QBARS - v8n3 Exbury Reminiscences

Exbury Reminiscences
By Mrs. Lionel Rothschild

This paper, for publication was delivered by Major Peter Barbur on his visit
to the West Coast, April, 1959.

Have you ever watched the sky, gentle reader, after a storm? The clouds seem to tear themselves asunder letting the rays of the sun penetrate to the earth in golden streaks. The tear gets larger and a lovely patch of blue sky appears.
It is a lovely day in April 1919. A south westerly wind is blowing softly from the Solent off the Isle of Wight. Lionel, my husband, and I are standing on the lawn studded with weeds looking at our new acquisition, a rather derelict mansion which called itself Exbury House. It had been built at the beginning of the last century by the Mitford family. The war years of 1914-1918 had played havoc with the estate. I must have looked rather perplexed, as I heard Lionel say, "Never mind about the state of the house, this can be remedied very soon. The charm about this place lies in its surroundings....What a wonderful scope for a rhododendron wood."
"But where is the garden?" I said enquiringly. "Rome was not built in a day," was the answer. "Come and let us go and explore the grounds. I want to find the two Cupressus sempervirens mentioned in Lord Redesdale's memoirs."
This was more easily said than done. Picking up a couple of billhooks which were lying at our feet, we literally hacked our way through a glade dense with scrub and sycamore saplings, and after a time found the trees. They bore very old labels telling us that a young Mitford had collected some seed from a wreath which had fallen off the Duke of Wellington's funeral car in 1852. These trees were very similar to the handsome Italian cypresses we had seen on our travels through Italy, only, being surrounded by so much undergrowth, their stature had been somewhat stunted.
Today it is hard to believe when seeing the gardens of Exbury that little more than thirty years ago the pleasure grounds, although peopled with beautiful forest trees and brimming natural beauty, were mainly composed of neglected coppice woodlands. By 1923 Lionel had transformed this wilderness into a shapely garden and by that time we had moved into Exbury House.
And now a vivid picture stands out before me. We were expecting our first house-warming party on a sunny Friday afternoon in May. Of course I was feeling a little nervous. No need to be, as in those days one had only to press a button and a well trained staff answered the call. The housemaids in their highly starched dresses bustled about the house giving a last smoothing pat to the counterpanes. The butler and his footmen were busy getting the best china out and polishing the silver. The chef in his domain, surrounded by his kitchen boys, was handling large pieces of meat and getting a scrumptious dinner ready. The stillroom maid was preparing delicious cakes and dainties for tea.
As 5 o'clock struck two or three cars drew up to the front door, full of guests, ladies' maids and luggage; all bundled out of the cars, and there I stood, a forlorn figure, at the top of the steps, trembling with emotion. Where, oh where was Lionel? I knew that he had been busy with the gardeners, digging, supervising the tidying of paths, hanging labels around the necks of his best rhododendrons-Ah, there he was at last, trotting back as fast as he could with his little black Scotch terrier following him closely. How hot he looked!
"Sorry to be late," he said. He shook hands hastily with his guests, and added "We will have a quick cup of tea and then go round the garden. There is quite a bit of colour showing." Saying this he dived into the vestibule to get tidy, leaving me to cope with his friends and show them to their rooms.
The house party consisted of the Brazilian Ambassador and Madame Regis de Olivera, Lord Bessborough (who became Governor General of Canada) and Lady Bessborough, Lady Theodosia and Alec Cadogan (later Sir Alexander Cadogan, who became until recently the Permanent Representative of H. M. Government to the United Nations in New York), Countess Hochberg and Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Montagu. Edwin had been Secretary of State for India, 1917-1922. We had tea, and an hour later the trek began round the garden. There were many oh's and ah's of admiration. How lovely the large Cedars atlantica looked at the entrance of the home wood! How stately the tall Wellingtonia ! These trees must have existed for well over 150 years. Further along Magnolia salicifolia looked very charming clad in its white attire. Someone compared it to one of our guests, Countess Hochberg, whose graceful figure and beautiful crown of silver hair reminded one of the Vestal-like appearance of this fascinating tree.
In those days Lionel thought much of his red rhododendrons. 'Ivery's Scarlet' and 'B. de Bruin' looked very handsome indeed, although Lionel was already beginning to find fault with a tinge of blue in their red hue. This later on became an anathema and all bluish-red rhododendrons eventually got relegated to a more remote place in the woods.
The trek continued through the bridal path of Azalea lediflorum . At the right of the path Cornus florida rubra feathered itself out, forming a bright, rosy red bodyguard Later, having passed through an alley of very deep blue R. augustinii , we reached the pond. Lovely Japanese iris nodded their heads in the gentle zephyr. I don't know what was most pleasing, the sight of these blooms or the attractive names attached to them, reminding one of love symbols and peace.
