Chris Beardshaw, Cotswold Life Gardening Geru
PUBLISHED: 23:29 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:55 20 February 2013
With a host of television programmes, books and RHS Medals under his belt, and now a regular column for cotswold Life, Chris Beardshaw is our very own gardening geru. Interview by Katie Jarvis. Photography by Mike Charity
Want to know what you should be doing in your garden each month? Wonder no more. For no less a personage than TV gardener and designer Chris Beardshaw is starting a new column for Cotswold Life: a month-by-month guide to those essential garden jobs.
Chris, whose latest series Wild About Your Garden has just finished showing on BBC 1, is an award-winning designer who has earned no fewer than five RHS Gold Medals and three Silver Gilts.
"A garden," he says, "is your own vision of paradise. I always encourage students or gardeners to be brave and honest about what they want. I invite them to stand in a garden and ask of every single element, every single feature, if they would want to spend eternity with it. And if the answer is no, then they should take it out or change it in order to bring back that element of delight back."
Chris lives with his wife, Frances, and their three daughters aged 10, 3 and 18 months.
I live up on the high wolds, in a converted barn that looks across an archetypal Cotswold landscape of rolling fields, pasture and woodland: everything you could wish for. One of the really exciting things about the Cotswolds is the nature of the stone - it has a radiating quality. Our barn faces north-south, so you get light flooding in no matter what time of day. It's like a beautiful work of art; it looks as though it's back-lit when the sun bounces off.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
About eight years. I could have lived anywhere, but this feels like home: simple as that. I grew up in Worcestershire, and I studied landscape architecture in Cheltenham, in what is now the university, where I still occasionally lecture. I've spent time in London, a brief stay in Northamptonshire and Rutland, but I've always come back. This is the perfect area for a young family: good schooling, an eclectic range of shops, interesting places to dine and eat, and a beautiful landscape - a landscape with the right personality. I think of the wold as a brown paper bag that's been scrunched up and flattened back out again; smoothed off so all the harsh edges have been rubbed away to leave an undulating and aged landscape: a real feeling of time passing.
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
We'd cook breakfast with the kids, walk the dog across the fields, and maybe go to a caf or bar for a coffee and a croissant. Then we'd light a fire and sit round reading stories together. It always feels decadent to light a fire in the afternoon! I get so little time to do things I want to do - I travel all over the place - so it's nice to be able to spend time with the family, relaxing.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
I'd build my own house. I love contemporary architecture but it's got to be beautifully-executed and brave to be successful. I'd also celebrate local crafts, skills and trades. I'm a huge fan of Arts and Crafts: I like to see the fingerprints of a craftsman on an object; how the wood has been planed; how the stone has been chiselled. And there would have to be woodland nearby. I remember sitting in a tree when I was five or six and wishing it could talk to me. On the Croome Estate in Worcester, I found an old oak tree that had been planted by Capability Brown in the 1760s. It was unsafe so it had had to be felled. By counting the rings, I found my birthday and the second world war: that veneer of time you find in trees is magical.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
On a flat bit.
Where's the best pub in the area?
Anywhere with an open fire that accepts a family with three children and a dog. I first went to the Mill at Withington when I was about 18 and I was completely captivated by it. I love sitting outside and watching the stream.
And the best place to eat?
Hotel du Vin in Cheltenham.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
I've lost touch with it now but I used to mail-order my tea from a shop in Lincoln: it would arrive beautifully packaged in coloured foil bundles. One of the reasons I'm interested in tea is because it's a camellia - actually camellia sinensi. Most of us are familiar with camellias but don't associate them with tea. The Lincoln shop had one called an anemone tea, which was the first pickings of the leaves. They take the tips, hold the leaf stalk, wind a linen thread around it, and allow the leaf to dry; and when it dries, it curls. When you drop one into your hot water, it opens up like a water lily - the most beautiful thing.
What would you do for a special occasion?
I'd go to Barnsley House [in the village of Barnsley, near Cirencester]. To me, the way it has been converted works: it's not stuck in time; it appeals to a contemporary audience. Would Rosemary Verey approve? Well, it would be a mistake to take a building or a property like that and try to appease your understanding of someone else's design desires. It now has a different life.
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
Dawn and dusk, when your sight is reduced and your other senses are heightened. I even take the dog out, without a torch, when it's pitch black. It's amazing what you encounter and how your experience is so different when you're relying on senses other than sight.
... and the worst?
Too far from the sea. If we could move the Cotswolds south, they would be perfect. I grew up landlocked but I love water for some reason: sailing, canoeing, diving.
What's the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?
