Peter Smithers: Plantsman, Politician & Floral Pornographer

Sir Peter Smithers, in 2003. Credit Karl Mathis/Keystone, via Associated Press

Sir Peter Smithers [1913-2006] was an intelligence officer, a Tory politician, diplomat and above all a great gardener.

“I regard gardening and planting as the other half of life, a counterpoint to the rough and tumble of politics,” he wrote.

During his lifetime he laid out several gardens, notably Colebrook House in Winchester in the 1950s and 60s, and  then from 1970 onwards Vico Morcote in Switzerland. He was also responsible for much of the tree planting in the cathedral close at Winchester.   Photography was another lifelong passion and after his retirement he became an extremely successful as, in his own words,  “a floral pornographer”.

All the quotes come from his memoirs unless otherwise credited. So read on more to find out more about this unsung, generous and outstanding horticulturist.

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Hulne Priory

Sometimes you visit a historic house or garden and think to yourself…. I could live here. Sometimes you have second thoughts and add …if only it wasn’t so remote or inhospitable a setting.  That was certainly my reactions on visiting Hulne Priory in Northumberland.  It was a bright summer’s day and the site was glorious but it was pretty obvious that would be bleak and windswept in the midst of a Northumbrian winter.  That would have suited its founders down to the ground becasue they were Carmelite Friars who deliberately sought out isolated locations for their communities. Now, along with the rest of Hulne Park,  it is part of the Duke of Northumberland’s Alnwick estate and still used by the Duke  as a base for shooting, and inevitably as a wedding venue! 

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Sussex by La Manche?

Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens are one of the great combos of design history.  Their names automically trip off the tongue in the same breath,  and they created a whole series of magificant houses and gardens all across the Britain. Yet they  made just one joint foray working together on a house and garden abroad.  

Standing on top of the Normandy cliffs just outisde Dieppe is what  gardening and wine writer Hugh Johnson once described  as a “Sussex garden on vacation on the French coast”. 





It might not be on our database, but it’s still, for the most part,an English garden…so read on to find out more about Bois des Moutiers…

[all photos are by David Marsh, May 2017, unless otherwise credited] Continue reading

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The Sky Garden

The creation of a new public garden should be a cause for celebration, perhaps in these days of austerity,  even amazement. When it’s in the very heart of the City of London then the amazement should be unconfined.  So what to make of the Sky Garden  at 20 Fenchurch Street?

According to its website  it is “a unique public space that spans three storeys and offers 360 degree uninterrupted views across the City of London. Visitors can wander around the exquisitely landscaped gardens, observation decks and an open air terrace of what is London’s highest public garden.”

The entrance, Gillespies

It opened in January 2015 and I took friends to see it a few days ago. [All the photos were taken then by me unless otherwise credited.] There’s no doubt the  concept is exciting, and some of the claims are true but other bits of the hype are almost enough to cause hyperventilation as you will discover as you read on… Continue reading

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The Vegetable Sermon

St Giles Cripplegate
David Marsh, June 2017

Thomas Fairchild, the 18thc London gardener and subject of a recent post, was more than just a great London nurseryman and striver for professional unity and strength, he was also highly  inquisitive – or what his contemporaries would have called “curious”. He combined his intellectual curiosity with a strong religious faith and in his will he bequeathed £25 to the churchwardens of St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch for an annual lecture to be given on the Tuesday after Pentecost.  He specified two possible subjects:  “The wonderful works of God in Creation” or “On the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, proved by certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of Creation,” and this has resulted in the event being sometimes nicknamed the “Vegetable Sermon.”

The Arms of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners from the 1616 Charter

After a somewhat chequered history it is now organized by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, and this year was held at St Giles Cripplegate.

I was honoured to be asked to give this years lecture, which nowadays isn’t quite a Georgian length sermon, but a short address, and I opted to talk about Fairchild’s intellectual curiosity and how it related and perhaps clashed with his religious beliefs.

This post is based on the text of the sermon.

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From yangtao to zespri…5th time lucky

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may well be expecting a follow-upto last week’s post about Thomas Fairchild.  Unfortunately I have had technical problems  but should appear next week.  Instead…

Our parks and gardens in Britain are full of plants that originated elsewhere in the world… so many that many have become completely assimilated into what we think of as an ordinary part of our normal horticultural options  but occasionally there are things that stand out as a little different.   There’s  a vigorous almost rampant woody-stemmed climber growing against one of the walls in my garden. It has large heart-shaped slightly hairy leaves and at the moment it has a profusion of beautiful creamy white scented flowers.  I’d guess that most readers won’t recognize it  from the photo but would almost certainly recognize the fruit that follows in the  autumn.

