to the thoughtful network of Hardy Planters and a timely email from Roy Stickland, I found myself visiting both within six weeks of each other. The visit to The Laskett was organized by Winscombe RNLI and included a three-hour stop in Hereford and a beautiful journey back through the Wye Valley. Tina Joyce, our group leader for the day, added an extra dimension to the visit by announcing upon our arrival at The Laskett that Sir Roy himself would be there to welcome us.

I had read a lot about The Laskett, and wondered for some time how it had fared since the untimely death of Sir Roy Strong’s wife, Julia Oman, in 2003. After all, the garden had been their joint and devoted labour of love for over thirty years. It reflected their mutual interest in art, theatre, design, gardens and, memorably, theatricality (much in evidence throughout the garden). Julia Oman, in particular, had not wanted her garden, a surprisingly intimate place notwithstanding its four acres, to be open to the public during her lifetime. Sir Roy, however, takes a different view, as he charmingly told us in his impromptu introduction to the origin and development of the garden.

The Laskett is not a plantsman’s garden. It is lovingly tended and nurtured as a creative space, for the imagination and (as Sir Roy has said himself in his writings) for the soul, rather than the beauty of the plants. We were encouraged by Sir Roy to wander through the garden at will, guided by a beautifully drawn map that keyed us into the ‘pictorial sequence which moves from large to small, from wide to narrow, from light to dark, from formal to informal, from loose to tight’ (from ‘Garden Tour’ in The Laskett, The Story of a Garden, Roy Strong, Bantam Press 2003).

The garden is famous for its individual ‘rooms’, sculptures and artful vistas and its grandly named avenues and walks. But the word I heard used frequently during our visit was ‘atmospheric’. It is a little untidy in parts; some trees and plants now obscure the original design and sculptures and memorials are not all made from the finest materials. I think the Strong-Oman partnership developed their own take on ‘English vernacular’. Nevertheless, the transformation from field to intimate space, so obviously influenced by Roy Strong’s acknowledged love of Hidcote Manor garden, is triumphantly achieved.

Garden visiting is a very personal activity. I can only offer my own thoughts and memories of this place. It is a garden that draws you in at several points, but once ‘in’, via the Yew Garden, the ‘Elizabeth Tudor Avenue’ or ‘Die Fledermaus Walk’, it tantalizes the senses and tickles the humour. I was prepared to suspend doubt and disbelief as I looked at the V&A Museum Temple (incorporating Sir Roy’s silhouette between the images of Victoria and Albert) and Howdah Court, where blue painted spiral staircases combine with old radiators and other ‘found objects’ to offer the perfect viewing platform across the Herefordshire landscape.

Doubtless, this box of garden delights does not impress everyone (I overheard the odd exclamation: “Well, what do you make of that”, or “What folly!”) but I also caught sounds, and many a sigh, of pleasure and admiration. As for cat lovers, the memorials to much loved cats (amongst them, Lady Torte-de-Shell and Reverend Sir Wenceslas Muff) are just enchanting. Though Sir Roy is associated (through his scholarship and writing) with grand country houses, it is not grandness so much as quirkiness that for me best sums up the garden and its owner. Not only did Sir Roy greet us, but towards the end of our visit he drove off (chauffeuring one of his two gardeners) and thanked us cheerily for taking the trouble to visit.

First published in the Somerset Group Newsletter, June 2011
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 29.
© Copyright for this article: Carole Webb

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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