Fantastical Gardens

Julian and Isabel have the vision and knowledge to transform wastelands or dull formal Victorian gardens into what can only be described as something close to Arcadia in this green and pleasant land. Known as the ‘grotty’ people they construct temples, grottos and gazebos out of tree trunks rather than marble and ornament the pediments with friezes of antlers horns imbuing their “landscapes of dreams” with a sense of classical antiquity where you can almost hear a hermit reciting Virgilian eclogues. They move heaven and earth, (almost), landscaping and building rustic bridges, redirecting streams, fashioning hills out of tufa, erecting obelisks, fairy rings and hermits huts. No matter how ambitious, and romantic their projects are, they pull it off and there is poetry and the sublime to be found in their fantastical gardens. Their skill, artistry, vision and botanical knowledge has led them to ‘Narnia-fy’ or antiquate gardens into magical realms and mythical haunts of naiads and dryads at Houghton, Waddeston, Highgrove and a myriad other country houses.

For the Chelsea Flower Show in 1994 they came up with the theme of a tumble down monastic cloistered garden in an imagined Cathedral city. What was needed a mature mulberry tree, massive topiary and medieval fragments of gothic ruins. The concept was ‘Trollopian’ as Isabel says “every Barchester, drawn from 19th century natural historians, deans, canons and clergy, who were pioneers in natural history, cataloguing wild flowers, collecting minerals and fossils, stuffing birds, amassing eggs and shells. While Julian wanted to encapsulate in a Chelsea garden a way of life still visibly connected to the world of Chaucer.”

The Chelsea Flower show is a quintessential part of British culture and opines Isabel “although increasingly tawdry it remains almost Chaucerian.” The first task was to uproot a giant mulberry tree with a giant ‘root-ball’, and they planted it in their patch in the Royal Hospital grounds. So far so good, the only snag, was not one leaf that was out and they had to construct a greenhouse around it and spray it daily with a fine mist. Eventually the sun shone and with the green house effect the leaves unfurled at last. From architectural reclaim places they found ecclesiastical fragments from demolished churches and from Salisbury Cathedral stone yard some Chilmark stone, a soft limestone knotted with a vertical train of valerian.

They planted out the garden with a cottagey melange of yew topiary, Nicotiana, martagon lilies, lupins, lavender, delphiniums, pinks, rambling roses, semi weeds and wild plants, such as Welsh poppies, to “calm it down”, while the inmates of Leyhill prison donated prison planted foxgloves and tobacco plants to fill in the gaps. It was a gardening tour de force; and they won the gold medal.

I asked the Bannerman’s what their pottage and potting shed plans are this coming Season? “We are planting and preparing the garden here at Trematon Castle for the opening at the end of April with lots more Exotica than ever before – Canna lilies and giant Echiums galore..” and “we are equally busy working on our next book featuring my botanical photographs which is about scent and smell in the garden… and in the meantime designing for the Prince of Wales in Scotland, as well as Jasper Conran in Devon and Dorset”.

Their new book LANDSCAPE OF DREAMS, THE GARDENS OF ISABEL AND JULIAN BANNERMAN, is a biography of an inspired life and adventures in horticulture; a world away, from the likes of Alan Titchmarsh. Published by Pimpernel Press with a forward by HRH the Prince of Wales; in which he describes ‘The Bannerman touch- as transforming the mundane into a fragment of Elysium’.