I was lucky enough to visit Helmingham Hall in August last year for the Garden Museum Literary Festival. One of the joys of this event is that I get to spend a couple of days exploring wonderful gardens. When I was asked if I wanted to review this new book from Xa Tollemache, whose family home is Helmingham Hall, I could not have have said yes fast enough.
I have not paid for this book and I have not been paid to write this review. My words and opinions are my own.
It is fascinating to know that Xa had no formal gardening training; it was in 1975 when she moved into Helmingham Hall with her young family that suddenly the ownership of this huge garden awakened her gardening and design talents. Having such an old historical home and space to work in seems very daunting to me, but Xa slowly and carefully learned about the garden and about how to garden primarily from the Head Gardener Roy Balaam. Roy started work at Helmingham when he was 14 years old and retired after working there for 56 years. Xa tells us about the current gardening team too: naming them and saying a little about them. To have this recognition is important and very good to see.
This book is very much the story of Xa's time at Helmingham from when they took over the estate in 1975 to when they passed it on to the next generation in 2013. Xa walks us around each part of the garden, talking about what she intended for each area, about how it was developed and threading the descriptions through with family memories and anecdotes. I like that Xa talks alot about the plants she has used and the photographs of the gardens and plants show us well what she is writing about. The section on Helmingham contains a calendar of how they maintain the garden for the year which is interesting but also is a garden calendar for any size of garden. Whilst the amount of space Xa had to work with is huge, if you break it into smaller parts then it is relateable to smaller spaces. You can take the planting ideas and use them on a much smaller scale. Ok you might not have space for a topiary frog, but if have...... The final part of the Helmingham story is about how they run the estate as a business: about lecture tours and plant fairs and weddings - all the things many large houses do to raise vital income.
About half of the book is about Helmingham and the rest about other gardens Xa has designed starting with her 1997 Chelsea Flower Show Garden and concluding where she has returned to live: Framsden Hall. Framsden is where the family lived briefly before moving into Helmingham and now they are living there again.
The story of the Chelsea garden is fascinating and charming. Xa won a gold for the garden despite having no experience of designing for anyone but herself at that point. We are then led through various of Xa's commissions as she did go on to start her own successful design business. These projects show the variety of Xa's work, from the softly romantic to the very formal and of course the delightful mix of both.
The photographs throughout the book excellent and show well what is being described to us. I really enjoyed this book. It told me a lot more about this garden that I had enjoyed so much last year. If I had not visited already I would now want to go and it has made me think I would love to visit again. Learning about the other commissions filled out the story of Xa's design process and gives extra dimensions to this book. It is not just a book of pretty pictures of gardens, it is the story of a woman's work.
A Garden Well Placed by Xa Tollemarche is published by Pimpernel Press and retails at £35 though you can find it for less on well known internet book sellers.
Take care and be kind