The Garden Museum’s first Literary Weekend has just taken place in the glorious setting of designer Tom Stuart Smith’s own garden – a place of such idyllic perfection in such perfect summer weather that I’m in great danger of running out of superlatives.
A Garden, A Book and a Friend
This was the theme of the weekend with a wonderful diversity of speakers, who all seemed to have the knack of blending the erudite with the entertaining. The highlights for me included Penelope Hobhouse in conversation with Tom Stuart Smith – I’ve always known her as a brilliant designer, but I had no idea she was so subversive when tussling with authority or a difficult client, or so funny in conversation. 95 year old Diana Athill’s reminiscences of her grandmother’s walled kitchen garden were a joy. She and her siblings would scrump peaches when the head gardener’s back was turned (she has never tasted better), but she spurned the fig after hearing that the tree had been planted on top of a dead donkey. Despite describing herself as ‘not a gardener’ she had fond recollections of gardens she has tended in her long life and put forward a stout defence of the large-flowered begonias that she grows on her balcony of her retirement home. Cleve West abandoned the glamour of his gold medal winning show gardens to talk touchingly and amusingly about his allotment and Anthony Woodward’s talk about the garden he has made 1200ft up in the Brecon Beacons was so riveting that I rushed off to buy his book ‘The Garden in the Clouds’ immediately afterwards. Adam Nicholson and Garden Museum Director Christopher Woodward discussed the concept of Arcadia which (rather like the Tom Stoppard play) might have been even more illuminating if I had had the benefit of a classical education, but even so was accessible, interesting and entertaining. Then there was Piet Oudolf, Dan Pearson and Todd Longstaffe Gowan all sharing their wisdom. It wasn’t possible to hear every speaker because some ran concurrently, so regretfully I had to forgo psychotherapist’s Sue Stuart Smith’s talk on Gardening for the Mind, Sarah Raven on Vita Sackville West, Katherine Swift talking about the garden that inspired her book The Morville Hours and Lisa Jardine discussing Francis Bacon. It really was a feast for the mind and I can’t wait for the next one.