From Shaftesbury in the snow to Thenford on a sunny and spring-like afternoon – the weather could hardly have been more different as we headed for Northamptonshire on our second major snowdrop expedition of the year. We had heard mixed reports of the garden from those who had been there before, but the talk given by Lord and Lady Heseltine at Shaftesbury provided a very useful introduction to what could otherwise be a dauntingly large garden.

 

Michael Heseltine (as he then was) and his wife Anne bought Thenford House and 40 acres of overgrown woodland in 1976, and with huge enthusiasm and energy set about transforming it into the magnificent garden we see today. Each year they embarked on a new project – clearing the woodland, dredging lakes, restoring the mediaeval fish ponds, building bridges and constructing a rill, planting over 3,500 species of trees and shrubs, creating a sculpture garden, redesigning the walled garden and building new greenhouses. Their love for the garden came through in their talk, and it is clearly their great shared passion. Above all, it is gardening on a grand scale.

The February open day was, of course, focused on snowdrops, and we were unsure about how many we would actually see there, but our doubts proved unfounded. The Heseltines don’t do things by halves, and there were snowdrops in abundance. We followed paths through drifts of long-established snowdrops towards the lakes, past the parish church, with more snowdrops in the churchyard. (If only more churches would follow this example instead of cutting the grass too soon in their passion for tidiness.)
In much of the rest of the garden the tree-lined walks were edged with well-spaced clumps of named varieties of snowdrop, all clearly labelled. Lord Heseltine is a keen galanthophile, and the collection now includes over 300 different varieties, curated by snowdrop expert Emma Thick, easy to spot in her woolly snowdrop hat. As well as the more commonly seen ones, there were many that were new to me – ‘Button’, ‘Duckie’, ‘Neill Fraser’, ‘Bunch’, ‘La Morinière’ and ‘Quad’ among them.
There was also a stall selling snowdrops supplied by a local nursery, including many of those to be seen in the garden, and not just the run-of-the-mill ones either. Val Bourne, who somehow manages to turn up everywhere at this time of year, was helping out as business was brisk.

Having heard a lot about ‘The Arboretum’, we were expecting to find an area marked as such on the map, until it dawned on us that the whole garden is the arboretum, with the other features incorporated into the overall layout. The house, in the centre of the site, looks out over large expanses of open grazing on both sides, which is in turn surrounded by the actual garden, so there is a lot of walking involved; Lord Heseltine solves this problem by using a golf buggy. We noted a huge selection of trees and shrubs, many now fully mature, and all well-labelled, including many names we did not recognise. A return visit later in the year is called for, to see these in leaf and flower.

We noted a huge selection of trees and shrubs, many now fully mature, and all well-labelled.

Apparently much of the original woodland had been planted for timber so the trees were too close together and overgrown with scrub, requiring drastic thinning and clearing. In the course of this work an avenue of mature yews was revealed, rather gloomy at this time of year but probably a pleasant spot on a hot summer’s day.  The location of every tree in the garden is currently being plotted using GPS, a massive project but typical of the Heseltines’ attention to detail.

Our tour took us next to the 2-acre walled garden, now divided by immaculate box hedges, and containing a decorative aviary and other structures, as well as custom-made trellis, seats and even an auricula theatre in one corner, used to great effect to display pots of snowdrops and Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’. We were disappointed not to see the two white marble elephants from India, but they were wrapped in plastic for winter protection. The old greenhouses had decayed beyond repair so magnificent new ones were commissioned from Alitex, now filled with tender plants including orchids, ferns and a strelitzia in full bloom.

In view of the season we missed out areas such as the Rose Garden, and the rill was drained for the winter; in the summer it must be an impressive sight, descending through a series of pools with fountains.  We did explore the Sculpture Garden, a series of bays enclosed by yew hedges, designed to display the various sculptures acquired by the Heseltines from all over the world. These range from statues by well-known sculptors, including Elisabeth Frink, to a gigantic bronze head of Lenin – not something you’d expect to see in the garden of a former Conservative cabinet minister! Lord and Lady Heseltine salvaged it on a trip to Latvia when relics of the former soviet regime were being removed and destroyed, as they felt examples of these should be preserved for posterity.

The visit concluded in the converted Church Barn, where tea and cakes were served, very welcome after two hours in the garden. Here Lord and Lady Heseltine joined their visitors, and did their PR bit, circulating among us with the practised ease of a couple long-accustomed to attending a wide variety of social gatherings. Finally, there was just time for a last check on the snowdrop sales table before heading for home.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, and it whetted our appetites for another trip. There are four more open days this year, in April, May, June and October.

Visits must be booked in advance, and further details are on the website: www.thenfordarboretum.com