As with the best poetry – from Elizabethan to Ezra Pound – best gardens can be 'difficult' to read
My favourite moment at the preview of the centenary of the Chelsea Flower Show was when the wife of landscape designer Chris Beardshaw had to politely ask HRH The Prince of Wales if he and the Duchess of Cornwall could very kindly 'move on, Sir'.
The reason the Prince and his wife were being pushed along from admiring the giant purple, blue and orange planting of the Arthritis Research UK Garden – my favourite garden this year, with a chic 'Glass Retreat' (a modernist glass sitting room) complete with Chesterfield sofas and a reversed drystone wall – is that HM The Queen was right behind him and also wanted to admire the giant cobalt blue Echium Pinana plants that stood to attention some three foot high at the front of the Radiant Garden – as the entrance area of the Arthritis Garden has been named.
'Prince Charles was staying longer than expected and we were being furiously told by the secret police that the Queen and the Prince of Wales couldn't be on the same stand at the same time for security reasons. He was so enjoying himself, inspecting the Echiums, that it was difficult to get him to leave'.
As with the best poetry – from Elizabethan to Ezra Pound – best gardens can be 'difficult' to read. Much of what is being said is often in the form of personal narrative, fused with hidden symbolism and meaning. The Arthritis Garden is a personal parable of sorts, showing how gardens can be more than just a collection of 'rooms – à la Sissinghurst.
They can also be a collection of personal stories with a walk around the garden being a form of personal journey – a perfect example of this gardening tradition is the acclaimed Dower House Garden of Dr Katherine Swift at her house behind Morville Hall in Shropshire, just a few miles from where I live. The Dower House Garden – about which Dr Swift has written a bestselling book called The Morville Hours – is a form of meditation on time, and her own life journey as well as telling the story of Morville Hall – from the 11th century to today – through a series of gardens that tell the story of the people who lived and died at the house over a thousand years – from the original 12th century monks to the widower who gave the Hall to the National Trust in the late 1960s.
Our gardens can teach us who we are. The Arthritis Garden shows us how a garden can become an extension of self, an allegory of past, present and future – and above all – symbolised by the towering and uplifting Echiums that stand to attention like proud giant guardsmen – a symbol of hope.
Chris was diagnosed with serious arthritis when still a teenager and was told he could have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair if he didnt have surgery. But he fought against this to find his own way of dealing with the pain of arthritis and his pain is now managed through a combination of exercise, diet and landscape creativity – with his RHS garden being planted with a number of 'healing' plants and shrubs that are used in 'complementary' medicine to treat arthritis.
Chris Beardshaw's RHS garden is a very deliberate holy trinity of three gardens that tell his own 'very personal story' of being diagnosed with arthritis (ten million people in the UK live with arthritis). Like that greatest of gardening poems, Andrew Marvell's Upon Appleton House, in which his walk around the garden of his patron Lord Fairfax, is really a Journey Around His Daughter – a thinly veiled apology of life-affirming love (and lust) for his host's beautiful young daughter – has been conceived as three very different 'experiences' – the Veiled Garden, the Lucid Garden and the Radiant Garden.
He said: 'The garden as a whole represents the emotional and personal journey of a person with arthritis. The stone work around the Glass Retreat reflects the restricted movement of painful joints – As you progress to the Radiant Garden, the stonework progressively becomes smoother, symbolising the journey of a person who has been able to manage their pain'.
The English finally seem to be catching up with our European and American friends when it comes to the vogue of 'Outdoor Living'. In the eighties, the English began transforming their country kitchens and bathrooms (often country houses would have just two bathrooms for the whole house and the family would still be huddled in an old staff kitchen) thanks to the cult of such magazines as House & Garden and World of Interiors – a sort of lifestyle porn for the moneyed classes.
As I've recently blogged about for Spears, the latest installment of this 'lifestyle revolution' has been an obsession with linen sheets, headboards and Vi-Spring mattresses (a bed I saw in Peter Jones the other day had a price tag of £22,000, for mattress, base and headboard only).
Only I should also have added that no house or garden is now complete without spending some serious sum on the ultimate garden furniture where you can eat al fresco with up to fourteen friends, with your own hotel-style heating lamps or underground radiators and your own Valoriani Wood Fired Oven – as used by Jamie Oliver.
