Lady Gilbert's Gardens

10th June 2011

Dramatist and librettist WS Gilbert is best known for his successful and long-standing collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan. A century from Gilbert’s death (29 May 1911) the G&S operettas are still
well-known, still popular. Less well-known, though, is that the gardens at Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald, where Gilbert lived for the last two decades of his life, are thriving too, and open to the public.

Jill Glenn meets Head Gardener Helenka Jurgielewicz…

There’s a delightful timelessness about the Grim’s Dyke gardens. Sitting on the terrace of the hotel, with the sound of the birds and the movement of the wind in the trees, the natural world and the garden’s history are very present. Those of a fanciful disposition might half-expect to see the great librettist himself strolling down the path, or looking out of his study window onto the old croquet lawn. Only the merest hint of aircraft noise in the distance reminds one that this is the 21st century.

Long before it became a hotel, Grim’s Dyke was for 20 years the much loved home of Sir William Schwenk Gilbert and his wife, Lucy. It was Lady Gilbert who designed the gardens, and it is her legacy that Helenka Jurgielewicz is nurturing today.

Helenka, despite her name, has a Yorkshire accent, and a fresh English complexion that makes her look considerably younger than the 40-something she’ll admit to. It must be all those hours in the fresh air. A career change in her late 20s (she was previously an archaeologist) brought her to horticulture, and courses at Capel Manor, Wisley and Kew built on the lifelong love of gardening that influenced her decision. She’s worked in conservation in Mauritius, and as a researcher on the BBC tv series A Year At Kew, and now she’s happily settled at Grim’s Dyke, with something of a free rein.

She heads up a team of three (including herself) who tend 30 acres of ornamental gardens. “We have our work cut out,” she says, drily, when I suggest that it’s not many people for such a large area. The original estate was around 100 acres, but much of it is has now been, in Helenka’s words, “sucked back into the woods”. The area beyond the cultivated gardens is under the management of Harrow Council, which owns the building and the land, and leases them back to the hotel.

As a result, it’s all common ground, and everyone is welcome to visit, to explore the woods and the gardens, even to walk dogs. There’s no entry fee, no obligation to patronise the bar or restaurant (although morning coffee on the terrace is very pleasant…) and no need to feel self-conscious as you stroll through the type of grounds from which the public is normally excluded.

Helenka’s priority is to keep the gardens “looking beautiful” for the weddings that take place here throughout the year, but she and her team are also responsible for the vegetable patch, which supplements the chef’s buying, and provides mint for the Pimms and edible flowers to use as garnish. It’s a big ask, and she admits that there are occasions when she simply has to turn a blind eye to some of the tasks on her list. As a visitor, unless perhaps you were extraordinarily horticulturally aware, I doubt you’d notice anything amiss. The grass is mown, the roses are in flower and the air is redolent with their scent. What’s not to like?

Helenka is delighted that visitors are encouraged; she enjoys being able to share this “lovely environment” with the public, taking pleasure in their pleasure. “But we want more people to know that we’re here,” she adds.

Her passion for the garden, for the detail of the garden, is very evident, and her knowledge impressive. In the Sunken Garden, where there are a dozen different types of roses, the names trip off her tongue faster than I can write them down: Camaieux, Boule de Neige, Belle de Crécy… and, and… I lose track. I’m not a big rose fan generally, but here, interspersed with alliums and herbaceous hardy geraniums, they are utterly lovely. I make particular note of Comte de Chambord, a ‘Portland Damask’ rose that surrounds one of the lawns adjacent to the house. “It’s a good garden rose,” Helenka says, and I can think of a couple of spots in my own borders where this deliciously scented and floriferous variety would fit nicely. First bred in the 1860s, it could well have been in the Grim’s Dyke gardens when the Gilberts were in residence.

