Two years before HRH The Prince of Wales became the ABF’s Patron, taking over from his mother, HM The Queen.There was a meeting at St James’s Palace in 2001 attended by Penelope Keith (President), Milton Johns (Honorary Treasurer), Peter Bourke (Council Member) and Jane Skerrett (General Secretary). At this meeting Prince Charles asked what he could do to help us. He loves actors, and is particularly interested in our beneficiaries. He wondered if a trip to his Highgrove garden in Gloucestershire would be a good idea, and of course we enthusiastically agreed. The invitation duly arrived, and May 14th was the day.
On June 13th 2002 Dawn Keeler (Council Member) gave an evocative talk about the Highgrove visit at the Annual General Meeting of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund.
Jane Skerrett organised a group of twenty-five -- the maximum allowed per group -- made up of beneficiaries, their friends and some of the ABF’s Trustees. We set off from Adam Street at 8.30 in a splendidly comfortable coach, clutching our lunch boxes and sporting our sensible shoes. Jane had suggested we bring our own lunch, as our allotted time for seeing the garden was 12.30-2.30, and there are no facilities for lunch at Highgrove. It was just as well! We had all had to get up early, and by 11.30 most of us were tucking in to whatever we’d brought. The weather was struggling to be fair. The day before had been terrible, but the further we got away from London, the brighter it became.
We had a “comfort stop”, as the Americans call it, at Leigh Delamere on the M4, and then made our way to Highgrove through many little villages, passing rape fields and beautiful unspoilt countryside. As we were a little early, the coach driver took us into Tetbury, passing the Parish Church of St Mary, with its beautiful spire, and then turned round to arrive on the dot at Highgrove. The expected inspection of identification for each person didn’t materialise, and we passed through the main gate after the coach was given the all clear.
This was the moment we had all been waiting for. We seemed to be entering another world. The estate is extensive, with a long drive. It was very windy, but the rain seemed to be holding off. We passed fields with Aberdeen Angus cattle and black Hebridean sheep grazing, scenes of utter peace. Then the reception centre came into view. This is a relatively new building, built in 1997 for Prince Charles to hold seminars, conferences, dinners, lunches and concerts, and to accommodate the thousands of visitors like us who visit Highgrove each year. It has been sympathetically built by local tradesmen to blend into the landscape, using local materials. Huge Tuscan-style columns form a loggia in front of the Orchard Room, as the main hall is called. The Highgrove shop is also in this complex -- a magnet, of course, but more about that later.
On our arrival we were put in the hands of Mrs Lloyd-Baker, who was to be our guide: and a perfect one she turned out to be. I think she may have been a little wary of a group of actors descending on her, but she soon warmed to us, and was positively glowing by the end of our tour, as we showed our appreciation by giving her enthusiastic applause.
Before setting off we were given a brief history of Highgrove. Prince Charles bought the estate in 1980 from Maurice Macmillan, son of the former Prime Minister. He fell in love with it at first sight, and it’s easy to see why. The house itself, built between 1794 and 1796, is moderate in size, with the usual beautiful Georgian proportions, and the garden is dominated by a huge cedar of Lebanon. In fact this was about all there was in 1980; the rest was fields, stretching as far as the eye can see. The creation of the garden is truly Prince Charles’s, and every corner reflects this.
Our first glimpse of the house was to our left at the top of an avenue of limes, which continued to our right down to a dovecote. Topiarized golden yews line the avenue, backed by pleached hornbeams, while the paths are covered in clumps of thyme. An abiding memory of Highgrove is the wonderful collection of earthenware pots, mostly terracotta. We were told that these had been lovingly arranged by Prince Charles, and placed at strategic points. Two vast terracotta pots, sent to Prince Charles from Italy, dominate the Fountain Garden, where there is a pool within a pool, and four waterfalls. (The crates containing the pots were addressed to the “Prince of Wales, Tetbury”. They ended up in the pub of that name, before finding their way to their proper destination.) A strong classical Italian influence pervades the garden.
Our next treat was the Wildflower Meadow. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the garden. It looked spectacular the day we were there, with the grass waving in the wind, and some beautiful blue camassias in among the other wild flowers. I don’t believe any of us had come across these before. The grass is cut in July, and then sheep are allowed to graze on it until the spring, to help the wild flower seeds to germinate. By now we were all aware of a deep sense of peace and tranquillity descending on us. (The cares of the city seemed far away, and as Mrs Lloyd-Baker led us into the Woodland Garden it was as if we were being taken into the Secret Garden of Frances Hodgson Burnett). Hostas (with no sign of slugs), ferns, hellebores, euphorbias, all brushed us as we passed, and our notebooks were beginning to fill up with the names of some of the most outstanding and rare species. Every corner we turned held a new bit of magic: a stumpery (tons of old roots and stumps looking like a huge pile of bones), a clearing with a pair of temples made from green oak, facing east and west, with inscriptions carved on wooden tablets--one was a quotation from Shakespeare: Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stone, good in everything, and the other from Horace: They think that virtue is just a word and a sacred grove merely sticks. Wherever we went, there was always a place to sit, a nook or cranny to settle in. Another corner turned, and a tree-house came into view, built for the young princes in 1988 in a holly tree, and painted red and green to echo the colours of the berries and leaves. By now, we had all become aware of how much of Prince Charles is reflected in the garden--especially, what one may describe as a spiritual quality. This was confirmed when we came upon a small chapel, called the Sanctuary, which was built in 1999 to commemorate the millennium, and where Prince Charles goes to pray and meditate. Apart from the pots I’ve already mentioned, the garden also has many interesting sculptures. The one that made us all stop in our tracks, called the Daughters of Odessa, was of four beautiful girls in flowing dresses, holding hands in a circle facing away from each other, and all with their eyes closed. It was made by the American sculptor Frederick Hart, “in remembrance of the innocent victims of repression in the twentieth century”. This sculpture was extraordinarily moving. It brought to mind the lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
cannot bear very much reality.