Valoriani are the Agas of wood fired ovens and have been making outdoor ovens at their factory in Refratti Reggello, in the Tuscan hills, for over 120 years. The ovens are made from 100% naturally quarried terracotta clay – which has the same heat retention qualities as Roman thermal baths.
Although a Valoriani oven today – perfect not only for pizza but also 'roasts, stews and casseroles' as Oliver says – is a garden status symbol on a par with your Infiniti pool or David Linley limed oak dining table, the origins of the Tuscany ovens were very much the opposite of expensive and elitist: the original ovens were actually 'communal' style ovens for the entire village with beds of vegetables and roasts being piled together and then eaten en mass with an almost Stalinist 'community spirit'.
During the war many of these 'community' ovens were destroyed and it was during the post-war era that the Italian government turned to the Valoriani family to build 'pre-fabricated' new ovens – using special 'refractory' clay – that could replace those that had been destroyed.
Today they range from £2,495 to £3,645 – probably the cost of a desirable Tuscany villa following the war. Silvio Valoriani patented his unique design in 1945 (maybe he was worried American soldiers might swipe his design and start selling the ovens across America) and the unusually shaped clay ovens – which look like a giant brick igloo – are now as de rigeur as La Canache ovens and cookers inside the house.
But once you have your wood-fired oven, you also need the perfect garden furniture to enjoy your al fresco dinner parties. There must be more garden furniture shops and studios at the Chelsea Flower Show than there are rose suppliers. The very 'Best of Show' – in the view of myself, my girlfriend and also Lady Fellowes, wife of Downtown Abbey creator Julian – are the hand-made oak collections made by Gaze Burvill (who also happen to be able to supply the Valoriani outdoor ovens).
Gaze Burvill are in their twentieth year and make everything at their workshops in Hampshire using solid and sustainably sourced oak – which is 'smoked' to make it go silvery more quickly then 'steamed' to provide the 'strong, flowing curves' that are the signature mark of the Gaze Burvill range.
The key to the success of the Gaze Burvill range is that the style is a beautiful marriage of solid English oak that captures the essence of the English country garden, fused with a chic Mediterranean spirit – which can be enhanced through a choice of cushion pads. If you think it is too cold to eat outside for much of the year, then you haven't experienced a Gaze Burvill dining table – as they can be fitted with special radiators under the table that warm you up a bit like an electric car seat on a winter morning.
The Gaze Burvill stand features the 4 metre long 'Broadwalk Oval Dining Table' (RHS special price of £7,425) which can seat fourteen people and is a beautiful set piece for any English garden – also cleverly designed so that you can use benches with rounded backs or just straight benches so the lines of the table are clearly visible and you can have benches for children and steam-bent curved backs for adults. The only thing I wasn't quite so keen on were the aluminium looking poles for the giant umbrellas on the tables – I would have preferred study oak.
But on pointing this out, I was told that the oak umbrella poles are so heavy that you practically need a crane to lift them – so maybe the lighter aluminium (or steel?) are more practical. Now I know why the pool men around the hotels in the South of France are so muscled up – its not lifting weights in the gym that tones up their biceps, its carting around giant wooden sun umbrella poles.
The iconic Court Seat by Christian Gaze – the signature bench of the company – is celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2013 – and it is easy to see why it is still a country house classic – available in two, three, four and five seater versions starting at £2,550. Other garden furniture items that caught my eye were the King Lizard – the sort of luxurious sun lounger that you expect to see at a five star Cote D'Azur palace hotel, and not in an English garden -but why not ?. It is described as an 'indulgent double lounger' and is designed for two people to soak up the sun together whilst enjoying an aperitif or sharing an iPod – at a special RHS retail price of £2,995.
For the super-yacht classes, or any former super-yacht owner, there is always the 'Bowline Collection' which have been specifically designed for 'the exacting standards of the super-yacht industry' in terms of aesthetics and technology. If the recession is still biting and you cant afford your super-yacht any more, why not just buy up a set of Bowline Yacht loungers, chairs and tables and stick them on your front lawn – or your Fulham patio – and imagine you still have that yacht? As the brochure reassuringly promises: 'They are sure to make an impression wherever you choose to take them.'