Once in an English country garden

Roses have always been in the background of my life; my Mum used to grow them in our garden when I was growing up. I can remember her quoting my GreatGrandfathers  advice “prune them down hard, they’ll shoot back strongly“, and wielding the secateurs with her fingers crossed in hope that he was right.

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On hikes and picnics as a family I used to (and still do) love to find in the hedgerows beside the track or field, the rambling wild rose, whose softly pink-tinged petals brush gentle kisses on the summer skies. In recent times however, the rose has crept forward, like a child playing grandmothers footsteps, it has snuck up on me until an everyday enjoyment has without warning become a passion and a love.

Roses are undoubtably one of our best plants. From the simple beauty of the wild form that scrambles wherever it wishes on the edge of the farm, to the well behaved garden varieties that sit politely beside the patio or bloom in the borders with a few flowers to spare for a vase on the kitchen windowsill. I feel no garden would be complete without at least one rose, and it is true to say there are so many varieties that whichever style of planting and design you prefer, there is almost certainly a rose that will fit into your plans somewhere.

In my own garden I have a large number of roses; a collection that keeps growing. The garden itself is actually an allotment plot, five minutes walk from the flat where I live. Veggies and cutting flowers occupy the centre of the plot, with the shed and two old apple trees on one side, a bed of roses populating the other. Aside from a previously unknown rose ‘rescued’ from a slightly neglected container from my Mum’s garden, which lost its identity many moons ago, and two ‘lost label’ roses picked up at a bargain price from a local nursery, all the varieties have been chosen according to a number of specific factors. Name, scent, suitability for cut flowers, repeat flowering, colour. I adore the pinks, apricots, yellows and oranges, whilst my partner is partial to the whites, strong reds, and almost-blues. The name is just as important as the colour; ‘L’amaint’ is also the name of my Grandmother’s favourite perfume that I used to buy for her at Christmas, ‘The Wren’ happens to be my favourite bird, ‘Penny Lane’ reminds me of a teenage love for all things 1960’s and retro, particularly music. One rose, ‘Graham Thomas’ had to be included in the collection since I fell in love with it’s sumptuous golden yellow blooms several years ago, following a visit to the world famous Mottisfont Abbey Gardens (Hampshire), looked after by the National Trust.

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This June, in peak rose season, we headed back to Mottisfont, to indulge in a day of picnics, petals and perfume.

The infamous rose collection at Mottisfont Abbey was originally started by head gardener and rose namesake Graham Thomas in the 1930’s, and is uniquely housed in a beautiful walled garden within the grounds of a stately home. Originating as an abbey, Mottisfont successfully made the transition to country house, and avoided the fate of many religious estates resulting from the dissolution of the monasteries. The walled garden initially built by the monks that resided at the abbey, now holds an incredible array, variety and number of roses from around the world, including many rare and unusual examples. The first thing that strikes you however, upon walking through the gates on a warm June afternoon, is not so much the details of species and specimen, but a rich tapestry of colour, texture, and above all, scent. The brick walls that surround the garden, trap the air warmed by the sun, and heightens the perfume, intoxicating the visitor and creating a dreamlike atmosphere. A gentle underplanting of nepeta, hardy geranium, and Alchemilla mollis, hemmed in by low clipped box hedges, creates a perfect foil for sprawling, arching, and billowing roses. A strata behind, roses clad the very walls that form the boundary of the garden, whilst yet more plants are trained up and over your head, their blossoms cascading down again into the border on the other side of the path. Those buds at the apex of the arch, stand proud against a brilliant blue sky; silken petals opening to clothe the barren clouds.

The day we chose to visit would turn out to be the build up to a week-long heatwave, on top of a unusually dry season. It has been a tricky year for growers, with an early spring that launched forward with warm temperatures before collapsing into a late April frost. May was windy and June dry. In any year, a tending a garden on such a scale must seem like an endless task of staking, supporting, watering and deadheading, but with the recent conditions the Mottisfont team must have been working overtime this season to keep the roses looking at their tip-top best.

We ate our picnic on a blanket, in the shade of a cedar tree. The house gazed out on families and daytrippers scattered across its sweeping lawns, with blind window eyes. It seemed to like the company.

Back inside the walls the roses were a glorious as ever. The morning clouds had dissipated, dissolved by the joy and chatter of delighted sightseers, and the sun seemed to revel in the attention. Perhaps it was in that moment that the sun decided to stay awhile and give an authenticity to the phrase ‘flaming June’.

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