Their influence still shows itself in unexpected corners. A childless couple, they added a menagerie of wild animals – monkeys, lemurs, a lynx – to their household, and the grave of Gilbert’s favourite monkey (who apparently even had a place at table) is still in place just a few yards from the now Grade II listed building. A small stone, bearing the inscription ‘Paul, born September 1905, died September 1908’, it’s surprisingly poignant. The monkey house is in the grounds too.

The formal gardens feature rhododendron bushes that were planted by Lady Gilbert, 100-year-old Giant Redwood trees, rare tulips and poppies and a thriving wildlife community. Rare Great Crested newts have recently been found on the site of the lake, which was drained and closed at Lady Gilbert’s request after her husband died there, rescuing a schoolgirl from the water. Despite the passing of a hundred years the imprint of the lake remains on the land, and now – as a result of the newt discovery – consideration is being given to restoring part of it.

If this goes ahead, it will follow hard on the heels of the latest restoration project, in which the Grim’s Dyke gardeners teamed up with Harrow Council to begin the process of reviving a magnificent Victorian orchard, situated just beyond the boundary of the formal gardens. Little had been done to this area for years – “We just strimmed it, and kept the brambles down” – but a decision was made to give these very old trees, some at the end of their fruiting life, an injection of tlc. Some apple trees can live for up to 200 years.

This is a laborious ongoing programme: initial ground clearing, the removal of fallen trees and poor arrangements of growth (all the while bearing in mind that the habitat “is no less valuable for not being pretty”), the judicious removal of shade-giving trees and seedling birch. It’s a project close to Helenka’s heart: one of her specialisms when she worked at Kew was apples, and I guess that bringing order out of chaos speaks to the archaeologist in her too.

The orchard is home to rare Victorian species of apple such as Ribston Pippin, a much favoured dessert apple in the 19th century, with origins that date back to the early 1700s, and the attractively named Mère de Ménage (‘mother of the household’): “not unlike a Bramley,” according to Helenka, “but flushed with red, and good to eat.”

There are pears and plums here too, along with cider apples, as was common in the orchards of great houses in the past.

Two months since the restoration of the orchard began, it is expected to become popular with the thousands of visitors who come to the Grim’s Dyke gardens every year. Those who explore it now will consider it still on the wild side, but over the next few seasons the rehabilitation process will continue to take shape. This autumn the existing trees will be mapped and named, and preparation will begin for the planting of new saplings, authentic varieties that would have been common when the garden was young.

Helenka values authenticity and accuracy, and doing things well and properly. She grows a great deal from seed, relishing the creative process, and insists that they garden organically: “It’s very labour-intensive but I wouldn’t have it any other way.” There is good order, here – even if there is a wren’s nest in the potting shed! “Our big enemy is the squirrel,” Helenka says – and there’s many a domestic gardener who would agree with her, although few will have planted a thousand crocus bulbs last year and watched the squirrels take every one. “They’re so destructive. It’s heart-breaking.” Despite the absence of crocuses, though, the garden is particularly lovely in spring. “It’s a real tapestry from February onwards… anemones, grape hyacinths, naturalised primrose.” Bluebells carpet the woods in season, flanking the the gently winding paths that lead away from the formal areas into the wilderness. Lost paths are still being unearthed; just a few years ago the former head gardener discovered a labyrinth of cobbled walkways, linking the former boating lake and the dyke (from which the place derives its name) to the Home Farm.

Working here is all about thoughtful stewardship of the land and its history, and treading lightly in the footsteps of those who cherished these gardens before. “I do feel privileged,” Helenka explains, “to be the custodian of Lady Gilbert’s legacy.”

The Grim’s Dyke grounds are in good hands. The land remains an enchanting mix of wild woodland and formal gardens, a marvellous oasis in a world that Sir William and Lady Gilbert wouldn’t recognise.

pics: © Di Gnani

The Grim’s Dyke gardens are open for everyone to explore.
Guided tours are available from now until the autumn.

See www.grimsdyke.com for details or call 020 8385 3100.

Grim's Dyke Hotel, Old Redding, Harrow Weald (Sat Nav postcode: HA3 6SE)

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