It is almost impossible to hear the name of the world-renowned rose expert, Graham Stuart Thomas, without thinking ‘Mottisfont’. Since the early 1970s, the National Trust’s Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey in Hampshire, has been home to his collection of old-fashioned roses. David Stone, Mottisfont’s Head Gardener, has been taking good care of it since 1978.
David’s passion for roses began in his teens, when he spent time helping his brother who gardened for the Coal Board. Modern roses with names such as ‘Home Fire Glow’ and ‘Living Fire’ played an important part in the Coal Board’s promotional activities, but as his knowledge expanded it was towards old rather than new roses that David felt himself drawn. At the time, very few people grew them and so he had to rely on reading about them. Three books he found particularly useful were written by Graham Stuart Thomas.
It’s little surprise that as a fan of the work of Graham Stuart Thomas, David became aware of the developments at Mottisfont Abbey and of the rose garden that was officially opened in 1975. It was in the late 1970s, with a decade or so of gardening experience behind him that David saw the position of Head Gardener at Mottisfont advertised. He describes his successful interview as ‘a blur’, but etched forever in his mind is the memory of the snowy January night when he moved into the lodge at Mottisfont. He remembers wandering around the walled garden where the light from the moon lit up the many roses that he had only previously read about in books. Many of them were by that time impossible to buy but all were now under his care. It was he says, ‘a great delight but also an enormous responsibility’.
Over the years, David worked closely with Graham Stuart Thomas who, as National Trust Gardens Advisor, helped to develop the companion planting in such a way that it provided interest throughout the year. The great rose collector gave David guidance on almost every aspect of gardening with roses. Rose maintenance however, he had to learn for himself.
When David arrived at Mottisfont, he was the fourth Head Gardener to be recruited in three years. However good individual gardeners might be, lack of continuity eventually takes its toll and David needed to devote some time to the roses. Until he arrived at Mottisfont, he had been working with modern cultivars rather than old-fashioned roses. Initially, he had to prune ‘with secateurs in one hand and a book in the other’. Sometimes he got things wrong, but with every mistake came a lesson. Over time he found a way to prune that resulted, not only in healthy plants but also in roses that were capable of providing the best possible display for visitors.
In 1982 Graham Stuart Thomas acquired another collection from the German National Rose Garden at Sangerhausen, many of which were thought to have been lost to cultivation. The Rose Garden at Mottisfont was expanded to accommodate them. With such an important collection in its care, roses will always remain central to Mottisfont Abbey (the only garden that Graham Stuart Thomas designed in its entirety), but today, other aspects of the garden are also being developed. A winter garden is already establishing well, providing additional interest for visitors from November to April.
History shows that in Victorian times, Mottisfont had as high a reputation for its fruit production as it now has for its roses. David’s team are looking at ways in which fruit can be reintroduced to the garden.
Despite the exciting developments, old-fashioned roses will always be closest to David Stone’s heart. If you visit Mottisfont in summer, look out for the richly coloured and deliciously fragrant ‘Reine des Violettes’ – a firm favourite of David’s and the rose that Graham Stuart Thomas was often seen to wear in his lapel.