Gardening couple turned detectives to restore home’s hidden secrets

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Durmast House Burley
Philip Daubney in the garden of Durmast House Burley

WHEN Philip and Margaret Daubeney bought their home with its vast, overgrown grounds, little did they know of the garden’s historical significance – or that it would take them more than 25 years and a mountain of detective work to restore.

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Buried under the brambles at Durmast House in Burley was one of the most historic gardens in the country.

It is one designed by famed Edwardian horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll, who was the first woman to be awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society – the highest award for British horticulturists – in 1897.

During her lifetime Gertrude designed 400 gardens including one at Lindisfarne Castle – but only a handful still exist.

As Philip tells me in the drawing room of Durmast House – which has a fine view of Gertrude’s work – when he and wife Margaret found out who had created their garden, they knew they had to restore it.

He said: “It was so overgrown at the time I actually fell in the lily pond while walking in the garden because it was hidden by saplings and brambles.

“The rockery was covered by shrubbery, the borders long gone, the hedges out of control. But we knew that at one time it would have been beautiful, and we wanted to bring it back to life.”

Durmast House Burley
Past picture of Durmast House

Gertrude had designed the garden for her cousin Nellie Baring, a member of the famous banking family. A spinster who lived with six Pomeranian dogs, she bought the house bought the house in 1900. The house itself was built in 1840.

She employed Gertrude to create a garden which would stretch over four acres. The horticulturist was famous for a style of garden which she introduced at Durmast. Her borders were often ‘hot’ – blazing reds, yellows and oranges – or ‘cold’ – whites, purples and blues.

A hot border would be opposite a cold one, and the colours in them would be in drifts, rather than regimented rows.

Gertrude Jekyll

Gertrude, who finished designing the garden at Durmast House in 1907, suffered from the degenerative eye condition myopia and was said to see colours as blurs. She was inspired by artists such as Turner, and wanted her gardens to resemble one of his paintings.

An eccentric, she was active in the suffragette movement, never married and was described as “fat and stumpy, dresses rather like a man, very nearly blind and wears big spectacles”.

Her good friend was renowned architect Edwin Lutyens who nicknamed her ‘Bump’ on account of her rotund figure, and who also designed a summerhouse at Durmast.

Gertrude was a no-nonsense woman who would march around in specially designed heavy garden boots, often scattering the seed in borders by firing it from a shotgun.

Her younger brother Walter was a good friend of novelist Robert Louis Stephenson who borrowed the family name for his novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Gertrude started off as a part of the Arts and Crafts movement, painting and embroidering, but her failing eyesight saw her switch to gardening.

Gertrude Jekyll’s plans for the garden at Durmast House in Burley

Philip said: “One of the joys about restoring the garden is finding out so much about her. Gertrude was a fascinating character.

“I think Miss Jekyll and Miss Baring were two of a kind as a lady who came to live as her companion here wrote a book in which she described Nellie as a ‘stout tweedy woman given to daily rows with the cook’.”

The first step in the couple’s desire to restore Gertrude’s garden was to find the original plans. These, they discovered, had been bought by famous fellow horticulturist, American Beatrix Farrand.

She had bought Gertrude’s plans in 1932 after she died at the age of 89. Upon her own death they were gifted to the University of California in Berkeley, San Francisco.

Philip revealed: “We went over to the US and the university allowed us to look at Gertrude’s designs, for Durmast House of which there were 10. We had to wear white gloves as the pages are now so old.

“It was absolutely fascinating, seeing in minute detail what Gertrude had designed for the garden of our home. One comment made us laugh, she had written ‘Keep hedge low if good views of the forest’.”

The university gave them copies of her designs for their garden so they could take them back to England.

One problem facing the couple was trying to decipher Gertrude’s handwriting and code words she used for certain plants. It was author Professor Richard Bisgrove who came to their aid. A specialist in the restoration and management of historic gardens, he had written books about Gertrude.

Philip said: “He became our code-breaker and was able to tell us what plants she had named in the designs. Her handwriting was miniscule and almost impossible to read.

“Also, Gertrude had called the plants what their names were in her day, whereas some are now known by completely different names. A huge amount of detective work has gone into restoring the garden.

“We had to find out what plant was what, then discover where we could find it. Some of them were virtually extinct. We traced one to a single person in Belgium who grows rare azaleas.

Arbour designed by Edwin Lutyens

“Some of the azaleas Gertrude had used are now extremely rare, as are some of the roses.  There was one species we traced to a rose garden in the middle of France. The owner told us he only had one plant but very nicely said he would grow another one for us, which he did.”

“Thank goodness we have the internet now as I can’t imagine how on earth, we would have managed to restore the garden without it. We would have had to spend months in libraries, then written letters to growers, waiting for the replies. It would have taken ages to track down one plant.”

Finding the plants was one thing, trying to re-establish them in the garden of Durmast House was another.

Philip said: “We’ve had a few failures, but you have to keep going. The challenge has been immense, but we’ve enjoyed it so much.

“Seeing the garden coming back to life over the years has just been a joy.”

Visiting the garden

THE garden is open twice a year as part of the National Garden Scheme charities events when up to 300 people a time enjoy a walk around the grounds and afternoon tea on the lawn. Last year over £4,000 was raised for the Hampshire Garden Trust.

There are also group openings by arrangement.

The Daubeneys employ two gardeners but need volunteers to help them complete the restoration in their lifetime, as well as all the necessary maintenance.

Philip said: “Volunteering just involves light gardening including dead heading, edging that sort of thing.

“It means they would be able to experience working in a unique garden – and we would keep them well supplied with tea and coffee. We would also call them Friends of Durmast House.”

Those interested in volunteering at Durmast House can contact Philip by phoning 01425 402132 or emailing him on philip@daubeney.co.uk.

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