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Tom Stuart-Smith: Garden Visiting as a Student

Landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith remembers a revelatory trip of garden visits taken for his 21st birthday, in this extract from our Garden Open Today journal.

For my 21st birthday present in the spring of 1981, my parents lent me their deep blue, Ford fiesta, and I drove with my friend, the painter Emily Patrick, down to the west country where we visited as many gardens as it was possible to squeeze into a week; from Cothele to Tresco.

I think in retrospect this marathon was a little extreme but for me it was a revelation, as I had never been on a garden binge like this and had not seen any English garden more than 100 miles from London. The Cornish Magnolias were at their peak and were extraordinary. I remember the huge Magnolia campbellii spp. Mollicomata leaning over the lawn at Trewithen and the fallen petals almost obscuring the grass in an outlandish, almost indecent pink sheet; the colour you might find covering your bed in a certain sort of cheap hotel. It made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

A few days later I was astonished by the towering Echiums and the succulents at Tresco, and again by the vast tree-like rhododendrons at Caerhays, that covered what seemed like a whole hillside and which could only be seen in flower from the other side of a valley.

But perhaps what stays with me most is the people. For once in my life I was thoroughly organised about a trip and wrote to the various owners asking if we could come and see their gardens on such and such a day. For many it was the
closed season but for almost every private garden we were given an appointment, even asked to tea. Lady Amory walked us around Knightshayes and insisted that I dig up a clump of Scilla messeniaca – which I still have growing in the garden
at home – though sadly it has never increased much. We toured the woods at Caerhays guided by the head gardener Philip Tregunna, who by then had been head gardener for 24 of his 40 years in the job and I am sure had better things to
do for the two hours it took to do the circuit. Everywhere people seemed to have time and patience to indulge the ignorant but enthusiastic garden ingenue.

For years after this trip I nurtured fantasies of growing those towering Magnolias with dinner-plate pink flowers, and camellias of sumptuous depravity in my parent’s dry Hertfordhire garden. I imagined that I might find a particularly
moist and sheltered spot where they would think they were overlooking the Helford river rather than the M1.

Of course my dreams remained just that, but the Cornish garden fiesta was one of those early gardening experiences which got me going. And perhaps it was my first introduction to that almost inexplicable generosity that so often goes with gardeners and their gardens; the open door, the cup of tea, and the desire to share the place; perhaps because it transcends being a mere possession. It has a life of its own.

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