Nori Pope of Hadspen Garden: a personal recollection

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Quite often when I do a talk or run a workshop these days I ask the audience “who here had ever been to Hadspen?”. As the years run by, it gets to be a smaller number every time. Most of the newer generation of gardeners have never heard of the place. Which is sad.

Hadspen House during the 1990s, into the early 2000s was the most talked-about and raved-about garden in Britain. It was run by a Canadian couple, Nori and Sandra Pope. It was all about colour. Colour. Colour. Colour. And plants. And it was fantastic. And the Popes were fantastic.

I've just heard that Nori died, a few weeks ago, after a long struggle with Parkinsons and dementia. The couple had retired to Vancouver Island sometime in the noughties, leaving Somerset to be with their family after many years of what was famously an almost accidental exile.

Please not that this is a personal recollection and commentary, not an obituary as such.


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This shouldn't matter, but it does: they were both (is, of course, in Sandra's case) incredibly good-looking. The beautiful garden made by beautiful people.

I wrote about the garden several times, and managed to retrieve a few things from around the millennium year, but to be honest I cannot remember who they were for. In 2002 I had noted that “the couple had seen the garden whilst on holiday, and hearing that it was up for rent, took the bold step of taking it on as a business, opening the garden to the public and running a nursery. Since then they have worked at creating a garden of bewitching beauty, much of its based on experimental border plantings that play with colour, with a boldness, intellectual rigour and emotional depth that puts it in a league of its own.” (This had been in 1987).

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“Colour is what makes Hadspen really special, especially the harmonies that are central to the couple's design philosophy. They have searched out an extraordinary range of flower and foliage colours, often planting up areas of borders around such rare shades as dark purple, salmon-apricot or pale orange, and then making seemingly effortless transitions from one to another. Sandra says that we use colour as the theme... the combinations of colour are the melody and we build on that thematically... ... it’s the same way that someone composing a piece of music would build on, say a chord.... to a whole symphony. We don’t think just about colour...but it is a place to start... it’s so diverse, you can make a monochrome border, or you can create harmonies and contrasts. Colour even played a part at the beginning of their relationship; Nori was running a nursery in Canada when he met Sandra who at the time was trying to create a red garden. “Sandra introduced me to colour... and in the courting of her I had every red plant known to man” he says.

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“There is no separation: art, music and gardening are all one thing” says Nori, and one of the things that I love about talking to the couple is the way that they endlessly move from one to another with such ease. He really did say to me once “I'd love to plant the Mahler Second Symphony”.

The only person I know who talks like this now is Christine Orel, who should be the Pope's successor. Christine, who works in Germany, for private clients and garden shows, is an incredibly gifted designer, who is also passionate about music. She also writes and explains well.

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Anyway, back to Nori. It was always special, visiting Hadspen, talking to them both, mostly to him – he was the bigger talker. So articulate, about plants and gardens and colour. Especially colour. He had a wonderful dry wit. Especially about opening the garden to the public. We used to stand and talk by the potting bench that served as a front-of-house. I remember one family who came in, flinging questions at Nori, paying up their ticket price and heading out; “teas and toilets... teas and toilets, that's all we are, providers of teas and toilets and a nice little garden on the side” or words to that effect.

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And what was left of Hadspen? Nori and Sandra went back to Canada in 2005. They wrote a book for Conran Octopus, which contained about a third of the wisdom they (mostly he) wrote down. Too late in the day, I tried to access papers, notes, unprinted material, photographs. All to no avail. There was a tone of bitterness in Nori's last words to me on the phone from Canada, something along the lines of “so the English garden establishment has finally decided to take notice of us”. I hadn't realised it had been like that for them. Lionised, but perhaps excluded too?

The garden at Hadspen could not continue. Too personal. The owner, Niall Hobhouse, made a painful, unpopular, but I think correct decision. Bulldoze the lot and start again. Anything of value had in any case gone, looted by invitation, by the generous and sensible, but in the end, realistic, decision of Niall. By the good garden ladies of Somerset.

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Niall then held a design competition for a new garden, the winner to receive a job as creator/gardener. A great and bold idea that came to nought. I am not sure why. I was on the (forty strong) jury. None of the designs really stood out. And in any case, Niall Hobhouse was incapable of making a decision. A classic intellectual dilettante, who had never shown much interest in the garden while the Popes were there, or indeed ever done anything remotely practical or useful in his gilded life, the best he could do was commission some landscape architects to come up with a plan, immediately laughed out of court by anyone who had ever handled a wheelbarrow, and of course, organise a conference to discuss the jury non-award, non-event, a comedic absurdity which is painful to recall, as a panel of entirely theoretical gardeners waved their hands uselessly in the air, spinning meaningless words that as it says in the wonderful English expression “buttered no parsnips”, and certainly dug no holes, planted no plants, warmed and fed no retinas.

Hadspen House and garden now has a new life. A total break with the past, new funds, new ideas. Something totally different has happened - a hotel and spa, called ‘The Newt’. Perhaps, realistically, the best outcome. I look forward to seeing it. I wish them all the very best. But I am sorry that Nori and his memory and his deep and extensive, and lightly-borne, generously shared, hard-worn, occasionally bitchily-delivered, finessed to the last shade, hue and tone of the colour chart, well-labelled, passionately-gained, knowledge........ may be too soon forgotten.