The Laskett is tucked away down a Herefordshire lane. We’ve driven past here before but we had no idea what lay behind the tall hedges of brambles and ivy, and it’s not what you would expect to find here among the rolling hills, orchards and pastures of such a rural county. For thirty years the gardens at The Laskett were the creation of Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman. She was a celebrated set designer working for TV, film, opera and ballet, he is an author and one time director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Italianate gardens with nods to early English gardens and a theatrical theme running throughout were created from scratch, carved from simple bare fields surrounding the house. Julia died in 2003 and there was a period where the gardens remained untouched, but in recent years the gardens have been subject to a programme of renewal which is ongoing.
I had very little knowledge of the gardens, to be honest it came as a bit of a surprise when I came across The Laskett and realised that we lived so close by. Generally you can only visit as part of a group but a few weekends ago the gardens were open as part of the National Gardens Scheme. I deliberately didn’t read anything about the garden before we went. I wanted to go there without preconceptions or expectations. I’d caught a glimpse or two from the website when checking the location, so had an idea that it would be theatrical, but other than that it would be a surprise and hopefully a pleasant one. Coming across a formal garden, statuary and topiary isn’t unusual in rural parts but they tend to come with a grand entrance and an even grander house. Both of these features set the scene and expectations. The Laskett has the surprise element because it lacks this grandness. That isn’t meant as a criticism, in fact in my opinion it’s a plus. It’s the sort of setting where you would expect to find a cottage garden wrapped around the house, instead I felt as if I had been transported to a villa outside Rome, which was the real joy of this garden. The early autumn sunshine helped somewhat but it was easy to forget I was in Herefordshire. There were follies, temples, statues and vast urns but it takes much more than a few urns and statues to convince someone they’re in Italy.
This is a garden that has been made by people with a great eye for detail but also for the bigger picture. The vistas which have been created by the paths and hedges dividing the garden have created living set designs. It’s very easy to see how Julia’s work on large productions for ballets and operas have translated into the creation of The Laskett. It makes for an incredibly photogenic garden and a very pleasing space to spend time.
Initially, I was bit underwhelmed when we first entered the garden. The path takes you into an area in front of the house with a topiary knot garden which, although perfectly fine, just didn’t have a great deal of impact for me. Off to one side of the house was an area under reconstruction. I’ll admit that ten minutes or so into the visit I was wondering if this was it but then we followed the path around the side of the house and that’s when the element of surprise really hits.
If a garden is about expressing the personality and passions of the owner/s then The Laskett certainly does that. Many of the structures and plants commemorate people and periods in the lives of both Roy and Julia – there’s an arbour for Sir Frederick Ashton, a choreographer for the Royal Ballet for whom Julia designed sets and a sundial from Sir Cecil Beaton’s garden, marking their friendship. Most of us can’t name drop knights of the realm but it’s easy to relate to wanting our gardens to reflect our lives, particularly if we’ve lived somewhere for a long time. Reading about the garden afterwards I discovered that certain plants around the gardens held special memories. There is a quince tree which grew from a cutting taken from a tree growing in Julia’s grandfather’s garden; rosemary, which could be found dotted about the garden had strong family connections too. I think most of us have plants in our gardens which we’ve inherited or been given as a present. For me gardens designed by a designer for a client so often feel a little sterile because they lack these personal connections and touches.
The structural planting of pruned yew, box and beech form the backbone of the garden. There are some fabulous specimen trees including an Acer griseum whose copper-coloured peeling bark glowed in the early autumn light. The majority of the planting comprises shrubs and seasonal highlights. It’s quite traditional in many ways and follows the Italian style of planting which relies on structure rather than colourful plants. Changes can be seen though – the new border was a riot of colour in early September with prairie-style plants in full bloom.
If you described a garden to someone as set in rural Herefordshire but designed on Italianate principles, which had a ‘Triumphal Arch’, a colonaded temple to provide shelter when having tea and cake and a life size stag statue with gilded antlers they would be forgiven for thinking it would be like a theme park. The Laskett isn’t. It’s somewhere that feels like a genuine expression of the lives of two people who had an immense passion for the place, a garden which has been created with love and which has given immense pleasure in return.