Devon Life finds a nursery tucked away in Mid Devon

PUBLISHED: 13:00 27 February 2015

Barry Fretwell: 'Clematis are not easy to work with. You are always disentangling them and tying them up'

Barry Fretwell: 'Clematis are not easy to work with. You are always disentangling them and tying them up'

Matt Austin Images 2013

Tucked away on the edge of Mid Devon is a nursery where a truly dedicated couple produce magic which goes right around the world. LAURA DALE goes to meet them as they prepare to give up on their idyll

Finally, in her seventies, Pat Fretwell is a cover girl. Staring out from a German magazine she looks resplendent. A beautiful double pink clematis with a dark bar running through the petals, Patricia Ann Fretwell was grown by a skilled hybridist from Devon. Barry Fretwell has spent nearly 40 years bringing rare clematis species back from the brink and creating new species which have been eagerly snapped up by gardeners the world over.

At pains to avoid blowing their own trumpet, Barry and Pat resolutely refuse to name drop their customers. What they will say is that aristocracy, lords, ladies, actors, opera singers and viscounts were among them. I say ‘were’ because the Fretwell’s house and nursery is for sale. Tucked away in the village of Christow in the Teign valley, Peveril Nursery has attracted coach loads of tourists from all over Europe and as far afield as Japan for decades. It’s no exaggeration to say the Fretwells’ move will be the end of an era.

Originally from Derbyshire, Barry and Pat moved to Devon in 1977 and opened a nursery near Holsworthy. There they bred and developed new species of clematis, and it was here that their skill and dedication began to get them noticed in the plant world. Barry recalls: “I was interested in clematis, but you couldn’t get them anywhere – there were only three nurseries in the UK that had them. I started buying them from nurseries, but they weren’t named properly. I starting sorting them out and it went from there.”

Before long Barry became well known in the plant world and people started to hear about Peveril Nursery, which was the only source of more unusual species of clematis. The Fretwells started to handle about 7,000 plants a year and with visitors numbers rising they decided to move to a more accessible site at Christow. The four-and-a-half acre stretch of land had lain derelict for 12 years, the house was a tumble down wreck and the rock strewn woodland was like a jungle.

Beautiful colours which are shipped around the worldBeautiful colours which are shipped around the world

Nowadays, in place of the wilderness, is a beautiful garden which sweeps around the house and along the stream. Dozens of different size and colour clematis tumble down arbors, grow up and through trellises and stand like bushes in the flowerbeds. Beyond the garden is the “working area” where polytunnels once stocked thousands of clematis plants in varying stages of development and growth.

A keen gardener since the age of nine, Barry worked for his uncle and later became an apprentice gardener for a stately home in Derbyshire where he would help to grow vegetables and flowers for the house. Although no longer producing cut flowers for the well-to-do, Barry’s clematis adorn the gardens of aristocracy, lords, ladies, actors, opera singers and viscounts.

The Fretwells customers (I deduce) have included Desert Rats actor James Mason, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, fourth baronet Sir William Lawrence, cellist Jacqueline du Pre and Prince Charles. Some of Barry’s most treasured possessions are personal letters from people he has named a new breed of clematis after or customers who have corresponded with the Fretwells over a mutual love for the Queen of the vines.

Barry chooses the names but always asks permission. Kiri Te Kanawa is a double deep blue clematis. She was so delighted with the plant that she wrote a personal letter thanking Barry for naming it after her. Before Jacqueline du Pre died from multiple sclerosis she wrote to Barry thanking him for her clematis. She penned: “It is growing and flowering outside the door and it is a wonderful comfort to gaze at it as I sit here in my wheelchair.”

Barry Fretwell: 'Clematis are not easy to work with. You are always disentangling them and tying them up'Barry Fretwell: 'Clematis are not easy to work with. You are always disentangling them and tying them up'

Barry’s clematis also grace botanical gardens in Shanghai after he and Pat sent dozens of plants to China to help replace those destroyed during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In return they received a parcel of a rare clematis not seen in the Western world for centuries.

Popular clematis which Barry has bred include Arabella, which is the most widely grown clematis in the world, the Princess of Wales, Ladybird Johnson, Mary Rose (the Queen Mother had one at the Royal Lodge Windsor) and of course Patricia Ann Fretwell ‘Parfa’. Arabella is so recognisable that it was featured on a Royal Mail stamp marking the bicentennial of the RHS.

Barry says: “You figure out which one to use as a seed parent, the female, and the pollen parent, the male. You chose two together which will give you what you want.” Barry makes it sound simple, but it isn’t. He continues: “The seed will take one to two years to germinate, then one to two years to flower. Most of them are rubbish. It can take seven or eight years to get a new species to market. There are some new varieties on the market which I would have thrown out. They are not up to my standards by any means. I like them to be distinctive.”

Barry and Pat retired in 2005 but have still been doing “bits and bobs” because there are large suppliers who still take plants, including Lonicera Celestial, a honeysuckle which flowers all summer long. Pat adds: “I don’t think Barry will give up growing plants – try stopping him.” As for Peveril Nursery, its days are sadly numbered. Pat confirms: “The nursery is only here whilst we are here. We would like to stay in the area, but not have such a big garden, so Barry can’t disappear when he is needed!”

Clematis Patricia Ann Fretwell, a beautiful double pink clematis with a dark bar running through the petalsClematis Patricia Ann Fretwell, a beautiful double pink clematis with a dark bar running through the petals

I sense the Fretwells are ready to hang up their gardening boots and there’s no obvious sentimentality over the sale of the nursery. Perhaps it’s because they know Barry’s clematis will continue to flourish in gardens of people the world over.

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