The arts in general: the small boutique painters, photographers, sculptors and silversmiths. That's one of the exciting things about living here: you can connect with other creative individuals. I'm not interested in gardens as inspiration. I've never been to a garden and been inspired to mimic it because, in a way, that wouldn't be doing yourself or the original designer any favours. If the original is so brilliant, then why try to copy it?
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
If they live up on the wold, it's rosy-cheeked! One of the nice things about living here is that you feel the weather. I love the fact that you can be snowed in or have baking hot days or savage winds or rain or floods. A gardener up in Shetland once told me the worst thing about living where she did was the 'Tupperware' skies. If you get a Tupperware bowl and put it on your head, that's what colour the sky is. Non-weather days were termed 'suicide days' by a policeman I used to know.
What would be a three course Cotswold meal?
I love eating and therefore I like cooking! I would go with carrot and coriander soup. Then Gloucester Old Spot sausages - my girls love them - with mashed celeriac and some Dijon mustard. And, to finish, some local cheeses. We do grow vegetables at home but I don't claim to be self-sustaining; we like to harvest for special occasions. The fox got our chickens recently, but we're about to get some more. I'd like quail, too - they're the most beautiful creatures.
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
That's a bit like music: it depends on the mood you're in. The one that sticks in my mind from my student days is on top of Cleeve Hill, looking west across to the Malverns. But then, equally, I enjoy being completely surrounded by trees. When there's no big view, you are much more attentive to the immediacy: a heap of fallen beech leaves characterises this area perfectly.
What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
Not so much a village but a town: Winchcombe seems to have a thriving community, sufficient to support the shops you really want - delis, cafes, butcher; and it's got the castle and the church.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds
In terms of gardens, I would say:
Flamboyant herbaceous borders - herbaceous plants love the clay soils;
Topiary - we don't seem afraid in this region of manipulating plants to create a structure in the garden;
And roses - there's an element of dew in the air in the morning and evening which brings out their fragrance.
What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
There's a Roman villa in the woods behind Winchcombe, which I stumbled across as a student when I was out cycling with a friend. It was one of those unexpected moments, and we felt as if we were the only people that had ever come across it. I took our eldest daughter back there when she was doing a project on the Romans for school. It's a magical spot, partly because it's not been restored. There may only be 10 percent of the building left but your imagination fills in the other 90 percent.
Starter homes or executive properties?
A truly vibrant and sustainable society is one where you have a mix of social groups and cultures. That's how it's always been and that's how it should remain.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
Winchcombe, Nailsworth (of which I'm also a big fan), Burford, Stow-on-the-Wold.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
A beech tree.
What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Make sure wildlife can share your garden: a garden without wildlife is almost without soul - it has no vibrancy and energy to it. We have woodpeckers, birds of prey, and barn owls, wildlife of all shapes and sizes in the garden at home, and we don't do anything other than offer them a basic resource. If you sit and watch a green woodpecker taking a chafer grub out of the lawn in the morning, it fills you with a sense of excitement and privilege. Even that curious creature the starling, an ornithological thug, is beautifully decorated.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I'd go back to Highgrove. Charles and Camilla are just such a lovely couple, and it's great to see the difference between their public persona and the two of them when they're relaxing. The light comes back into their faces when they're in a garden or an environment they feel comfortable in. What is wonderful about Highgrove - and I think this is a great lesson for gardeners as a whole - is the way Charles's personality is reflected in the landscape. It's on a very personable scale; my favourite space to chill out would be in the walled garden.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
Ernest Wilson from Chipping Campden. He was a most extraordinary man who introduced into England so many of the common garden plants we now take for granted. He was a great traveller, mostly in China, who eventually ended up in America, where he died. His heart was very much in the Cotswolds, but he was prepared to travel in order to bring things back that would enrich the area.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
If I were assembling a dinner table, I'd include Peter Scott, who encapsulated so much of what the Cotswolds stand for in terms of conservation, environment and wildlife. I'd also invite Robert Lenkiewicz, who I met on several occasions; he was so bright, intense and well-informed, he made you feel you weren't functioning properly as a human being. He was an artist who was not afraid to paint people as they appeared rather than as they wanted to be seen: that was his great skill. I'd have the pioneer Ansel Adams, who roamed across America taking pictures of the continent as it was revealed, certainly to Western eyes. There would be Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, another photographer. And I'd put Wilfred Owen in there as well. I've never read anything that can say so much in so few words as his poems can. It makes you wonder what would have become of him if he hadn't been forced into that situation. Perhaps a classic case of the right person finding themselves in exactly the right moment of history.
You can see Chris at Chelsea Flower Show in May 2009 with his Chris Beardshaw Mentoring scholarship project, sponsored by Bradstone; or join him on the award winning social networking site for gardeners - www.gardenersclick.com
Chris undertakes a range of private and commercial design commissions. For further information and contact details visit www.chrisbeardshaw.com