Digging for gold

Chelsea Flower Show starts on May 22, but for one person the long journey to this year's jewel in the British horticultural crown began over 20 years ago.

Chelsea Flower Show starts on May 22, but for one person the long journey to this year's jewel in the British horticultural crown began over 20 years ago. Victoria Hawkins met show garden designer Lesley Bremness who lives near Bury St Edmunds

With only weeks to go, and counting, she's been going to the gym “to keep fit and keep alive”. She's going to need some stamina because it's not too long before the opening day of Chelsea Flower Show, when she unveils her Through The Moongate oriental show garden to the horticultural world.

It's probably fair to say that Chelsea's show gardens are the gold standard by which the most famous flower show on the earth is judged. Simply put, the good ones, though they only flower once in London for the briefest of lives, can linger in the mind for years.

The Moongate garden is her take on opening the doorway to introduce people to China and with Beijing hosting the Olympics next year, the timing couldn't be better. This garden is West meets East - and the journey to this point has been a long one for its designer.


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It was around 20 years ago, having been fascinated by its rich history, that Lesley first visited China and was smitten by the country, its people, influences and philosophies. “I had simply always wanted to go there because I was already interested in Eastern philosophy, you know, that Sixties thing, that hit some of us,” she said. We were sitting drinking tea and eating a slice of Irish soda bread in her white thatched cottage, not far from Bury St Edmunds, which is book and memorabilia-filled and comes complete with exposed beams and fireplaces.

Outside it was a wild Suffolk day, her topiary box-edged herb garden was a little sad and wintry and we couldn't be much further from the Orient.

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“I read this book about Chinese garden design written by a western woman in about the Thirties, which talks about the concepts that were going on behind Chinese gardens and I was just enthralled with this,” said Lesley. “I was also enamoured with the whole philosophy of China and Taoism, which connects most of the things that western people are interested in that come from the East, from martial arts to Chinese medicine and herbalism.”

Actually designing the garden itself - and it is being sponsored by Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of China - has been only one task in what will be an amazing achievement at the end of the day. The journey to get here has seen Lesley racking up thousands of miles travelling and forging links with China, visiting the country for anything from sheer inspiration through to hardcore meetings with officials and banking and horticultural dignitaries.

A recognised authority on herbs, millions of copies of Lesley's fully illustrated World Of Herbs books have sold around the globe. They have been translated into many different languages, including - with a nice touch here - two different Chinese editions, and join a mini-bookshelf of other books she has penned. She also has her own herb garden, which she opens in summer, and she is currently working on another project in Gambia.

Green fingers are not what it's about, in fact she says “houseplants always die on me” - it's the broader aspects of gardening and design which appeal.

Formerly a production designer with the BBC - she worked in the past on anything from Top of The Pops to The Rise And Fall of Reginald Perrin - now the BBC is following her as May looms ever closer. In December, a film crew accompanied her to China when she met again with officials, visited the Beijing botanical gardens and discussed the building of her garden. This footage will feature during the TV coverage of the show itself next month.

“I can always remember bringing trees and plants into the studio if I could get away with it. Any excuse. Then I left the BBC and started this smallholding in Suffolk and went on to grow herbs. I am really passionate about them, very missionary-ish indeed.”

Why China? That's been an obsession with Lesley for 20 odd years since she first visited the country, while the idea of making a bid to design a show garden at Chelsea has been more of a ten-year haul, with chance meetings and contacts paving the way. What has spurred her to this year's finishing post was when the announcement came through back in summer 2001 that Beijing is to host next year's summer Olympics.

“I thought, well there's going to be growing interest in China on the cultural side,” she said. “I feel quite strongly about this for two reasons - a) so western people don't just think about the Chinese as a billion new potential buyers of Coke and jeans and b) so the Chinese don't either and realise the value of all their cultural stuff.

“It's been a sort of rollercoaster thing. I first mentioned it to this artist I met in China - I brought him and his wife over here for a while - when I said wouldn't it be nice to do a Chinese garden as a 'doorway' to introduce people to Chinese philosophical ideas and the next thing I knew was the newspaper she worked for had organised an interview and meeting with the cultural attaché.