If I tell you it originates in the mountains and forests of central and southern China but didn’t reach Britain until the mid 19thc, and wasn’t taken into large-scale cultivation outside China until less than 50 years ago, but now is a successful commercial crop in countries as diverse as Italy, Chile and New Zealand,  then maybe you can guess what it is. But if not read on ….

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Thomas Fairchild

Thomas Fairchild (c.1667-1729); Department of Plant Sciences;

Thomas Fairchild was one of the greatest horticulturists of the 18thc. But his contribution was not confined to his own age but extends right up to today. That might sound a bit over the top – and perhaps it is – but as you will soon discover I’m a great fan of this humble Hoxton nurseryman. Professional to his fingertips not only did his tiny nursery ground overflow with unusual plants, he fought to raise the profile and status of horticulture through the Worshipful Company of Gardeners,  was the first person known to have deliberately hybridized plants,  and the first to write about the pleasures and pitfalls of gardening in London in his book, The City Gardener.

Old St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch which would have been the church Fairchild knew. Part of the tower collapsed during a service in 1716 & the church was not rebuilt until 1736-40       W. H. Toms, 1734 British Library


When Fairchild died in 1729 he endowed an annual sermon at his local parish church of St Leonard’s in Shoreditch where he lies buried in the furthest corner of the churchyard. On the first Tuesday in Pentecost the preacher is asked to speak about either  “The wonderful works of God in Creation” or “On the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, proved by certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of Creation.”

from “Londons Armoury accurately delineated in a Graphical display…”  Richard Wallis, , 1677.
Image courtesy of David Gollin, Worshipful Company of Gardeners.

The sermon is now organized by The Worshipful  Company of Gardeners, and this year, he says humbly, I’ve been asked to give it.  It will be given from the pulpit of  St Giles Cripplegate this coming Tuesday 6th June in a service starting at 5.30.  Although it is officially a private company affair, visitors are welcome.

Unlike politician’s speeches which are usually trailed well in advance  no details of my sermon will be released in advance in this week’s post but will be summarized in next week’s.

So, after such a long introduction, as your starter for ten,  here’s some more background on the ingenious Thomas Fairchild.

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“Doubtles God could have made a better berry…”

After last week’s post about the early history of strawberries its time to look at how the various wild species were transformed into garden and commercial varieties by an 18thc botanist and a handful of 19thc nurserymen.

William Butler
after Unknown artist
 published 1650, National Portrait Gallery




I hope it  also shows that we all agree with Dr William Butler, the Elizabethan/Jacobean  medic who said…. “Doubtless God could have made a better berry” before adding  “but doubtless God never did.”

This divine omission is rapidly being rectified by 20thc scientists and plant-breeders  and in the process they are creating an unstoppable multi-billion pound global industry.


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Saints, Sinners, Sex and Strawberries…

Strawberries are quintessentially English. Or so you’d think. But actually they’re not. Although there are indigenous European strawberries the ones we eat are hybrids derived from a species from New England and another from Chile  introduced surreptitiously into France in the early 18thc. This species didn’t really reach Britain until the mid-18thc  and really didn’t become common in gardens until the 19th.  

Why? Because at first they didn’t fruit. Why not? Because no-one realised that strawberries had sex – let me rephrase that – that most strawberry plants were either male or female.  But once they did that’s when British gardeners and nurserymen took over and led the world in developing better and better domestic and commercial – hermaphrodite – varieties.

But strawberries have always had more than just food appeal. In the Middle Ages they were one of the more revered symbols of the Virgin Mary but they also had another more erotic and voluptuous side to them as well.

As a result although this post started out as a ‘normal’ piece of horticultural history I got diverted along the way with other strawberry-related stuff so its ended up becoming two posts instead!

So read on to find out more about the early history and imagery of our favourite fruit…

detail from Histoires de Troyes Ms Francais 59, fol. 153,c1470, Biblioteque National de France

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Nun Appleton

Andrew Marvell
after unknown artist
line engraving, published 1681, NPG

Nun Appleton House is a sad place these days in every sense. The Yorkshire estate was once the home of Thomas Fairfax, the great Parliamentary general, and  also for a short while to Andrew Marvell, the poet, who acted as tutor to Fairfax’s daughter Mary.  Marvell wrote extensively about the house, landscape and garden in a series of famous poems, and yet there is now no access of any sort, and  the landscape has been effectively rendered a no-go area to all but the most determined.

I only realised the plight of the house when I was researching a lecture about philosophy and politics in the 17thc garden, [don’t ask but it wasn’t as boring as it sounds!] and wanted to include some illustrations to accompany  some extracts from Marvell’s verse.

The parkland of the estate has been registered Grade II by Historic England but the whole Nun Appleton site has significant importance because of its association with Marvell and given its present inaccessibility and apparent neglect it certainly deserves better treatment.   Continue reading

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