One fine day in May 1989 two long-standing friends, Graham Rose and Peter King, were strolling back from the Chelsea Flower Show. Having thoroughly chewed over the pros and cons of the show gardens, they fell to complaining how irritating and time-consuming it was trying to tease out information about the best British gardens open to the public. From there it was a small step to wondering why they shouldn’t do it themselves – put together a comprehensive but portable guidebook, compact enough to slip into a deep pocket, that included all the vital facts just enough historical and horticultural information to whet the garden visitor’s appetite. Many months and several convivial suppers later, the details were hammered out and the GGG, as The Good Gardens Guide was soon to be known, took on the basic format it keeps to this day.
The two men complemented each other perfectly. As gardening editor of The Sunday Times, presenter on BBC Gardeners’ World and author of a dozen gardening books, Graham spoke with the voice of authority and had a horticultural address book second to none. Peter, who during his long career was to write or edit over 30 books on a wide range of subjects, had a polished and relaxed literary style that transformed a specialist book into a cracking read. They were also great personalities, opinionated, witty and excellent company. Visits to Graham and his wife Dorothy’s house above the Hungerford Downs in Berkshire and to their holiday home in France were legendary among their friends, who were expected to mix sightseeing trips and vast and delicious meals with hard graft in the garden. The waiflike Doff was not at all surprised to be given a cement mixer for her birthday.
From the start Graham and Peter laid down certain rules. They decided not to charge owners for their entries, and instead of asking owners to write about their gardens themselves – a cheap and easy option – they appointed a number of regional inspectors. In their descriptions this hand-picked team of knowledgeable and passionate gardeners were encouraged to be objective, but definitely not bland. The owners of one Dorset entry may well have been a little upset to read at the end of their entry: ‘It must be admitted that the average gardener might find the closely surrounding trees and the emphasis on rarity as against form and colour rather less than exciting.’ Controversially, the editors also opted for a system of grades, later replaced with stars, which was considered by some as unfair and divisive (and still occasionally provokes Yours Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells letters from readers demanding that a particular garden be up- or down-graded) but has proved a blessing for garden visitors with limited time on their hands
Lucinda Parry, who first met Graham Rose on a snipe shoot at a hot and smelly sewage farm in Calcutta in the 1950s, was recruited on her return to England as the new venture was taking shape. Jean Laughton remembers writing an astonishing 90 entries for the first edition, while Julie Edmonstone, enlisted by Peter on a garden-spotting visit to Scotland in 1990, describes her baptism of fire: ‘As you can imagine, the learning curve I embarked on so thoughtlessly was far steeper than the recommended tread dimensions for standard garden steps. First of all I hadn’t reckoned on all the travelling – “Not far, darling,” I’d shout to my husband on the river bank as I set off across the Highlands over the sea to Skye – literally! And when I got there, what would I find – a delight or a drear, a rising star or a falling one? Then how best to judge the merit of each garden against the benchmark of its peer group, how to encapsulate its style and spirit into a few exquisitely chosen words, how not to make it read like an uninspiring list? And how to entice the visitor with judgements that were honest but balanced, measured but gracious? Such dilemmas!’
Graham died in 1997, and although Peter still takes tremendous pride and interest in his creation, the baton has passed to us, the second generation of editors. Katherine worked with Peter on the book for many years, becoming joint editor in 2004. Like him, she has branched out into non-gardening spheres, editing Expedition, a magazine devoted to adventure travel, and writing a book about a little-known aspect of Scott’s last expedition to Antarctica. Annie, like Graham, is well known as a gardening writer and journalist. She joined the Guide as co-editor in 2007, having previously been editor of the gardening section of The Times newspaper and re-design editor of The Garden Design Journal, the monthly magazine of the Society of Garden Designers. Annie lives conveniently close to RHS Wisley, Katherine in a tiny hamlet at the bottom of a steep and wooded Devon combe five minutes’ walk from the sea and a tantalising glimpse of Lundy Island.
We can only hope we’ve managed to keep the same spirit of adventure and excitement. There have been some significant changes in the past few editions. Over the years GGG began to develop an undeniable middle-age spread, and so in 2007 it was slimmed down to honour the original concept, and colour photos were sprinkled through the book for the first time. Some of the inspectors remain from the original team, but they’ve been joined by other authors and journalists, television presenters, photographers and designers and a new crop of passionate and knowledgeable garden visitors. With each new edition, some gardens, parks and green spaces drop out or are dropped and there are many more waiting to be discovered.
GGG is dedicated to encouraging people to visit gardens at every corner of the British Isles – 1230 of them, ranging from the late Queen Mother’s Castle of Mey in the northernmost tip of Scotland to Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden in the toe of Cornwall, from the cottage garden created by three sisters in Plas-yn-Rhiw on the windswept Lleyn Peninsula to Walmer Castle,one of the Cinque Ports guarding the approach to Kent. Not forgetting, of course, those in our offshore islands – Jura and Gigha, the Isle of Wight, the Scilly and Channel Islands – and in Ireland.
Large and small, rural and urban, historic and contemporary, we aim to include the best of them all. As Leporello boasted of his master’s conquests:
‘We call the tall ones majestic.
The little ones are always charming.
We seduce the old ones for the pleasure of adding the list.’
But unlike Don Giovanni, though we too take great pleasure in adding to our list, it’s quality not quantity we’re after.