Earlier this year, the art historian, writer and landscape designer Sir Roy Strong made a life-changing decision.
He realised that there was nothing more for him to do at The Laskett, his home and glorious gardens in Much Birch, Herefordshire. At 85, it was time to start a new chapter in his life.
Sir Roy, the former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria And Albert Museum, fashioned the gardens with his late wife, the set designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, from a four-acre field at their home in Herefordshire after moving here in 1973.
Sir Roy Strong, 85, is leaving The Laskett, his home in Much Birch, Herefordshire, after 47 years
Today, they are among the largest private formal gardens to be created in England since the war. They are also, Sir Roy says, ‘about two people who had a very good life together’.
Today we venture into the garden, and the extraordinary life Sir Roy lived with Julia, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, blossoms everywhere. ‘She was the only person I ever loved,’ he says.
‘Any coming together of two people always requires a giving up of some things like certain friends who don’t fit in. Marriage has to be a compromise, but the benefits of coming together far exceed anything else.’
Sir Roy and Julia were returning from Austria when she fell ill and she was dead within six weeks. ‘She was marvellous,’ he says. ‘She never shed a tear. We sat down and planned the whole funeral. I remember once she looked at me and said, ‘You have so much to give still.’ It’s a wonderful thing to have said to me, isn’t it?
The former gallery director fashioned the gardens with his late wife, the set designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, from a four-acre field
Sir Roy Strong, pictured with his late wife Julia Trevelyan Oman, has lived at The Laskett for half a century and transformed the garden in to a paradise
‘Julia had an incredible sweetness of nature and huge strength of character. She was someone I just loved being with. When I proposed to her – she was 40 and I was 35 – she said, ‘You don’t want any children do you?’ I said, ‘Not particularly,’ and that was the last of it.
‘I married someone who was someone in their own right. She was far more important than me and I loved that. I needed someone who wasn’t just hanging on as Lady Strong. In fact, it was summed up when the letter came saying would I agree to be knighted. I said, ‘Darling, I’ve got bad news for you. I’m going to be made a knight of the realm. You won’t like that, will you?’
Sir Roy pulls a sort of chewing-on-a-lemon face as he imitates his wife, ‘No.’ He laughs fondly.
In Julia’s final weeks, Sir Roy says they went into ‘lockdown’ as ‘all the people she wanted to see for the last time came here. The worst thing I could do was to show I was thrown in any way. She didn’t want that. In the afternoons I’d go for a two-mile walk down the lane and cry my eyes out. Then I’d come back. We drifted through the summer and she died on 10 October. It was very swift.
THE HILLIARD GARDEN: Halfway up the gently climbing Great Ascent you come to the Hilliard Garden, named in honour of Nicholas Hilliard, the great Elizabethan painter of portrait miniatures, who is the subject of one of Sir Roy’s books. Within the Hilliard Garden is a clipped parterre where Sir Roy and Julia’s initials are romantically entwined in evergreen box
An old photo of what the garden used to look like at The Laskett before Sir Roy and Julia transformed the gardens in Much Birch, Herefordshire
‘I remember the last thing I said to her was, ‘Remember I’ll love you forever.’ They always die when you’re out of the room. I came downstairs, the nurse called me up and she was dead…’
Sir Roy’s voice breaks as he wrestles with his tears. This is the first time he has spoken so openly about his wife’s death. The sadness will never completely go away.
In truth his decision to leave The Laskett was prompted by a fall he suffered a year ago which should, he says, have killed him outright. ‘I made a miraculous return. Blood was spurting out of the ear. I’d got to the fridge, opened the door and the next thing I remember was standing looking at a pool of blood. The doorbell went. It was a delivery of wine for my 84th birthday. I wasn’t aware I was trailing blood everywhere.’
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW: The last project was the white and terracotta Belvedere, completed in 2018. A friend kept sending Sir Roy aerial shots of The Laskett, taken from a drone, and he realised what was missing was a way of looking down on it. ‘So I sold some things at Christie’s and built the Belvedere,’ he explains. ‘It’s magical up here – romantic. There’s nothing more to add now, that’s it’
JULIA’S WALK: After Julia’s death, Sir Roy continued developing the garden and Julia’s Walk was laid out in the winter of 2014-15. It’s a meandering path that’s flanked on either side by spring flowers, and it culminates with a pond
THE ROSE GARDEN: This was the first area to be cultivated, in 1974. ‘Its full name is Pierpont Morgan Rose Garden because I paid for it with a fee for a lecture at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York,’ says Sir Roy. ‘I’ve always liked roses and I enjoy their extraordinary history’
Sir Roy was taken to hospital where he remained for three days. ‘All I know is there was an enormous swelling on the back of my head. People were marvellous. They all rallied round. But your licence to drive is taken from you. I realised I was totally isolated here going into old age, when you cannot drive yourself or even walk to a shop. I began to go on a bit of a down. Then a friend said to me, ‘I’ve read all your diaries and you’re always the same. You go into a place. change it, it comes alive again, then you leave and never go back.’
The Laskett has been heavily influenced by Hidcote in
Gloucestershire, which is now owned by the National Trust. Long before
he bought The Laskett, Sir Roy visited Hidcote and it was a revelation.
