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Rockcliffe and Highgrove Gardens, Gloucestershire

News / 18th Feb 2020
Written by Peter Styles
11-12 April 2019
Peter Styles

This was a two-day event suggested by Martin Staniforth. The planning of the Rockcliffe and Highgrove visit had been much anticipated and was long in its making. Royal Household protocol and other events at Highgrove meant that we only received approval shortly before the event, but we were not disappointed.


Thursday morning saw 20 members and guests gathered in the car park at Rockcliffe House to meet the owners Emma Keswick and her husband Simon. Kew Graduate Thomas Unterdorfer was the head gardener here until last year and Amy Newsome, student in Kew Diploma course 56, also trained at Rockcliffe.

The 8-acre garden is a personal triumph for Emma, who created the garden and whose design philosophy can be described as organic. Emma is also a garden designer in her own right, trained in horticulture at Merrist Wood and in garden design at the English Gardening School. One her of her earlier commissions involved the first Maggie’s Centre in Edinburgh in 1996. The centres are named after Maggie Keswick, Simon’s cousin, also a garden designer, who died of cancer but left behind a legacy of cancer centres dedicated to a new approach to patient care. Maggie was supported by her husband, the late architect Charles Jencks of Garden of Cosmic Speculation fame – such are the common threads that bind us all together in life.

Throughout the garden there are references to Simon’s old school Eton – in the gate to the formal terrace and another reference in the pennant-shaped Dovecote weather vane. The Dovecote is a magnificent Cotswold stone structure, sitting high up in the garden and entered through a gate from the Kitchen Garden. The path is lined each side with topiarized doves creating a wonderful quirky approach.

To the rear of the house Emma has created a ‘ha-ha’, forming the boundary to the garden and allowing an uninterrupted view to the surrounding Gloucestershire countryside. A double row of Beech obelisks draw the eye across the lawn to the ‘borrowed landscape’. The view is punctuated with a striking bronze statue by Nigel Hall, aptly named ‘Southern Shade’.

Emma Keswick addressing the group at Rockcliffe.

Kew Guild members visit Rockcliffe Gardens 2019 L to R: David Priestley, Bryan Howard, Veronica Priestley, Peter Styles, Jean and Rob Peach, Emma Keswick, Brian Phillips, Jenny Edmonds, Wendy Staniforth, Sylvia Phillips, Linda Baharier, David Edmonds, Liz Styles, Tony Overland, David Hardman, Jan Overland, Joan Howard, Martin Staniforth, Peter Turski.

The garden is famous for its planting and the use of colour, yet despite the early Spring visit, we were able to appreciate the form of the individual garden spaces or rooms. This has been achieved by the skillful use of clipped Yew and Box hedges and which provide all year round structure to the garden. The formal pool garden was particularly impressive with an early showing of colour from a magnificent stand of the tired Cornus controversa ’Variegata’.

At the end of our tour we were treated by Emma to coffee and biscuits in the Orangery. This is truly an iconic garden and we thanked Emma for her hospitality with a copy of the Kew Guild book.


On Friday morning, armed with the requested various forms of photographic identification we gathered in a car convoy at the entrance to Highgrove. In the event the security guards were happy for your President to vouch for the good character of the whole group!

Debs met us armed with a large piece of Flowering Cherry, which Leo Pemberton was able to identify. Our first plant ident test for the morning!
Debs Goodenough, head gardener, although with a very busy schedule for the week, was able to generously give her time to host the morning. We were extremely lucky to have such an exclusive tour of the gardens.
Debs was an international student at Kew in 1985 before moving to Ventnor Botanic Gardens. Debs has been at Highgrove since 2008 and heads up a team of 11 full time gardeners.

Security protocol is strict at Highgrove and sadly we were not allowed to take photos or to use recording equipment. This was understandably but a shame as there were many photo opportunities. Highgrove, an 18th century house and gardens, is the family residence of The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall The Prince acquired the estate in 1980 and set about transforming it into his own personal space with energy and artistic flair.
The gardens are filled with many treasures – plant and sculptures gifts to The Prince from around the world, each given its own space to form a unique feature within the gardens. There is, for example, an elephant-themed area.

The Prince has a real ‘hands on’ approach to his garden, which is a reflection of his own eclectic and often whimsical taste. His commitment to organic and sustainable gardening is much in evidence. There is so much to see in a garden of this size and complexity. One favourite was the Stumpery which also contains the National Collection of Hostas and a magnificent Gunnera stone tower water feature. This would be one feature to come back to see in Summer when the Gunnera is in full leaf. The Sundial Garden has a feature hedge of clipped Yew with windows framing busts of HRH The Prince of Wales. We were told that the delphiniums, extensively planted in the garden, are one of the Prince’s favourite flowers.

The dramatic scale of the Thyme Walk drew us at once. An informal paved walk with 20 varieties of thyme, marjoram and primroses form a link to the main house. Planted each side there are lines of pleached Limes framing the view to the house and providing a dramatic backdrop to the Golden Yew topiary. This ancient topiary has been clipped into magnificent and fantastical forms. Sir Roy Strong had an involvement in the redesign of this space. The Prince is keen to allow the thyme, marjoram and primrose to seed themselves into the paving thus creating a living carpet.

We were delighted to be shown a new garden in construction. A formal garden with clipped Box and Yew and with each bed a different colour scheme grading though the colours – almost like a living colour wheel. The Prince, with his love of watercolour painting, has a keen eye for the use of colour in his planting schemes, very much in the styles of Gertrude Jekyll.
As we toured the garden, we happened upon our old horticulturist and scientist friend Alan Titchmarsh who was delivering a presentation that day. There were hugs all round.

Towards the end of the tour we were handed over to gardener Ashleigh Davies, a graduate of the Kew Diploma 2015. Ashleigh invited us to see the Kitchen Garden, with its extensive production areas and the collection of rare breed chickens – all ready to provide the Prince with those famous boiled eggs we often hear about. The area is enclosed with a Celtic knot hedge – an idea that the Prince picked up on one his many travels. The hedge is woven with Ash, Sycamore and Oak into an attractive and biodiverse living feature. It was heartening to hear of the deep trust that the Prince has with his head gardener, even when travelling he is keen to have a regular update from Debs on what’s happening in the garden.

All too soon it was time for us to thank Debs and leave her to her busy day ahead – but not before we manged to capture a photograph of Leo Pemberton and Debs together. Highgrove is a garden to return to in the Summer when in full flower.

Leo Pemberton with Highgrove Head Gardener, Debs Goodenough.

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