King Charles III loves gardens. His own garden at his private home of Highgrove near Tetbury in the Cotswolds has been thoroughly documented in five books about the land he owns. He bought the estate in 1980 and set about making it the living manifestation of all he holds dear. He describes the farm and gardens as his “...one very small attempt to heal the appalling short-sighted damage done to the soil, the landscape and our own souls” by our contemporary way of life. This one statement is the mark of the man. He cares deeply for all the things that we all now realise matter as much as life itself, and he has done so for a very long time.
Highgrove became his personal mission to create an ark containing all the things that he champions; organic farming, gardening, design, crafts, architecture, food production, health, waste management and art. Enduring endless ridicule he stuck to it doggedly. What initially seemed like dotty eccentricities have coalesced into a broadening acceptance that he was prescient in his extreme focus on these things.
Early on he invited Dame Miriam Rothschild, the eminent Natural Scientist and leading authority on fleas, to help him develop Highgrove. Miriam Rothschild was a true polymath and amongst her legion of interests, all of which were thoroughly researched and understood, was an early enthusiasm for developing wildflower meadow mixes. No doubt HM The King’s full conversion to organic farming practices in 1985 would have been ably encouraged and supported by Miriam Rothschild. Her own home at Ashton Wold in Northamptonshire was a living example of everything she believed in, the large Arts and Crafts house was almost entirely smothered in climbing plants and her lawns had long been allowed to revert to meadow. King Charles was captivated by them.
Perhaps her most famous meadow mix was called ‘farmers nightmare’. Cleverly named as it describes completely the attitude at that time to wildflowers, or weeds, and the overall view that eradicating nature in all its forms was best for farming practices. Miriam and the then Prince worked together to develop special wildflower mixes specifically for the gardens and lands of Highgrove. Who can forget the first photos of the small meadow in front of his handsome house studded with tulips and camassias? That caught the public imagination and we have never looked back. Every man jack of us has a garden meadow now!
He invited Lady Salisbury – a seasoned garden maker who transformed her own gardens at Hatfield House – to assist with the layout. Later Rosemary Verey, who gardened at Barnsley House just up the road near Cirencester, encouraged further evolutions. However, it’s fair to say that King Charles III has his own mind and many of the ideas are firmly his own. He once said to me, his eyes twinkling with mirth, “I love listening to advice, though I rarely act on it”.
That innate curiosity has encouraged a lot of interesting experimentation. Notably Isabel and Julian Bannerman who made the green oak temples and stumpery, now famed throughout the world. The gardens are wonderfully eccentric and immaculately cared for using absolutely rigorous top to toe organic practices. And the man is big hearted. Highgrove has around 30,000 visitors a year in small groups. One of the great joys of having a garden is sharing it with others, and His Majesty is extremely generous in this regard.
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show caused our meeting back in 2001. I was invited to be his co-designer on a garden we decided to call The Healing Garden for the following year.
Just before our first meeting his private secretary said something along the lines of “brace yourself” and I soon understood why. The ideas come thick and fast; Turkish musical fountains, sacred geometry, the tenets of Islam, hedge laying, organic architecture, green oak, hills with trees on top, herbalism, Bach flower remedies, the meadows of Transylvania, the huge boulders on the moors above Balmoral, heath and heather, caves and on and on. I trundled back down the M4 with my head spinning. All of it fascinating and overall, a quite complex brief for a show garden – especially as I’d never done one before!
In the end the garden was fully organic, had a cave-like shelter made entirely from woven willow and lime horsehair plaster on a curve that followed faithfully the golden ratio, a fully organic meadow, a hawthorn hedge laid in full flower and over 120 species of European flowering plants, all chosen for their healing properties. Her Majesty the Queen Mother passed away during the making of the garden. King Charles, devastated by his loss, commemorated the garden to her.
This experience left me in no doubt about the character of the man who is now our King. He cares profoundly about things that are of the utmost importance. All living things, people, the arts, natural skills, food, and culture will flourish under his care.
God Save Hortulanus Rex.