‘I learned a lot about how to add structure, surprise and mystery to a
garden,’ he says. Hidcote, designed by the American millionaire Lawrence
Johnston, is built as a series of garden ‘rooms’, enclosed by walls and yew
hedges with something new being revealed at every turn. ‘I knew if I ever
had a garden it would be of this kind, strongly architectural, a paradise of
different greens,’ Sir Roy wrote of that first visit, and he was true to his
word when it came to planning his own triangular four acres.
‘I said, ‘You’re right.’ When Julia died I thought, ‘I’ll have to make another life.’ You’ve got to make change. It’s the key. That phase of my life was over. Then my friend said, ‘You have nothing more to do here.’
Within a week Sir Roy had made an offer on a house in the market town of Ledbury. ‘It has an 1840 room which I’m going to restore,’ he says. ‘It’s a ten-minute stroll to the station one way and ten minutes the other way to the supermarket. It’s changed everything. I’ve got the excitement of creating a new historic house. It’s given me a new lease of life.’
It had been Julia’s dearest wish to bequeath The Laskett to the National Trust, but around 1999 two people on the ‘bigwigs committee’ voted against it. Years of discussions followed until controversial director Dame Helen Ghosh took over and everything went quiet. In 2015 Sir Roy asked for an update. ‘I was told it wasn’t up to their high standards,’ he says. ‘That really shook me. I’m sorry, it’s a bloody good garden.’
He doesn’t mince his words when he tells me he could strangle the ‘little zombies’ who run it now. ‘How have those people got in there? Who recruited them?’ he asks.
‘Those people’ are responsible for the Trust’s (to borrow its corporate jargon) ‘reset programme’ – a consultative document that, as revealed by the Mail last month, proposes dismissing expert curators, scholars and property managers as it ‘dials down’ its traditional role as ‘a major national cultural institution’. Instead this once-tweedy organisation, cherished by many for preserving our country’s great houses, talks of plans to ‘repurpose’ itself as a sort of flashy entertainment provider and ‘gateway to the outdoors’ for the public.
Sir Roy shudders. ‘In the old days every head of a great institution was also a scholar in their own right. Now everything’s driven by money.’ He has said the Trust is obsessed with ‘ticking the boxes of the disabled, the aged, LGBT and ethnic minorities’. He shakes his head. ‘You never know who’s got into it or what it’s about.’
He pauses in front of a statue of Britannia. ‘There is the inscription from Virgil’s First Eclogue referring to this country as some mysterious world apart,’ he says. ‘I’m very proud of being English and British. I love this country. There’s a strong element of wanting to tear everything down, isn’t there? I don’t like statue toppling.
THE CHRISTMAS ORCHARD: Julia and Sir Roy started the orchard on Christmas Eve 1974. It was Julia’s space, where she planted a small collection of historic apple trees. In spring there is beautiful blossom and swathes of bulbs. The memorial urn contains her ashes
THE V&A TEMPLE: Sir Roy calls The Laskett ‘an autobiographical garden’, and the V&A Temple was built in 1988 just after he left his directorship of the museum. In it there is a plaque by sculptor Simon Verity, with Sir Roy’s profile positioned between those of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
THE SERPENTINE WALK: After walking through the Triumphal Arch, which bears a Latin phrase which translates as ‘they who plant a garden plant happiness’, you reach the Serpentine Walk. Sir Roy felt there were so many straight vistas that the garden was in need of a path with dramatic curves. The flowering perennials here contrast beautifully with the formality of the clipped yew, box, holly, beech and privet
THE ELIZABETH TUDOR WALK: Named after the book about Elizabeth I that Julia and Sir Roy wrote together before they married. It was after this collaboration that he proposed to her. At one end of the 65-yard walk is a crowned pillar that celebrates Queen Elizabeth I and the present Queen.
THE SILVER JUBILEE GARDEN: This area was laid out in 1977 to mark the Queen’s 25 years on the throne, and revamped in 2005. At its centre is a sundial from the garden of the society photographer Sir Cecil Beaton, Sir Roy’s great friend, who was the subject of one of his exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. In 1968, after the exhibition, Sir Roy spent several weekends at Beaton’s Reddish House in Wiltshire, which opened his eyes to the wonders of gardening. ‘To him I owe my first horticultural stirrings,’ he says
‘Everything’s up for grabs at the moment. Look at the monarchy. I’m terribly worried about that. I think as long as the Queen’s there we’re fine and it looks as though Kate and William are good news, but what is still to come out about Prince Andrew makes one’s hair stand on end.’
In November he will hand the garden to Perennial, the Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society. ‘They’re lovely people to deal with. Very different to the National Trust. I’m happy to hand it over. I would have achieved what my wife most wanted.’
We reach the Christmas Orchard, where he gestures to the urn containing Julia’s ashes. ‘Our two wedding rings and my ashes will be mingled with hers when I die,’ he says. ‘Other than that I won’t be back. I believe the fall was my body giving me a message saying, ‘You can’t go on like this, up and down to London, doing, performing, giving.’ I’m 85. I’ve spent 50 years in public life. I just want some peace and quiet. I feel I’ve done my stint.’