The Queen of Topiary
What’s not to love about topiary? Its whimsicality appeals to everyone whether they are gardeners or not. All manner of topiary can be found at the splendidly named Balmoral, one of the most original gardens made in England in the past few decades. Hidden away behind Benenden Church, in the Kentish High Weald, it is the creation of its owners Charlotte and Donald Molesworth. To step into the garden is to enter an enchanted paradise – the outside world is quickly left behind as one marvels at the seamless way the house and garden organically blend together. At first it all appears so natural but look closer and one realises that the whole ensemble is the product of consummate artistry.
‘The house was derelict with just one light bulb when we moved one Christmas Eve accompanied by three dogs, two donkeys, two cats and eight chickens,’ says Charlotte. The garden was the old kitchen garden of Collingwood (Cherry) Ingram (1880-1981), the celebrated Japanese cherry expert. It had a ‘magical air of abandonment’. He would surely be thrilled to see what the Molesworths have created on his hallowed ground.
Bombarded with magazines, TV programmes and life-style gurus advocating a blissful bucolic life, most of us have dreams of living such a life and it doesn’t quite happen. But in the case of Donald and Charlotte an artistic and pastoral modus vivendi is innate in both their characters. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious.
It is not at all surprising that the ‘Potting Shed’ cottage (www.thepottingshedholidaylet.com) they created to let out a couple of years ago has a high percentage of repeat bookings. It is utterly delightful and well located for visiting other gardens such as Hole Park, or Great Dixter.
It was Charlotte’s mother who first instilled in her a zeal for gardening. ‘Mother’s passions were yew trees, old fashioned roses and cottage garden plants, geraniums, box hedging and topiary. Many of the plants at Balmoral boast a pedigree stretching back to Charlotte’s childhood and even beyond in the case of the double white primulas, originally collected by her eighteen year old mother in Ireland which she used to propagate and sell in ‘The Farmers Weekly’. ‘Gardens are like a friendship necklace. I sometimes forget the name of the plant but can always remember who gave it to me. Gardeners are so generous. There is a very good saying, ‘if you want to keep a plant give it away’’.
‘In our wedding present list we asked for unwanted yew seedlings. We received loads and we planted them out in rows and once they started to get bigger I began to waist them. It was all trial and error. I have never made a bird before but knew that was what I wanted’. With characteristic aplomb, Charlotte exclaims ‘it is all so easy once you look inside the plant and understand its structure. I had no experience but knew that I wanted to make birds.’ Peacocks, foxes and a host of other striking examples of topiary abound at Balmoral.
The visitor has wandered into a secret garden where the topiary creatures might miraculously spring into life on the stroke of midnight. Charlotte’s topiary skills are greatly in demand in Kent and beyond.
‘I like to make the shape at the outset. Over time it gradually develops into the owner’s style. When yew is young one should encourage it to grow to but it is important to cut it hard when it is older to stop it putting on a growth spurt at one go.
It is all too easy for the shapes to quickly balloon. Always look at the structure of the yew – one has to understand it before deciding what to make it into. Yew is very forgiving, it lets you chop away at it’.
Other examples of Charlotte’s work can be seen at Penshurst Place, Kent – look out for the topiary bear and porcupine, the armorial crests of the Sidney family who live there. And the café at Etchingham station in East Sussex has a fledgling Molesworth topiary display. How many other commuters snatch a glimpse of budding topiary as they hurriedly park their cars before dashing for the train?
As well as advising people on their gardens and topiary, Charlotte is renowned for her skills as a florist whether it be wedding flowers or funeral flowers, and also for her paintings, drawings, fine handwriting, lovingly hand printed Christmas cards and her cooking prowess. Her father, a farmer, was ‘bitterly disappointed that I chose to go to Canterbury art school and didn’t follow him into farming. My mother had always painted. I loved art school days, the freedom, the dressing up and all the facilities.’ One suspects her father would recognise now that Charlotte made the right decision.