In conversation: Planting companions

Singer Kim Wilde is just getting her garden going: Lord Carrington is an old hand. Strolling round his estate, they leaf through a few ideas together.

He will be 78 in June but, after more than 50 years of public service as a politician and diplomat, former Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington shows little sign of putting his feet up. When he isn’t jetting off to help peace negotiations in the world’s hot spots, Peter Carrington likes to work in the Buckinghamshire garden that he and his wife Iona have created over the past 30 years. The couple first came to The Manor House at Bledlow in 1946, but it wasn’t until fire destroyed a huge tithe barn next to the house in 1968 that they began plans for a real garden. The result is a delightful spread of bowers, arches, a herb garden, water garden and rolling lawns. There are modern sculptures among the trees, many of which the Carringtons have planted.

Such rich diversity comes as an inspiration to newly married singer Kim Wilde. She shares Lord Carrington’s passion for gardens and is planning to create her own in the land surrounding her house, a 16th-century converted barn in Hertfordshire. After 20 years in the hectic world of the music business, 36-year-old Kim landed the lead role in the rock opera Tommy, fell for co-star Hal Fowler and settled down with him after a honeymoon in Thailand. Right now her priorities are her home and garden and, having the opportunity to visit the Carringtons’ garden, she vows to follow their example by planting trees as soon as possible.

Lord Carrington has been cleaning out the swimming pool and is wearing a rather holey sweater – despite his wife’s protests that the holes will show up in photographs. While familiar with Fifties star Marty Wilde’s music, he knows little about daughter Kim’s success in the same field. When she arrives he apologises for his slight limp, explaining that he fell down some stairs and has done “a Clinton with one leg and a Hogg with the other” (Forger Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg broke his ankle, and President Clinton injured his knee in similar incidents.)

Kim Wilde: We’re in the process of designing a garden in Hertfordshire. I converted the barn with an architect and moved in six years ago when I was 30. Now I’m looking to do something with the garden.

Lord Carrington: You’re expanding?

Kim: Yes. We’ve got a field, and the garden is in about half an acre. Basically, I’d like to have an avenue of trees and to learn about growing vegetables.

Lord Carrington: I call that very sensible.

Kim Wilde: The only way to learn is to have a great big garden filled with all the things that you love and that you can learn from. It’s all a learning process for me.

Lord Carrington: Most people regard vegetables as beyond the pale. But I love my vegetables. They’re pretty, too. I also quite like them being regimented – (Carrington served with the Grenadiers) you know the way that carrots advance in line. I rather like all that.

Kim Wilde: I think I’m going to like all that, although I don’t know yet as I haven’t even put a seed in. The first thing we did was to get a couple of truckloads of cow dung – great piles of the stuff – and let that rot down for a month. Now we’ve created an area for the beds and we’re going to edge them with boarding.

Lord Carrington: What vegetables will you grow?

Kim Wilde: I don’t know the first thing about vegetables and I thought the only way to learn is by growing them. So I went down to the local pub where there are lots of people with farmland who have vegetable plots. I was picking their brains as they talked about rotating their crops and all that.

Lord Carrington: Do you have a favourite vegetable?

Kim Wilde: I like them all.

Lord Carrington: So do I – except parsnips.

Kim Wilde: I love parsnips. I make a very good parsnip soup.

Lord Carrington: I think parsnips are sheep food, like swedes. You know, you are quite unusual. Gardening generally only comes to the middle-aged. There aren’t all that many people who are interested in gardens when they’re young. I was always so busy doing other things and I think most people are busy with families and careers.
I love weeding, I find it relaxing. You can take everything out on the weeds instead of the people who have been bloody to you all day. Although it’s true to say that, in my case, every year the ground seems to get further away. We have a lot of Alpine strawberries here and I think they ought to be at waist level – much easier to pick.

