The musical reputation of West Green House and Gardens continues to grow. Every summer, when the glorious gardens are at their peak, the elegant 18th century house provides a magnificent backdrop for an increasing range of musical events. This glorious harmony of gardens, house and music is the brainchild of garden writer, designer and ex-marketing manager of Sydney Opera House, Marylyn Abbot.
Under Marylyn’s knowledgeable eye, the gardens have expanded to become a firm favourite with both garden visitors and opera lovers. How many of them realise just how close the property came to being demolished?
The house was built by General Henry Hawley in the 1800s. In the two hundred years that followed, it passed through the hands of several owners all of whom made their own mark on the grounds. The last of West Green’s private owners was Sir Victor Sassoon who, in 1957 left it to the National Trust. Sadly, while the house was under the tenancy of the Trust’s first tenant, Lord Alistair McAlpine, an IRA bomb exploded in the forecourt. The damage to the fabric of the house was so extensive that demolition was considered. Instead, it was agreed that the Trust would restore the exterior and look for a tenant who was prepared to work on its interior, garden and buildings. Garden and opera lover Marylyn purchased the lease in 1993 and so began a new phase in West Green’s history.
When Marylyn arrived at West Green, it was Lake Field (that lies beyond the formal garden) that was badly in need of attention. The lake was clogged with weeds and the eclectic mix of follies (designed for Lord McAlpine by the architect Quinlan Terry) was in a state of disrepair. If the garden was to be self-supporting, work on its restoration had to begin.
Once this major project had been completed, Marylyn began the gradual introduction of new garden features. In 2004 she designed the Paradise Courtyard, a minimalist conception to the south of the lake: a clever foil to the arcadian delights of the Lake Field. Be sure to walk up to its centre rather than simply admiring it from below. The sounds of the tumbling water and the simple combination of grass and Malus ‘Evereste’, framed by Betula utilis var Jacquemonti are very calming.
Not all the garden features are purely decorative. The Garden of the Five Bridges was originally designed to solve a drainage problem. Cleverly hidden drains form a serpentine rill that catches run-off from surrounding fields. Iris sibirica ‘Papillon’, drifts of grasses, ferns, Hellebores and Viburnum disguise its practical function and make this a delightful extension to the garden.
There is a danger in any garden that, when an increasing number of garden features are introduced they threaten to overpower rather than to nourish the senses. Perhaps as a result of Marylyn’s understanding of the dynamics of opera, this has not happened at West Green. There are plenty of breathing spaces in her garden. Sections of pure green are carefully placed between lively features giving the visitor the freedom to savour each of them.
There are many sections of this garden worthy of description but Marylyn’s latest project must have a mention. Concerned about the decrease in bird species, Marylyn decided to take positive action. A selection of wild plum, cherry, hazel, and bramble are among those planted in two large arcs to form ‘The Edible Hedge’. Over the next few years, as the hedge matures, a wildflower meadow will be planted at its centre to attract increasing numbers of insects and birds.
Marylyn sums up her vision of the perfect garden as one that is ‘wild enough to paint its own pictures’. It takes a great deal of work to prevent ‘wild enough’ from descending into chaos and confusion. Much like Marylyn’s beloved opera, everything behind the scenes at West Green is well planned and carefully choreographed. There is a delicate balance to be struck and it is one that Marylyn and her team make look effortless.