Two more urns, this time made of slate, marked the entrance to the arboretum. I loved the rugged look of these urns. We wandered up the azalea walk to the walled garden, lost in the wonder of all the beauty around us. A poignant moment was coming across a newly dug grave under the wall which turned out to be that of Prince Charles’s little Jack Russell, Tigga, who went with him everywhere. The walled garden is where all the vegetables are grown. It is beautifully laid out with a pond in the middle, which has some koi carp, a gift from Sir Yehudi Menuhin.
We now found ourselves walking towards the house through the meadow again. The path up to the house is lined with black tulips in among the wild flowers, making a very dramatic effect. The uninterrupted view from the front of the house, across the fields to the eighteenth-century St Mary’s Church, Tetbury, is breathtaking. Seeing the spire from this perspective, one realises how tall it is. A previous owner of Highgrove restored the tower as a memorial to his son “on the understanding that he and his heirs and successors can continue an uninterrupted view from Highgrove”.
The side of the house looks on to the Sundial Garden, surrounded by topiarized yew hedges designed to give some privacy. This has been laid out formally with box around the beds, and with an entirely black and white theme. A large stone table and chair in front of the windows face the sundial and the view across the meadow to the woodland area.
To the side of the house there’s a terrace with a view down to the dovecote. More terracotta pots, all shapes and sizes, are carefully arranged by the French windows. Two “pepper-pot” pavilions at either end of the terrace, with little seats in them, face the house. The ground is covered with primula, aquilegia and other flowers, and towering over the whole area is the cedar of Lebanon, with numerous ornamental bird feeders hanging from it, looking like Chinese lanterns. On into the Cottage Garden, full of wonderful flowering shrubs, herbaceous borders, roses of all kinds, and seats everywhere to give the benefit of every angle of the garden. A striking Cotswold pergola marks the entry to the Box Garden. Twenty enormous Cotswold stone pillars, looking like elongated cotton-reels, support oak cross-beams, to form a long avenue. On either side is a series of yew shapes, gradually being clipped to form the “Platonic Solids”. On one side earth, fire, air, water and the heavens, and on the other the first five of the "Archimedian Solids". New box hedges have been planted recently, with a gargantuan pot lying on its side (big enough to climb into) forming the centrepiece of this garden.
We have almost finished our tour, but there is one last garden to see. This is Prince Charles’s latest horticultural creation, which was shown at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show: a walled Moroccan Garden, very formal, with pink walls lined with cypress trees and angelica. Mosaic tiles cover the ground in set designs, echoed by a flowing curtain in the back archway to the garden.
An unexpected pleasure was the cup of tea and Duchy Original biscuits provided in the Orchard Room. This is where we said farewell to the excellent Mrs Lloyd-Baker in the best theatrical fashion, with applause. A visit to the shop completed our tour. We had been encouraged to spend as much as possible in the shop (the proceeds go to the Prince’s Trust), not that we needed much encouragement! We all went home with things to eat, drink, smell, feel, and write on. Not to mention plants, and willow plant frames, pots and garden tools.
We all felt very reluctant to leave this haven of peace--but Jane and Nancy had thought of everything and arranged for us to have a slap-up tea at Stanton Manor Hotel, just off the motorway. This little interlude delayed our return to the city, and enabled us all to share our impressions of Highgrove. We came away with a very clear image of a sensitive, creative, spiritual man who has made a garden he loves, and what’s more, loves to share with others.
Finally I would like to give you a few quotes from some of the thank-you letters Jane received, which sum up this very special day:
"I came away with many gorgeous images, that I can return to in my mind for the rest of my life."
“I had no idea Highgrove would be such fun; so beautiful, so artistic and so personal. Turning every corner was magic, not knowing what you would come across.”
“I would like to thank you and Nancy and everyone at the ABF for a brilliant day from beginning to end. You had organised the whole day so perfectly and everything was so easy.”
“I for one was almost spellbound--the garden was magical, the house out of this world. Oh, what a lovely day it all was!” [From a ninety-year-old]
“Well, of course it was absolutely wonderful. A superb day in every way!!”
What more can be said except to leave you with Prince Charles’s own words:
I need a garden to delight the eye, warm the heart and feed the soul. I want my garden to express in physical form what I feel at an inner level. I want it to be from the heart rather than from the head.
Photograph courtesy of: Highgrove/A. Butler