Magical mystery tourUnderground caverns, Alpine meadows and even a replica Matterhorn … George Harrison’s widow, Olivia, takes Dan Pearson around the extraordinary Victorian garden she renovated with the former Beatle.
One of the most thrilling aspects to what I do as a garden maker is that I get to see behind the garden gate. There is nothing more exciting than being allowed into someone else’s world, and these places are often the dream that my clients have lived for. Sometimes it is a building that makes the place particular, others it is a view or a winding track to the sea or a section of river that gives the place its value, but it is rarely a ready-made and appropriately timeworn Gothic Fantasy of 35 acres.
Friar Park is an extraordinary garden, perched on a hill high above Henley. There is an ornate gatehouse with wrought-iron gates down at the very bottom of the drive. It gives you a flavour of the Victorian mansion that lies hidden in the trees at the top, but nothing quite prepares you for the garden that gives the house its setting. Olivia Harrison, wife of George Harrison, is the current custodian and the person keeping it from being overwhelmed by its own eccentricity, and between them, they were responsible for bringing it back from the brink of dereliction.
George was just 27 when he arrived at Friar Park. It was 1970 and not long after the Beatles had split. The garden had gone into a serious decline under the Catholic nuns who were previous owners. The lawns were grown over and torn at the edges by encroaching brambles and the lakes were dry. Its creator, Sir Frank Crisp, who had been there between 1875 and 1919, had made Friar Park his grand project. He had done so with typical Victorian confidence, carving out his fantasy with no fear for scale and doing so with wit and eccentricity. Plant collecting was a profession at the time and new introductions were being brought back by the crate-load. Many were plants that had never been seen before and Crisp joined in with the excitement, choosing to build the landscapes for his plants rather than visit them in their habitats.
He became a passionate Alpine gardener and to house his ever-growing collection, he decided to create a rock garden. They were fashionable at the time and I can think of several around the country that sought to capture the magic of these elevated landscapes. But few are quite as dramatic as Friar Park’s. The Matterhorn had only recently been climbed so Crisp built a version of it in sandstone, which over the years grew to several acres in size. Today, and restored to its former glory, there is an airy Alpine meadow at the top and cascades that drop dramatically or trickle from level to level. A tumbling scree gives way to the lower slopes, and on the cool, shady side there are ravines that tower over your head and completely immerse you in the illusion. Among the many treasures, Olivia has blue Himalayan poppy and Podophyllum thriving here.
There were also walled and productive gardens, an Elizabethan garden, a white garden, a Japanese garden and a spooky topiary dell in Crisp’s heyday, but the high drama of this landscape, and the considerable efforts that go into maintaining an estate of such complexity, had been too much for the nuns who lived there the quarter century before the Harrisons arrived. To keep some money coming in, the nuns had let local builders use the lakes as a tip and all that was visible at the start of the Seventies – and Olivia described it as having a Planet of the Apes aesthetic – was the peak of the Matterhorn, poking through a net of undergrowth and seeding trees.
Though he loved architecture, George told Olivia he was happy to live in one room of the mansion and take on what he needed when he needed it. Originally, he intended to go about the garden in the same way, but gardens have a way of snagging you and not letting you go. By the time Olivia arrived in 1974, he had already developed what was the beginning of a life-long passion. He started by fixing the fountain up by the house, the lawns were mown, the ivy cleared and, fittingly, he put two goats on the Matterhorn to clear the brambles. One day he lowered himself on a rope into one of the subterranean caverns under the lakes only to find the incredible remains of the waterways and grotto that Crisp had created there. The grand project had found a new custodian.
‘We never set out to make the garden a restoration, we were just doing it for the joy of it,’ Olivia said of the process of unveiling the grounds. ‘You don’t have to know anything or everything to make a garden and George set out quite independently to do it his own way. “It’s amateur hour” was a mantra and clearing away the dark Victorian palette of laurel and yew and overgrown box was key to being able to move the garden forward.’
Beth Chatto’s visit to the gardens proved key as a confidence-building exercise. With typical practicality she had said: ‘You know, George, if you had an old sofa in your house that you didn’t like you’d throw it out!’ The comment was a liberation and that was how they began to lift the gloom to make way for a new layer.
Beth also introduced the Harrisons to grasses, and in the clearings that replaced the long-lost gardens, a new layer of planting began to unroll in confident swathes that are of considerable size. George became something of a plant collector himself, visiting the Hillier Arboretum and the gardens of Cornwall. They planted freely at Friar Park, preferring not to get bogged down in the history and not to be precious about working in the new layer. Olivia explained George’s free approach to the garden as being a way of coping with the events in his life. ‘He preferred not to think too much beyond the here and the now for fear of being overwhelmed by the scale of what lay around him. Gardening was the ideal antidote and the title of his song ‘Be Here Now’ described that perfectly.’
He liked to be spontaneous and to get the plants in to keep everything moving. In doing so he discovered the combination of maples and ferns, and the revelation that if you combined them with Japanese wind anemones you could pull off a look that worked well within the mood of the place. In the autumn, the lake is now ablaze with the colour of the maples, and tucked away throughout the grounds there is a new layer of whimsy that complements Crisp’s irreverent approach to tradition. A boat, dry-docked in the trees, commemorates their son’s 21st. It is just one of many touches that are in the spirit of the old stone crocodile in the lake that issues the water from the bore hole and Crisp’s sign ‘Herons will be prosecuted!’ He was a lawyer.
In 1997, George was diagnosed with cancer and as soon as he returned from his first treatment he started the woodland walk. The garden continued to provide sanctuary until he died in 2001, and Olivia continues to move it forward. I helped her to plant a sun garden in a clearing in the wood and since then, the walled garden has burgeoned. Clematis hangs in swags from the yew hedges – she describes them as her drapes – and a new herb garden is bursting at the seams. She has also started to edit the trees on the boundaries to reveal the views beyond the boundaries. Once again, confident moves, the only ones that really work in such a setting.
Before I left, Olivia took me on a magical tour in the rowing boat under the lake. We entered a cleft in the rocks alongside the waterfall that splits the two levels and paddled our way behind the cascade. Light bounced off the stucco walls as we entered the tunnel, but before long we had left the roar and the light behind and were paddling through the pitch-black. I began to wonder how far we could feel our way into the darkness but rounding a corner the shimmering grotto was revealed. Blue glass panels set into the garden above let an eerie light fall over the columns of spa stone that rose from the water. As we floated through this mysterious inner landscape, I had to pinch myself that I was really there and part of the fantasy.