Much admired were the different colored azaleas planted cleverly around the pond. Their reflection in the water caused ecstatic exclamations.
At this stage of the tour the party divided, choosing to lag behind, resting and gossiping, the experts following Lionel further into the woods. The weekend party went off well but somehow a blank shrouds any other details of what happened during those few days.
Another Friday to Monday stands out crystal clear - 23rd of May, 1924. Winston Churchill and his delightful wife came to visit us. The other guests were the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, Lord and Lady Granard, Sir George and Lady Holford, Mr. Kingdon Ward, the explorer, and Mr. J. Bean, curator of Kew Botanical Gardens. Poor Mr. Bean--he got bombarded with questions. But he would never commit himself, although no one had more knowledge than he had of trees and shrubs.
Lionel was indefatigable. One by one the guests returned exhausted, except of course for the experts, Sir George, Mr. Bean and Kingdon Ward.
On the Sunday morning Winston slipped away, taking with him his painting materials. Alas, when he returned he had put his fist through the canvas so we never saw the result. That afternoon he, Clemie, his wife, and Beatrice Granard retired to a little boudoir and played bezique solidly for several hours. No doubt they were suffering from "rhododendron-itis."
That night I tossed and turned in my bed till 3 a.m. wondering what on earth had happened to Lionel. When he came at last he told me that Winston had kept them enthralled by his conversation, and as I fell asleep I heard Lionel say "What foresight Winston has! What a remarkable man!"
Frequent visitors to Exbury were two of Lionel's best friends and garden mentors, J. C. and P. D. Williams, who themselves owned beautiful gardens in Cornwall. Lionel enjoyed their company immensely. They were delightful men, perhaps a little stern, but of sound advice. "Plant your shelter first," J. C. would say to Lionel, "before attempting to build up your garden." He would also say, "Please, Lionel, give great thought to the crosses you are about to make. There are far too many rhododendron hybrids made indiscriminately."
It is true that the two cousins were responsible for relatively few crosses, but what could be more lovely than J. C.'s R. 'Red Admiral', R. 'Moonstone', R. 'Blue Tit', R. 'Royal Flush', and of course many others. These have found their way into Exbury garden, and it is owing to the generosity of his friends that Lionel's best hybridizations were made. R. 'Royal Flush ' became the parent of R. 'Lady Chamberlain' and 'Lady Roseberry', R. 'St. Kevern', one of P. D.'s creations, crossed with R. discolor gave R. 'Sir Frederick Moore'.
During J. C. and P. D.'s stay, Lionel would go round and round the grounds planning, discussing the merits of nearly every plant, and drinking in their words of knowledge. But they were not young men, and got very tired towards the evening. No wonder they gently fell asleep after dinner when Lionel would put on one of his ciné-kodak films. I do believe he did this on purpose so as to rest his friends.
But one evening no one snoozed as, for some unknown reason, a rather risqué Don Juan story found its way down from London. Afterwards there were no comments, and we all went to bed in stony silence! The next day, P. D., who had a great sense of humour, brushed away a large bumble bee from one of the rhodo blooms saying "These large Don Juans with their big hob-nailed boots fertilize all the wrong rhododendrons!" Early that evening Lionel retired into his study to get the films he was going to show after dinner. Luckily these consisted of Wild West stories which when shown went down well.
We were always a little sad when the Williams departed on Monday morning-they were such keen horticulturists. I heard J. C. once say that he preferred going round a garden in the winter to the summer, adding that in the winter he was not liable to be distracted by the colour of the flowers. And yet Exbury did not win its reputation from the cold weather seasons. Looking through the Visitors' Book I find that the most popular time for visiting the gardens was during the spring and early summer. May 1930 brought us Sir Austen and Lady Chamberlain, Lord and Lady Roseberry, and Lord and Lady Bessborough were also in that party. Great christenings took place during this visit. R. 'Lady Chamberlain', R. 'Lady Roseberry' and 'Lady Bessborough' becoming some of Lionel's best known and most admired hybrids.
Exbury had the honor of receiving many Royal visitors. On the 8th of August 1925, during Cowes Week Regatta, we had the privilege of entertaining Her Majesty Queen Mary. His Majesty King George V was racing on his yacht Britannia and Queen Mary, who was no great lover of the sea, on the 7th August proposed herself to tea at Exbury for the next day.