Kim Wilde: I don’t mind weeding. I’d rather weed than put some chemical on them. I have to weed a lot in our courtyard because the lavender seeds itself and I can’t bear the thought of killing it off. I go round meticulously pulling it up and replanting it because I’m so mean. I hate buying plants, knowing how expensive they are.
I do enjoy reading about gardening.

Lord Carrington: The Royal Horticultural Society has a magazine called Garden which is quite high-powered, not like Gardening Which? That’s more my standard really.

Kim Wilde: My inspiration comes from books. I like Rosemary Verey.

Lord Carrington: Did you see her TV programme?

Kim Wilde: No, but I would have if I’d known she was on.

Lord Carrington: She’s a very knowledgeable lady. She came her and did the garden in March for one of her programmes. We were twinned with Elton John and I must say he is quite a guy isn’t he? Have you seen his garden?

Kim Wilde: Only in Rosemary’s book.

Lord Carrington: It’s really rather splendid – his garden. He has some things that, frankly, I don’t think I would have. He’s got a 20ft-high dinosaur made of papier-maché with eyes that light up. But I really admire him for having a garden and for actually doing something with all his money. He got Rosemary Verey to do some of his garden, and she did a bit of Highgrove for the Prince of Wales.
Now, apart from vegetables, what else are you interested in growing?

Kim Wilde: I’m trying to get my head round what trees to put in this avenue we’ve got. We live on a hill and it’s quite exposed. There’s a lot of wind and the field is edged with hawthorns, so I’m thinking of an avenue of pink and white may. I want to plant about 16 trees. Do you think that would be nice?

Lord Carrington: Do you want forest trees or small trees?

Kim Wilde: Small ones.

Lord Carrington: May would be all right. Or you could have crab apples. Crabs are wonderful. What sort of soil have you got?

Kim Wilde: Average, with some clay.

Lord Carrington: We’ve got awful soil. It’s pure cement. Just chalk, so there are lots of things we can’t grow. We can’t grown rhododendrons, azaleas or camellias. And, of course, one doesn’t want to because they’re so ugly (he roars with laughter)

Kim Wilde: Camellias are my least favourite plants.

Lord Carrington: I don’t like the wild rhododendrons, the Rhododendron ponticum that naturalise themselves. You see them all round Bagshot.

Kim Wilde: How long has this garden been here?

Lord Carrington: When we came here in 1946 there was no garden at all. It was a farmyard outside that window. We’ve done absolutely everything.

Kim Wilde: Really? Everything? What are those trees out there? (Points to an avenue of small spherical trees with pink and white flower pomanders)

Lord Carrington: They are Viburnum carlesii. Come and smell them. They’re glorious.

Kim Wilde: Did you design it all?

Lord Carrington: We planted a few trees and hedges. But just outside the house was this enormous tithe barn built in 1450. It was much too close to the house but it was beautiful and then it burned down in the Sixties. As a result there was devastation and that’s really when our minds became focused on the garden.
We had to do something and we found an up-and-coming chap called Robert adams and, between the three of us, we redesigned the whole garden. That started us off and we built new gardens and got obsessed by it. The land is very flat and uninteresting round the house and you really have to make rooms out of the garden. It is so boring if you can see the whole of the garden as soon as you get there.
Would you like a potter round? Let’s go down to the Lyde garden. There are 14 springs coming from the top of the Chilterns and there used to be three watercress beds surrounded by beautiful old wych elms. Then, when the elm disease came about 17 or 18 years ago, they all died and the place became a jungle. So we decided to build a water garden which is now open to anyone who wants to visit it. Anybody who feels like it can go in. When we first cleared it all, it looked like a cement works, but then it began to grow up within two or three years. Let’s take a look…

The Lyde Garden is a steep dell with slatted wooden walkways and little wooden bridges running round the circumference and overlooking the pool at the ottom. We cross the road to reach it and the Carringtons’ two wire-haired dachshunds, named Arthur (Balfour) and Harold (Wilson), race up to a much larger dog passing by and bark furiously.
“Shut up, you bloody dogs”, shouts Lord Carrington.
All his dogs have been named after prime ministers but there has never been a Margaret. “I have to be careful how I put this, but the reason is we haven’t had any bitches”, he chortles.

