Will it be as a politician or as a gardener? Michael Heseltine has an established reputation as a long serving politician in the United Kingdom while his significant contribution to English gardening may not be as widely or as popularly known. Hopefully, “Thenford” written by Michael and Anne Heseltine and describing the development of their garden may go a long way to change that balance.
A simple comment might be that this is a substantial, impressive and significant – and beautiful – book and that such is appropriate given the garden it describes.
The early chapters recall the search for a new home – brought about by the necessity of living close to the political constituency and being in touch with his constituents. When Michael and Anne Heseltine arrived at Thenford it was not in a dreadful condition but the estate had been significantly reduced in size over previous years through land sales and there was general need for a good renovation and a new spark of life and this they brought with enthusiasm and vigour.
Thenford village is part of the estate and the renovation of many of the houses there along with the reconfiguration of other for community/public use demanded early attention. The initial attention to the garden was to the area immediately around the house but was extended quickly to digging out a series of lakes and the start of the arboretum – Yes, Michael and Anne might well be called Mr. and Mr. Whirlwind!
Lanning Roper was engaged to advise on the area around the house and Hillier’s – in the person of Roy Lancaster – for the arboretum and further plantings. It was interesting to note throughout the book, and the various projects described, that those whose advice was sought were all horticulturalist and plant enthusiasts, something which clearly reflects Michael and Anne Heseltine’s love of plants.
Subsequent chapters, with the authors writing on those areas which are their particular interest, describe a range of projects undertaken over the years. The range and the scale of these projects are staggering for this is certainly gardening on a grand scale. We read of the development of the drives, the water gardens, woodland, a sculpture garden, the walled garden, the herbaceous borders, the rill (Wow!), the rose garden etc. and what I found most charming and pleasant throughout was the tone of the writing. Both are obviously very practical people, used to gardening, used to the trials and errors and are perfectly down to earth and honest in their accounts. Mistakes were made – who hasn’t made them! – and these are recounted candidly and honestly and a good sense of humour. The entrance gate with the arch too low so that vans hit it on entering or the lake with several small islands – it was only after flooding the lakes that they realised it would have been cleverer to have planted the trees on the island first rather than trying to bring them out in a small punt. However, it is well that the authors can say, “Looking back, there were mistakes but no regrets.”
When interviewed for the Daily Mail, Michael Heseltine said that none of his political battles or achievements will matter one jot 100 years hence and that his former Deputy Prime Minister days are not what he will be remembered for but his garden. What people will recall, he says proudly, is his garden. ‘Who can recall the name of any 19th-century politician except perhaps Gladstone, Disraeli or Pitt? But people know Westonbirt,’ he says, referring to Britain’s most famous arboretum in Gloucestershire, established in 1829.
Presently, I can only judge the garden by the book – having never visited – but I believe Michael and Anne Heseltine have made a magnificent and beautiful contribution to English gardening. In the meantime I commend this book to you wholeheartedly. You will enjoy it.
Here is a selection of images, taken from the book, to give you a flavour of the book and the garden.
[Thenford, Michael & Anne Heseltine, Head of Zeus, 2016, Harback, 319 pages, £40, ISBN: 9781784979737]