Now it happened that at the time Lionel was building a private pier, which jutted out into the Beaulieu River. A lovely lane called Lovers Lane took us from the garden to the pier. But it was by no means finished. When the news reached us that Her Majesty was planning to come up the Beaulieu River Lionel sent hastily for his Clerk of the Works, Mr. J., and told him that somehow the pier had to be got ready by 3 o'clock the next afternoon. So all hands were put to the task, and after a lot of feverish hammering and banging the jetty was knocked into shape and became safe for the Queen to land. At the appointed hour Her Majesty arrived in a motor launch. Some of the villagers had joined us in order to give her a welcome. As the launch landed the women curtsied, the men bared their heads, all except Mr. J. who ran excitedly to and fro with his dirty green-colored homburg firmly fixed on his head. He was in the habit of wearing this old thing, we used to joke about it and say that he must have gone to bed with it on.
"Mr. J. your hat," whispered Lionel. "Right-o sir," was the reply, but instead of taking it off, in his fluster he jammed it deeper on to his ears. I don't think that Queen Mary noticed this contretemps, she was too occupied in admiring the newly built pier.
The Queen must have enjoyed her visit, as a few years later, at the end of July, 1931, she proposed herself again. This time His Majesty King George V accompanied her. Their Majesties had been staying again on their beautiful yacht the Victoria and Albert, and we had the honour of receiving a Royal Command to attend a luncheon party on the yacht before accompanying the King and Queen on their visit to Exbury.
England at the time was going through a period of crisis, and His Majesty talked about the idea of forming a National Government which would unite the whole country. Later in August this type of government was formed, the wonderful idea having no doubt been originated from Royal Quarters round about that time.
After lunch the Royal Party and ourselves got into launches, crossed the Solent and sailed up the Beaulieu River. Our children were waiting for us at the foot of the pier. Leo, aged 4, kept bowing and bowing. After a moment or two the King said "Stop bowing, my boy, you'll make yourself sick." This remark put us all at ease and there was much laughter. His Majesty admired the layout of the garden and above all the beauty of the trees. I remember how His Majesty noticed a gash in the side of a chestnut tree, denoting sign of its doom. The King pleaded for its life to be spared, and Lionel promised to let it live. Their Majesties planted some Cupressus formensis in commemoration of their visit.
Other Royal personages visited Exbury. Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal and Lord Harewood came several times to spend weekends with us. Her Royal Highness is a very keen gardener, and has a wonderful memory for names. During these weekends Lionel and the Princess exchanged volleys of Latin names. Not long ago the Princess returned to Exbury and, going round the woods, asked to see certain plants which she had admired in the past. When we hesitated as to the place, Her Royal Highness directed us to the exact spot. It is a family trait amongst our British Royalty to be keen gardeners.
On the 13th of .June, 1936, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to stay for the weekend. They were then Duke and Duchess of York, and little knew what the future had to offer them. No two people could have been more charming and more homely. We felt that they were really enjoying their visit.
Lionel was very careful in planning his garden tour, showing off his plants in the most advantageous light. At one stage he wanted to display a group of R. 'Romany Chai' and R. 'Romany Chal' with the sun behind them so that its rays shone through the ruby red blooms. Unfortunately, at the very moment we arrived the sun hid behind a cloud. "My sun! My sun!" exclaimed Lionel. His Royal Highness the Duke of York, who was walking behind Lionel with our son Eddy, said "But your son is here." "Not that son," said Lionel, "but the sun in the sky!" This misunderstanding greatly amused Their Royal Highnesses. Those were indeed happy days when one could laugh at little incidents of that nature.
That evening the conversation somehow ran on family ties, and the Duchess of York said how important it was to be united in one's family. Real happiness, she added, was to be found in one's own home.
Years rolled on, bringing many interesting visitors to Exbury and its gardens. Then the war clouds gathered and Exbury was taken over by the Navy. It seemed out of place to hear our house being referred to as a "ship," and to hear such names as H.M.S. "Mastodon," "King Alfred," and "Hawk." And this reminds me of yet another incident which happened round about the time of D. Day. Great mystery surrounded Exbury for weeks we were not allowed into our beloved gardens as no one was permitted to peer into what was going on. Then one day we heard a rumour that His Majesty King George VI had paid a flying visit to "Mastodon" to inspect one of his Naval units. The next thing we heard was of the glorious landing of D Day. But there was a humorous side to the King's visit to Exbury. It was understood that after the inspection the Captain of "Mastodon" was to drive the King round the grounds in a car, every detail being planned minutely. Before the Captain had had time to collect his thoughts the King had rushed down the home wood path which he knew well, and personally conducted his own tour on foot, much to the dismay of the Captain.
And here I would like to close this chapter of souvenirs. There is a Latin quotation which says that to be able to enjoy the recollection of one's past life is to live twice over. As I muse into the midst of bygone days I cannot make up my mind whether to weep or smile, to live in the past or be brave and dive into the future.