This year, April the 1st marked my first year’s work anniversary at West Horsley Place. What a difference a year has made. This time last year, I sped around the garden anxiously trying to make a mental list of which areas were most in need of a quick fix before the onset of the opera season, which was beginning just a few weeks later. I had never experienced anything quite like it; the buzz and excitement!  Beautiful Indian tents appeared overnight in the garden to accommodate private picnics, together with intricate-wired garden furniture, placed in intimate spots around the walled gardens and the sound of exquisite voices emanated from the opera house….all whilst I was weeding!  Even more exciting were the sword fight rehearsals on the lawns for the Don Carlo opera, together with opera stars sitting quietly having their lunch whilst enjoying the tranquility of the garden.

This year, April the 1st couldn’t have been more different. The garden gates were locked, the garden silent, the shutters on the house closed…..it was quite eerie.  Lockdown had come into force a few days earlier, something none of us had experienced before.

Lawn in the Crinkle-Crankle GardenLuckily for Matt and I, gardening maintenance is considered essential so we have been able to work in different areas of the garden at different times as long as we keep a safe distance. It is quite easily done in our five acres of walled gardens! On the upside, we have seen this extraordinary time as an opportunity to spend time in the garden doing things we couldnt normally do. Areas which have been passed over for years are being discovered, cleared and nurtured. Matt has been trying different lawn cutting techniques (see WHP instagram), the most stunning being in the Serpentine garden where he has replicated the curves of the wall on the lawn. This wouldn’t normally be possible as during the opera season beautiful Indian tents decorate this area. It is interesting how at different angles the lines of the mower can appear as if they are straight, and then suddenly at other points you are hit by the depth of the curves.  It really is quite a work of art!  In addition to this, he has mown an intricate path system throughout the orchard to allow us to access all areas without destroying the ever-growing cow parsley. The blossom has been so intense this year so fingers crossed we will have a bumper crop from our apples, pears, mulberries and damsons.

Mary Roxburghe Rose GardenLockdown has also given me the opportunity to start work on The Mary Roxburghe Rose Garden without having the pressure of finishing before the start of the opera season. Our order of Olivia Austin roses from David Austin Roses has been put on hold and will now arrive in the Autumn. We luckily managed to source the materials for the re-building of the low retaining York stone walls in the rose garden before lockdown began, and a sole landscaper will be painstakingly rebuilding the walls over the next couple of weeks.  The white Iceberg roses were pruned back hard and are now healthily sprouting. The soil in two quarters of the garden will be replaced to accommodate the new roses and a lavender hedge will be planted on the outside edge of the whole garden. All this has only been possible with the incredible support of donations to the Walled Garden Appeal, as well as the sale of garden plants and tiles at the West Horsley Fete and the Christmas wreaths at Craft in Focus Fair, held at West Horsley Place in November last year. The Duchess of Roxburghe spent many hours in the garden, with the rose garden being a favourite spot, and I am sure she would be thrilled to see it being brought back to life. 

Our wonderful band of garden volunteers who help me on Wednesday mornings have been sorely missed. Even though they are only here for 3 hours each week, we achieve so much together in that time and the developing friendships and camaraderie amongst us all is something which is an added bonus. During this difficult time, I have been keeping them updated with vlogs and photos of the gardens and in return, they have been sharing photos of their own gardens. It has also been really heartwarming to discover that some of our younger volunteers have been supporting our more vulnerable ones, a direct result of friendships made through volunteering in the garden. For me, this is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

pheromone caterpillar trapWith news that the box caterpillar is causing mayhem locally in West Horsley, we are doing everything we can to protect our box hedging, which forms the main structure of our formal gardens. Our pheromone traps are up and around the garden in different locations to monitor the activity of the box caterpillar. Last October, I noticed they had arrived, however, at the moment we can’t see any obvious sign of them. So, in preparation for an attack, all the box hedging was sprayed with Top Buxus Health mix last week, to give it every chance of being fighting fit to cope if the caterpillar does return. If, and when it does, our spraying regime will step up to include a biological insecticide.

white wisteriaAs I am finishing writing this today, the magnificent white wisteria which cascades down from the top of the yew tree on the West Lawn is just coming into flower.  The yew tree is some 40 foot high and over the years, the wisteria has burrowed its way through the centre and appeared at the top.  It then sweeps down one side like a beautiful waterfall.  The contrast of the bright white flowers against the dark green of the yew is truly stunning and something we all get very excited about; a perfect example of nature creating its own piece of garden design.

We are all so disappointed that our summer events have been cancelled but we are looking forward to a time when we will be able to open the gardens for others to enjoy again in the very near future.  In the meantime, we hope to welcome back our garden volunteers in small groups with virtual open arms when it is safe to do so!

Nicky Webber