A garden, a book and a friend – what a perfect combination! And it is in the garden at Stockton Bury in Herefordshire that this blog began and it ends with a book, Diary of a Modern Country Gardener, written by friend and colleague Tamsin Westhorpe.
My first visit to Stockton Bury was with a wonderful garden group, the East Anglian Garden Group (EAGG), which I have belonged to for decades. Annual garden tours are part of EAGG’s DNA and in 2004 Stockton Bury was on the itinerary. I remember being bowled over by the sheer beauty of the garden as a whole, but in particular The Dingle, the extensive water garden on the four-acre plot that Tamsin’s family have looked after for over a century. At that point Tamsin was deputy editor of Amateur Gardening magazine in Poole.
I visited again in June 2015 on my own after a wonderful weekend attending the Gardens in the Wild Festival and then more recently, soon after Tamsin returned to work with her uncle Raymond Treasure and his partner Gordon Fenn, creators of the garden at her grandparents’ home since the 1980s.
Prior to this her career path showed a steady and upward progress from horticultural student through to greenkeeper and then into the world of the horticultural press… as sub-editor, editor, podcaster, horticultural judge and now as author of her first book.
Tamsin was editor of The English Garden magazine when she and her uncles mooted the possibility of her coming to work with them at Stockton Bury.
“My uncle and his partner were concerned about the future of their beloved garden and as I adore it as much as them it seemed obvious to swap my desk job to help them. I remember my first week very clearly – my uncle warned me not to over do it but I didn’t listen and spent the first few evenings crashed out on the sofa. My office job had left me very unfit.”
Coming back to Stockton Bury was like opening a box of memories for Tamsin. It was after all her grandparents’ home and where her mother and uncle grew up. And she and her sisters have many happy memories of their childhood visits.
“Stockton Bury has always been a very happy and low stress place for me – as children my sisters and I had many adventures – making mud pies, learning to ride our bikes on the drive, camping on the lawn and helping my grandmother shell beans on the doorstep. I can honestly say that having Stockton Bury and two wonderful parents gave me an enviable childhood.”
I love knowing about the continuity of a garden within a family and there are many facts and dates, as well as other examples of this continuity, that Tamsin drops into the narrative in a gentle way. You learn that the huge monkey puzzle tree on the lawn was planted by her grandfather in 1886 or thereabouts and that her uncle planted a tulip tree on the lawn in 1976. Both are now vast.
For her it was the right moment as she was missing being a hands-on gardener and together with her uncles she has seen to fruition many of the annual projects such as the creation of an auricula theatre for the garden.
Tamsin told me that every year she and her uncles together come up with new projects for the garden. “We like to add something new every year for visitors. If I put an idea into my uncle’s head he then comes up with amazing plans to make it happen – he’s a very talented man. It might be that we simply put our energies in to doing something in the garden up or we add something completely new such as our auricula theatre. When regular visitors arrive back each year they often ask ‘What have you been up to – what’s new?’.
“The planting however, is not always so well planned. If my uncles pop to our local tree nursery Frank P. Matthews they WILL come back with trees. We are all impulsive plant buyers! I don’t think you should be too well planned or you are in danger of taking the fun out of gardening.”
Writing a book was a natural step to take for someone who had combined hands-on horticulture with writing, editing and podcasting. Tamsin told me that she had always kept notes about what was in flower so she was used to writing about the plants in the garden. “The book happened by accident really. I love writing so one cold February day I just started it. The book wasn’t commissioned or planned – it was a very happy accident.”
Once she had done the first few entries it became a habit to write things down. “I worked in real time and often from the potting bench while waiting for guests to arrive at the garden.”
The diary element takes us round the year starting in February which makes sense… at that time of the year we are all going a bit stir crazy wanting to get out into the garden and start the growing year. And January is too early unless you have a heated greenhouse.
Tamsin also offers readers an intro page to each month which sports a tool kit that is not just a ‘to do’ list … instead it offers nugget-sized insights into a range of topics from suitable clothing, biscuits for sugar cravings and the suggestion that you might need to invest in a good salad spinner by June…
There are sidebar lists of plants that she considers must-haves and by the time you have read your way round the garden at Stockton Bury I think you will agree with Tamsin’s choices. She strays occasionally from the inner sanctum of the garden to locate it in the wider landscape of the farm and estate, bringing into focus aspects of the working farm, such as lambing.
I asked her how she and the family celebrated the changing seasons on the farm. “We celebrate every spring by opening the garden for the National Garden Scheme on April 1. It’s wonderful to have such a feel good day as the first day of opening. If the weather is good there is such a buzz about the place and it’s lovely to see regular customers that we haven’t seen for six months.” (Sadly, this year the gardens and café at Stockton Bury will not be opening on April 1 as planned. This is in line with Government advice as of 16 March 2020. The family hope to open later in the summer so please keep an eye on their website for updates: visit www.stocktonbury.co.uk.)
In the book, Tamsin has much the same engaging style that she uses in her podcasts. She makes you feel she is chatting only to you. Her writing style is straightforward, cheerful and conversational. And yet within each paragraph and chapter there is so much practical information about gardens and gardening.
New gardeners will find it a helpful and friendly way into the garden, while old hands will smile with Tamsin as she advises, probably confirms your own views, and tells tales of about her wider life in horticulture. In particular, her description of giving talks made me chuckle. She says that she had a chairman pass out when introducing her, she has heard internal arguments at AGMs and once had to do a talk by candlelight when the power went off – all part of her rich, modern country gardeners’ diary.
Each month in the book she offers a ‘Things to Do’ page followed by a spread on country projects such as a Summer Garden Party, or tips on how to make an onion plait. There is a café on site, which her sister Connie manages. Knowing the size of the kitchen garden I wondered if Tamsin grows the produce for the cafe.
“We can’t grow enough to fulfil the needs of the café in the garden but some of the produce does come from the kitchen garden. Jane, our chef, enjoys making pies out of our mulberries, raspberries and gooseberries. We grow what we can but all other produce including eggs and meat is bought locally as we are keen to support other local businesses.”
Is there another book in the pipeline? “Gosh – I’d love to one day but it would have to be something that really got me excited. I’m a firm believer that you have to be so in love with the idea that you just have to write it even if it might never get published. I’m not going to force an idea as I don’t think it would work.”
Fittingly this book is dedicated to her late father who famously said of her: “She’ll never make a living weeding.”
I am sure he might concede now that indeed she will make a living weeding and writing!
Diary of a Modern Country Gardener
Orphans Publishing Company
ISBN 978 1 90336 042 2
I bought my copy and was delighted to be asked by her publishers to take part in Tamsin’s Book Blog Tour.