It is a gesture against the wild,
The ungovernable sea of grass;
A place to remember love in,
To be lonely for a while;
To forget the voices of children
Calling from a locked room;
To substitute for the care
Of one querulous human
Hundreds of dumb needs.
It is the old kingdom of man.
Answering to their names,
Out of the soil the buds come,
The silent detonations
Of power wielded without sin.
The Garden, R.S. Thomas
Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire. June. A walled kitchen garden and home to one of the finest collections of old roses in England.
After weeks of rain, it is a lavish, writhing forest of dark gleaming leaves, a profusion of flowers in every imaginable shade and stage; ample, lusty blooms seemingly foam up from the ground, others are more dishevelled, their rumpled, half-bodied flowers drip petals and raindrops onto the herbaceous borders. Gardens of wind-bent stems and twisted, overhanging bowers, roses peppering pergolas and trellises. Roses clutching their way up through orchard-rows of gnarled apple trees, scaling old red-brick walls. Heavy surges of scent and impressionist colour assailing at every corner and quadrant.
For fragrance, the gardens at Mottifont are as complex and memory-stirring as an apothecary - pine and honey, warm spices, mint, lemon, chocolate. Passing a Tea rose, you can faintly detect fresh China tea-leaves, some paces later musk, then plum wine, then balsam. There is nothing like a rose garden for transporting one back to the hot drowsy days of childhood, or triggering a lost, strangely specific recollection of an impatient conversation in a shadowy room in autumn, or the sage-scented mornings of Christmases past.
Endless, ceaseless roses. Ancient white Albas, blush Noisettes, pink summer Damasks with grey leaves, Climbing Teas, Provence roses, Moss roses, Wichurana Ramblers, Bourbon roses, Scots roses, giant-headed maroon Gallicas, Rugosa hybrids. Each more beautiful, more heady than the next. A topsy-turvy world of roses, each soft globe seems to demand attention of its intricate aromatics, every rosette slows and sweetens you with its heart-shaped petals.
There is something clandestine about a rose garden, particularly a walled one, that brings out strange behaviour in its visitors, a sort of entranced, drunken watchfulness. You observe them around you, lowering their voices, tiptoeing, kneeling, holding their arms out to the flowers and turning the heads in their hands as tenderly as the chin of a lover. They move along the path reluctantly leaving the last flower, only to be heartbroken by a rain-bruised Adelaide d’Orleans or stunned by an Adam Rackles slashed with pink, or else they spot a fine apricot musk Buff Beauty arching over a border of foxgloves and martagon lilies and zoom away to the next heart-fluttering moment.
When it rains again I take cover under a convenient fig tree through which has grown up a giant Rosa Lykkefund (1930), its (thornless!) canes hauling themselves up through the canopy of leaves to the sunlight above. Sheltering there I am surrounded by a vast musky cloud of pinkish oval buds and heavy clusters of creamy flowers, some a darker, almost primrose yellow, odd petals with a very thin line along the middle, as though someone has traced the centre with a fine gold pen. The leaves are small, dainty, flushed with a burnished bronze at the edges. Alone under that tree, on a damp early evening in midsummer, I feel certain I've found the most beautiful rose in the world.
The walled gardens at Mottisfont were created in 1971 by English botanist Graham Stuart Thomas, who was Gardens Advisor to the National Trust for 20 years, responsible for some of its most enchanting gardens at Hidcote and Sissinghurst, and who preserved the heritage of old roses when many of them were on the verge of extinction. Mottisfont was his greatest triumph. Walking these gardens, I can almost hear his schoolmasterly voice dispensing instructions to his gardeners and advice to distressed housewives on their ailing Goldbusch. He is very much here still, in spirit, a man who loved and dedicated his life to these most exquisite of flowers. And you can see too, in the brush-like planting and painterly use of colour along the borders, the influence of his mentor Gertrude Jekyll. Gardening as a preservative art form; a gesture against the wild.