Book Review: Borde Hill, a plant hunters paradise by Vanessa Berridge

I was very lucky to be invited to the book launch of Vanessa Berridge's new book about Borde Hill Gardens.    This was an event I was not going to miss.  I have visited Borde Hill previously so I already knew it is a very special garden; and I had also reviewed two of Vanessa's previous books which meant I knew this was going to be a book I would want to buy.

Just to be clear, I did buy this book; it was a book I was not going to leave to chance that I could get a review copy,  I wanted it.

The book is a box of treasures.  It is the story of a garden, a plant collection, a family and a home.  Borde Hill has been in the Clarke family for around 130 years, the house itself was originally built for Stephen Borde in 1598, it remained in their family for around 200 years before passing through a couple of sales ending at the purchase of Borde Hill by Stephenson Robert Clarke and from then onwards it has remained in the family.

With the arrival of Stephenson Robert Clarke at Borde Hill began establishment of a comprehensive plant collection of rare trees and shrubs which today form the basis and background for the gardens.   He was fortunate that he was alive at a period of great plant hunting and also was a near neighbour of William Robinson who was a leader in moving away from traditional bedding type planting and who believed in 'right plant, right place',  which Stephenson followed to the letter.  He was also fortunate that he could fund his plant-hunting needs and some of the most famous names in plant-hunting are associated with the collections at Borde Hill. 

Vanessa tells the stories of the different family members who have lived at and owned Borde Hill.  There are lots of photographs of family members with my favourite being the one on page 34 of Stephenson and his family complete with dog and two cats.  It is a photograph that I think gives us a glimpse into the personality of the family.

Vanessa talks us through the contribution each generation of the Clarke family has brought to Borde Hill.  Stephenson's love of plants was taken forward by the generations that followed him.  Each generation had its own favourites and they did not just collect plants, they also hyridised to create new varieties.  I also like that in the book the Head Gardeners are central to the stories of the garden.  They are not just 'mentioned', they are integral.

We are taken up to present day with the house and garden moving under the ownership (stewardship?) of Andrewjohn and Eleni Stephenson-Clarke.  They decided that in order to ensure the future of the gardens that it had to move to a more business-like footing.  Eleni also decided that the garden needed more flowers and they set out to do both with superb results.  I decided on my first visit to the gardens that it is a special place and my second visit only confirmed this.

The second half of the book takes us through the gardens, looking at the different collections and giving the history of the different areas.  This book has given me completely new insight into my first visit to Borde Hill.  I am not going to go into great detail, this is a garden and book you need to experience for yourself.
The Jay Robin's Rose Garden, named for their daughter, is a joy of colour and scent.  It is packed with over 750 David Austin roses and was designed by Robin Williams.  It is impossible to walk through it without stopping to just pause and enjoy.  There are several well known designers who have contributed areas to the garden so far including Chris Beardshaw, James Alexander Sinclair and Sophie Walker.  

There are also the c.83 champion trees within the garden and woodland.  These are trees that are the largest or having the widest girth of their type in the country.  Of course some years some trees in other gardens/parts of the country might grow a little faster and become the tallest, it is a not a set number at any one time.  Personally there are no champion trees in my garden, however if you want to see some champion weeds......

What I love most of all about Vanessa's writing is that she goes beyond the garden as an entity, by giving us the family histories as well Vanessa creates a holistic view of Borde Hill.  Vanessa has great skill in understanding the people she is writing about and weaving them through the landscape they have created.  

I happily recommend this book, I know that it will encourage me to visit this very great garden again as I still have much to explore.

Borde Hill, a plant hunters paradise by Vanessa Berridge is published by Merrell.  If you buy it from the Borde Hill gift shop you get entry into the gardens.  It is also available from other booksellers.

Take care and be kind.

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