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Thursday, 28 August 2014

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Lord of time

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ROMANCE OF THE FLOWERS: Lord and Lady Cavendish at Holker Garden Festival

THIS year marks the 20th anniversary of the ever-popular Holker Garden Festival, but it is a more personal anniversary for Lord Cavendish.

It is 40 years since his father died and he inherited Holker Hall and the responsibilities that go along with such an estate.

Still in his early thirties at the time, he admits that some of his enthusiasm for the gardens and the estate, which he writes about with such tenderness in his new book, A Time to Plant, grew from necessity.

He explains: “The debt my father and I inherited, as well as the economic times we worked in, meant it was a struggle to maintain estates such as Holker. The political establishment at the time was hostile to large estates. A garden is a passion, a preoccupation or a necessity. What’s inspired us is combination of all three.”

Lord Cavendish recalls one paying visitor to the estate in those early days approaching him, when he was standing in the gardens, and asking ‘can you please direct us to the gardens?’.

“It was a sign that something was not quite right,” he says drily, adding: “It was a difficult start, but with my growing confidence we introduced major changes.”

Creating the gardens as they are today, has “essentially been a joint journey” for Lord Cavendish and his wife, artist and photographer, Grania Cavendish, whose stunning photographs of Holker feature heavily in the new book.

As he prepares to hand over control of the estate to his daughter, Lucy, Lord Cavendish says it seemed the right time for him to write a book and look back and reflect on the changes he’d implemented over the past four decades and at the rich history of the gardens and the Cavendish family.

“I’ve not been a very good record keeper, and the book makes good that deficiency. Quite soon we are moving out and handing over to Lucy, so our gardening career could be coming to an end,” he says.

Far from being sad at the thought of handing over the mantle to his daughter, he believes an estate like Holker needs the fresh ideas of a younger generation to continue to thrive in the modern world. He says: “I was a very young man when I took over and I think you need the youth and energy of a young person to run an estate – you cannot afford to underestimate the importance of being open to change.”

But while his book chronicles the changes he has made at Holker to adapt to the modern age, it is also a testament to the people who historically helped shape the gardens of today. He writes in depth about “people past and present who’ve influenced us . There is a chapter about the three ladies who had influenced the house and garden in the past, particularly the architect of the main collection, Lady Evelyn.

“The book also touches on the rich history of Holker, on my ancestors and their varying fortunes. The place has always had a tremendous draw on people, I feel that this is a very benign part of the world.”

He also writes, perhaps most fondly, of what he calls the “Aunt Heap” – three of his father’s sisters who were instrumental in helping him leave his own mark on the grand estate.

He explains: “They had an extraordinary influence on me when it came to the gardens – mainly in giving me the confidence to make changes. They also had pockets of knowledge about the garden as it had been in the past. They came here as children pre-War and post-War and loved the garden and recalled it well.”

Another chapter recalls his childhood and he writes openly about his relationship with his family and the gardens.

He says: “I didn’t get on all that well with my mother but she was responsible for a very important moment in my life when she introduced me to some of the plants in the garden, including stewartia, the tree on the cover of the book.”

But he admits it was not until he left school that he developed a real passion for nature and for the garden: “The trigger for my interest in nature stems back to when my father arranged for me to work for a year as a manual labourer at the woods in Lowther and then on the estate itself. I learned all about the cycle of nature and realised I loved it.”

Lord Cavendish says that writing the book (it took around 18 months) has been a similar revelation: “I went to see a publisher and said that I was looking for someone to write my autobiography and they said ‘Why don’t you do it?’. I had never written anything before but, to my enormous surprise, I loved it!”

He found that writing came easily to him, once he got started. “I decided on a framework for the book with the publisher and I stuck to it. I was so nervous about my abilities that I would send chapters to the editor as I wrote them and I always received huge encouragement.”

He adds that there are already plans in the pipeline for another book: “I would like to write more about the aunts, who lived in such an interesting era when society was on the cusp of development.”

He hopes the book has wide appeal, not just to garden enthusiasts: “I wanted to trigger the idea that a garden is about romance and not to be taken too seriously. A garden is about giving pleasure and the gentler side of life.

“I don’t want to be remembered for my gardens, they are not about a grand design unfolding. I simply did what I had to do and the gardens are secondary to the place and people, just a facet of our lives.”

l A Time to Plant: Life and Gardening at Holker, is being launched at the 20th Holker Garden Festival, which is sponsored by the Evening Mail, taking place from Friday June 8 to Sunday June 10. At 11.30am each day in the Holker Festival Garden Theatre, Lord Cavendish will share extracts from his new book, describe the challenges of writing it and reveal the history of Holker and its magnificent gardens. This will be followed by a half hour book signing session with the chance to purchase your own copy of the book. A Time to Plant; Life and Gardening at Holker is published by Frances Lincoln, photography by Grania Cavendish. For more information visit www.holker.co.uk. Advance copies are available from the Holker Gift Shop. Opening times for the 2012 Holker Garden Festival are from 10am to 5.30pm. Advance tickets are available to buy online at www.holkerfestival.co.uk or call 015395 58838. Children under 16 go free when accompanied by an adult.

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