“So it went in a very short time from a pleasant thought through to someone picking up the baton and going wham!

“That was about three years ago, and in that way that exciting things happen, you think wow! but then it got to a kind of doldrums for about a year when I was trying to get proper sponsorship. I didn't know people at the right level and then I met this Scottish guy who had a similar passion for China as I do and he said he thought he could help. He had a lot of connections with Chinese academics because he had worked with the Beijing Academy of Science, which was just magic.

“He knew someone in the Bank of Scotland and they had just bought an interest in Bank of China and it suited them to have a cultural event. It has just been going like that.

“People look at me and think 'how come you are doing a garden for Chelsea?' But it got even grander, as the man from Bank of China was on a fact-finding team with the premier of China a few months ago and wanted to find out more about the RHS [Royal Horticultural Society, who run the Chelsea Flower Show]. They pulled all their significant people out along with the top brass from Bank of Scotland and Bank of China - and me!”

With all the early hurdles safely negotiated, making the garden itself is now down to Lesley and her team. Despite having a master plan on paper and 3-D fly-through on computer, it is still evolving. In fact, back in January, the final plant sourcing and planting plan was as yet a work in progress!

“For instance, I had one willow in my garden before I visited the Garden of Harmony and Happiness at the Summer Palace in Beijing but after I saw that, I just changed the plans because they have them there and the effect is so beautiful.”

So come the end of December, willows - and they need to be fairly mature ones at that - were added to the long list of 'things to get!' It was at this point that we left the kitchen for the journey to her upstairs office, where Lesley unveiled the actual plan. A trip, she says laughing about the quaintness of her cottage, which is “a journey of terror”. Up here she logged on for the fly-though garden experience.

Having first put pen to paper a year and a half ago, it encapsulates Lesley's China. Even the name, The Moongate, has layers of meaning - you step through here into another civilisation and garden rooms, each layered with more meaning.

“Stepping through the moongate itself is like an invitation to a beautiful experience,” she said.

The first area is a preparatory courtyard with a round stone table and stone barrel chairs and then a path leads you away so that the garden and its oriental secrets unfolds like a Chinese scroll, with a calligraphy plaque announcing each new bit you come to. There's a dragon wall (which will hopefully be built by craftsmen from China), banks of flowers, rustling bamboos and cool willows casting shadows and a cave with bamboo water pipes at the far end.

If Lesley can pull it off this could be a mystical oriental garden that will linger in the minds forever.

ORIENT EXPRESS

Through The Moongate has been designed by Lesley Bremness for East West Garden Design, which is sponsored by Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of China. Planting will include willows and square-stemmed bamboo, which she wants for the shadows it will cast.

“Rather than going for drifts of different plants, the Chinese put a lot of emotional intensity into certain plants which are in season and have a whole bank of them and then have a party, write poems and really celebrate that particular flower and really get into them. So we have big peonies, the wonderful Kelways is supplying them - they have a wonderful skill of supplying them for Chelsea with little paper caps on them!”

She is also hoping to have magnolias, grasses, lilies and proper lotus in the pond area and rocks, which are being individually picked out by Paul Dyer of The Very Interesting Water Feature Company.

“He's wonderful,” said Lesley. “Get this bit wrong and it would look like a dog's dinner. I didn't go for the prettiest stone as it had an almost Walt Disney quality about it and there's something much more potent about the way the Chinese use rocks, so we have a kind of grey slate with lots of colours running through it.”

Initially Lesley was delighted with her allotted plot, which is on a much-wanted corner site, even though it's normally home to some football goal posts.

“I thought, oh good, we are away from the main entrance with all the trucks and TV cameras coming in, because we have an enormous number of rocks and stepping stones as that is the basis of a Chinese garden. However we then found out that we have five days less than anyone else to build our garden because all the stuff for the marquees is stored here and they don't finish until then. So no pressure!”

Lesley has both written books, such as her best-selling Complete Book of Herbs, and presented her own TV series, The World of Herbs. She has also designed the herb garden at the Geffrye Museum in London and the Pilgrims' herb garden, at the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds.

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