Lord Carrington: We do get a bit of trouble with vandals throwing beer bottles around the place. Oh look, there’s something in the pond down there. Why must they do things like that? It’s the young people who throw their litter down – lager louts. Now look, there’s something you should grow: balsam poplars, because their leaves smell absolutely lovely.

Kim Wilde: I’ll remember that, balsam poplars. I thought I was fussy about colours in my garden, but actually I’m so grateful for anything that flowers that I don’t mind so long as it flourishes.

Lord Carrington: But you do have to be careful about which plants you put next to each other.

Kim Wilde: I think it’s wonderful to have created a garden like this which generations can go on enjoying.

Lord Carrington: Well, as long as my son is prepared to take it over, which I think he will because he is keen and works hard at his own garden.,

We walk through St Peter’s Garden – where a stone statue of the saint, which originally came from the Houses of Parliament, presides over beds of santolina, lavender and Iris pallida – and into a paved garden where the colours are a mixture of white, blue and yellow. Sitting on a stone bench, Peter asks Kim what she has been doing recently.

Kim Wilde: I did a musical in the West End last year.

Lord Carrington: Isn’t that hard work, doing the same thing every night?

Kim Wilde: Yes it is, especially with a back-to-back show on Friday, then being in for the lunchtime show on Saturday and then the Saturday night one. By Sunday you’re done for.

Lord Carrington: I bet you are. How long did you do it for?

Kim Wilde: For a year. But I met my husband in the process and got married to him in September.

Lord Carrington: So you’re a brand-new wife. But didn’t you find that routine hard on the voice?

Kim Wilde: Actually, it made my voice stronger than it’s ever been.

Lord Carrinton: So you don’t have to do what those opera singers do and rest your tonsils every 10 minutes?

Kim Widle: No, I think it’s quite different if you’re an opera singer.

Lord Carrington: There’s much more strain on the voice.

Kim Wilde: I would imagine so. We had microphones stuck to our wigs.

Lord Carrington: Oh, so you didn’t have to bellow. Was it the first long run you’ve had?

Kim Wilde: Yes, and it was the first time I’d done theatre. I started my career when I was 20 and stayed a pop star until I went into the theatre last year.

Lord Carrington: Would you do it again?

Kim Wilde: I don’t think so. But I never say never. I loved the experience and the people I worked with were lovely.

Lord Carrington: Did the musical have an enormous cast?

Kim Wilde: About 30 people.

Lord Carrington: I would feel that doing the same thing for a year, eight times a week, must have been ghastly.

Kim Wilde: No, it’s different when you’re in front of a live audience. Even if you’ve done it 100 times before, every audience is different.

Lord Carrington: Do they react differently?

Kim Wilde: Yes, they really do. I loved it but I’m glad to be out of it now.
I think this idea of planting trees for the future is great. What I have seen here has really inspired me to start planting and I’m also keen to eastablish an orchard. I’m planning to have quite a few of the features that I see here, such as box hedging and a herb garden with gravel paths, an avenue of trees and some arches.

Lord Carrington: You’re right to get it going now. People were very discouraging about this garden when we started because they said it was crazy to start planting trees at our age and we would never live to see them grow. But it simply isn’t true – trees grow quicker than you think.

Kim Wilde: We were given a walnut tree as a wedding present. And I shall get the old sweet chestnut in and some more trees, as the walnut looks a bit lonely on its own.

Lord Carrington: I planted that beech tree in 1951 and those cedars. Not bad, are they?

Kim Wilde: I love those apple trees where you’ve trained the tres into mop-head shape. I’ll definitely follow suit there.

The Manor House, Bledlow, Buckinghamshire, is open under the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday, June 22, from 2-6pm. Addmission £3.