My meeting with Major Tony Hibbert at his home in Trebah Gardens in Cornwall, England was memorable and enjoyable in the extreme.
While travelling to some of the great gardens of southwest England with my daughter, Heather, (the landscape architect in training) I had made prior arrangements to interview the man responsible for rediscovering this horticultural treasure: Trebah.
At 94 years old he has an amazingly sharp wit and a clear recollection of things past. Mind you, it might help that he has told the stories that he shared with us many times before.
Major Hibbert tells the extraordinary story of a 26-acre garden that time forgot and that he had no knowledge of until he acquired it. When he moved into the ‘house on the hill’ overlooking Falmouth harbour in 1979, his dream was to sip gin in the morning and sail in the afternoon. This was his idea of retirement after a life in the army and latterly the business world. As he put it, “We were trying to avoid work.”
A Great Way to Avoid Work
A life of leisure was not to be, thanks to a visit from the secretary of the Cornwall Horticultural Society the eighth day after they moved in. On that day Chancellor David Davies ‘poked his head around the corner,’ introduced himself and was invited by the Hibberts to enjoy some gin on the patio. A drink or two later the Chancellor asked if he could show the Major some of the assets on his newly acquired property.
The tour revealed 20-metre (60 foot) rhododendrons, four-metre high Australian tree ferns, a couple hundred specimen trees and the bones of a garden that, in its past glory, was considered one of the finest in England. Over 40 years of neglect had changed things and at that moment the new owners could see that their plans would change.
Mr. Davies suggested that three years of full-time work would fix most of it. Tony and his wife thought, “Well, three years isn’t so long.”
At that point they devoted themselves to the rebirth of the place, never guessing for a moment that ‘retirement’ consisted of the launch of a new career that would essentially never end. Until then neither of them had gardened a day in their lives.
Asked what is his favourite part of the garden the Major (as he prefers to be called) points out the double doors of his dining room to the view over the English Channel. He exclaims, “That is it, right there.”
Did you get any help or advice from others as you refurbished the garden? “Yes. Lots and most of it was rubbish. But 10 per cent was extraordinary and I am grateful to those who gave it.”
What distinguishes Trebah from the many gardens of England? This is a country, after all, known for its 500-year horticultural pedigree.
#1. This is a garden for children.
#2. It is a garden for children with dogs.
#3. It is a real Cornish garden. The hand of man is invisible.”
What do you mean by #3? “A great garden – one with ‘heart’ – takes its cues from nature itself. The memorable view from the house at the top of the 220-ft slope is made possible by removing scrub trees that were in the way. New trees and shrubs are planted yearly to rejuvenate the garden and take advantage of the cycle of life and death of the plants that live there.”
He reflects on the Trebah Garden Trust that he created 20 years ago so that the garden would continue to be managed and protected for future generations. “A garden like this deserves the security of a 200-year tenure. Forty-two years of neglect almost ruined the place.”
How do you feel about your second career as a gardener? “If it were not for this garden I would have died of gin and boredom years ago. The thing that I really love about it is that I come from a line of artists. I could see the bones of the garden and I could visualize what it could be after six generations of gardeners had lived here. This has also been a wonderful opportunity for my late wife and I to make new friends.”
I turn to my daughter who has been taking notes for me. “I really enjoy touring gardens with Heather. As a landscape architect she sees things differently than I do.”
The Major smiles and asks her, “And does he listen?”
Listening has been easy for the past three hours, including a welcome lunch of home made beef stew. Both our tummies and our brains are full and nourished in ways that neither of us had anticipated.
Visit Trebah Gardens at www.trebahgarden.co.uk.
Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40. He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com.