Michael Heseltine, Britain’s onetime deputy prime minister, is an enduring political figure whose public persona is often defined in two ways.
He is remembered as the politician who, in 1990, toppled Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher through an internal Conservative Party leadership coup. The other? Pundits seem transfixed by his mane of hair, which was still going strong as he turned 84 this week. The British media call him the Tory Aslan, a reference to the great lion in C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.”
Less well known is Heseltine’s love of gardening, which has been an abiding passion for him and his wife, Anne, for decades. Heseltine — now Lord Heseltine — has done for horticulture what Winston Churchill did for bricklaying: proved that some political leaders, at least, can bring a sort of eminence to manual labor. Remember when Ronald Reagan spent his downtime building fences and clearing scrub? These distracting labors must be therapeutic to minds that are otherwise in a constant state of battle and circumspection.
From my own perspective, perhaps naively, I think our elected representatives would be better equipped for constructive governance if they gardened more.
Gardening teaches you patience and humility and a deeper understanding of the natural world, a universe that both enriches us and then puts us in our place. Touching the soil, nurturing a plant — that keeps you grounded. Weeds, algae, leaking ponds, freak storms — all of these take care of hubris.
I knew that the Heseltines were keen gardeners but had no idea they had invested so much of themselves (and their evident wealth) in developing a garden of such scope and refinement at their 400-acre property in central England. This is revealed in a new book recording their life’s work, “Thenford: The Creation of an English Garden.”
They came to Thenford, in Northamptonshire, in 1976 to a grand but faded estate that in addition to the mansion, Thenford House, encompassed a hamlet, a medieval church and other satellite buildings and structures. (It’s down the road from George Washington’s ancestral home, Sulgrave Manor.)
Like so many such properties after World War II, Thenford was run down and suffering from years of deferred maintenance. The estate had to be brought back section by section over four decades, in a series of improvements that included the creation of a sculpture garden, an arboretum and a walled kitchen garden reimagined as a paradisiacal enclosure. On the edges of the estate, two water gardens were reclaimed and a third designed from scratch.
In spite of the scale of their garden making, there is much about the Heseltines’ endeavors that resonates with all gardeners who have spent a long time in one place. Many of us will identify with the excitement of seeking to transform a corner of a new garden only to discover things didn’t work out.
The Heseltines have had their share: They built a boardwalk over a boggy area, but the willows they planted there soaked up the water — the fancy decking was unnecessary.
Formal garden spaces around the house became overgrown. An early stab at keeping waterfowl was “a disaster,” Heseltine wrote. He was too often away working in London, and too ignorant of bird husbandry. As if to drive this home, a particularly menacing pheasant would lie in wait to attack, “using its vicious spurs to draw blood on our legs,” he wrote. “We were only safe when we wore substantial gumboots.”
And yet, the flops — the Heseltines’, ours — aren’t failures. What seems important, looking back, is not that a project didn’t pan out but that we had the thrill of creating it. When Heseltine errs, the reader nods with understanding.
But let’s be honest, it’s not just the shared experiences that I find engaging. Seeing what a sophisticated gardener can do with deep pockets elicits both admiration and a little envy. (Heseltine made his money in publishing.)
A rill is a decorative water channel. At Thenford, the Rill proves that water features are best when they are ambitious. This one transformed a field into a chain of nine linked ponds. Each basin is 30 feet by 10 feet and has four powerful fountains. The upper part consists of a curved Italian stone bench set into a wall of yew. This perches above the head pool, which features a rococo shell mosaic. The Rill ends more than 400 feet downstream, at a new stone bridge that straddles an aquatic plant rockery.
Another captivating project is the transformation of the two-acre walled garden and its gardener’s cottage (characteristically set into the wall).
Built to provide the big house with food, today the kitchen garden is a setting for a high-design formal garden. Its quadrants are defined by lawn panels in diamond patterns and domed pavilions that help to form such architectural elements as a fruit cage, a hedge-framed sitting area and, at long last, a real aviary stocked with friendlier exotic birds.
In another corner of the estate, the Heseltines reclaimed a series of medieval fish ponds and had bridges built to their islands. The ponds were so silted that at the start of the project the water was six inches deep; by the end it was as deep as 14 feet.
It would be a mistake to think of their horticultural journey solely as a series of garden installations. (Or that they have done this without a lot of help and staff.) Thenford is also the product of their passion for plants, gathered through a network of other gardeners, plant collectors, nursery owners and that singular watering hole for English gardeners, the Chelsea Flower Show. Many of the tree plantings commemorate visits from dignitaries. You get a sense that Heseltine was happy to while away the hours making plant labels with a machine he bought for the purpose. He and his wife have amassed major collections of boxwood, snowdrops, roses and oaks, for example.
Thenford evolved. There was no great master plan. It is hard to tell without visiting whether it feels disjointed, but that may be beside the point. A “master plan would have raised questions of cost that might have undermined our enthusiasm,” he wrote. “So these schemes emerged over the years as ideas and opportunities presented themselves. Looking back, there were mistakes but no regrets.”