Rosemoor: The remarkable history of a Devon garden

PUBLISHED: 12:32 05 April 2016 | UPDATED: 16:49 12 December 2016

Lady Anne opens the new Rosemoor

Lady Anne opens the new Rosemoor


The Royal Horticultural Society’s enchanting garden at Rosemoor has changed dramatically since it was given to the charity in 1988

Development of RosemoorDevelopment of Rosemoor

Earlier this year, just for a brief few days, a snippet of archive film was posted on YouTube which showed remarkable footage of a Devon garden. The film was taken from an episode of BBC television’s Gardener’s World going back to the early 1990s and it was a report of the work taking place at the Royal Horticultural Society’s new garden, Rosemoor.

Sadly, the film has been taken down, but it was a fascinating insight into the formation of a garden which went on to become one of the most famous in the country. In yellow retro tones, the ageing footage showed teams hard at work on new plots drawn out on a large, fairly barren field. What a contrast to how Rosemoor is today, with its profusion of colour and greenery, grand formal hedges, stunning water features and majestic trees.

Of course there was already a well-known garden in existence before the RHS acquired Rosemoor. If the cameras had moved to the other side of the road bordering the new garden the viewer would have seen an established, beautiful garden - and the former home of Lady Anne Berry, who donated her land to the RHS.

Lady Anne was three when in 1923 her parents bought the house that sits at the far end of the original garden near Torrington in North Devon. Initially it was used as a holiday fishing lodge but she moved in permanently with her husband Eric Palmer in 1947.

It wasn’t until 1959, following a visit to Spain that she caught the gardening bug - all thanks to a meeting with the famous plantsman Collingwood Ingram. Anne returned to England and spent the next 30 years turning her garden into a centrepiece for her ever increasing and much respected plant collection. After Eric died, and when neither of her sons were keen on taking on the garden, she searched for someone to pass it on to and in 1988 made the decision to give it to the RHS.

Along with her eight-acre garden, she donated the house and 32 acres of pastureland - the site that featured in the YouTube footage. Since then, the RHS has bought large areas of woodland bordering both Lady Anne’s original garden and the former pasture.

Visitors enjoying the sunshine at Lady Anne's garden, RosemoorVisitors enjoying the sunshine at Lady Anne's garden, Rosemoor

Sarah Chesters, Rosemoor’s education and learning manager first arrived in 1993, three years after it officially opened: “When I came there was no fruit and veg garden, the cottage (for the cottage garden) was being built, there was no foliage garden, no plantsman’s garden, no winter garden, no arboretum, no rock gully; the lake was there, but it was created as a reservoir for water. The stream which went down in a concrete channel to the lake was deadly dull and boring.”

The formal garden, which greets visitors as they enter the site through the visitor centre was designed by Elizabeth Banks Associates and was developed over a number of years. Different hedged sections were added, along with herbaceous beds linking these garden ‘rooms’ together. The first were the rose gardens and Sarah recalls, “They’d been told, ‘Don’t grow roses, they get blackspot in the South West, so don’t bother’. But that was a bit like a red rag to a bull!” she laughs. “So they started by growing roses and Rosemoor now has one of the best rose gardens in the country.”

Visitors in the Shrub Rose Garden in summer at RHS Garden RosemoorVisitors in the Shrub Rose Garden in summer at RHS Garden Rosemoor

After leaving Rosemoor, Lady Anne moved to New Zealand with her second husband and fellow plantsman Bob Berry, The couple, now aged 96 and 100 respectively, still live there today and keep in touch with Rosemoor, following its various changes and developments.

“We e-mail her regularly throughout the year to tell her what’s going on,” says Sarah, who visited the couple at their home earlier this year. “Anne always knew Rosemoor would change and not become a museum piece, but she seemed pleased with most of the things that happened.”

Hedges with edgesHedges with edges

As well as the landscaping and planting, there’s been a noticeable change in the type of visitors to the garden over the years.

“When I first came here, if you saw youngsters or family in the garden you’d go back to the office and tell your colleagues, it was that unusual,” says Sarah. “But it’s changed in the last 15 years or so that I’ve been here; now we have children all the time.”

Education has always been part of the work of the RHS. In addition to the talks, courses and events there are both horticultural students and apprentices working on the site; but curriculum based education, working with schools, is a particular strength. More than 6,000 children are taught by Sarah and her small team every year.

“Although we may not be rearing young botanists or gardeners, just for them to have an appreciation of plants and gardens and the environment will hopefully allow them in their lives to be kinder to the environment and their garden in some way,” she says.

The opening of the Peter Buckley Learning Centre, a classroom area with covered outdoor space, teaching garden veg patch sensory garden and dipping ponds, was one of the biggest projects in the history of Rosemoor. And it seems it met with approval from Lady Anne.

“When I saw her, we talked about the education side and she loves the fact that education has blossomed here.” says Sarah.

Once a frequent visitor to her old home, Anne is no longer quite up to making the journey from New Zealand, but no doubt she enjoyed seeing Sarah. “She said it was lovely having a link with Rosemoor come over,” says Sarah, before adding, “I must admit, it was quite sad leaving her to come home.”

What’s next for Rosemoor?

Rosemoor curator Jonathan Webster outlines two major projects in the pipeline:

A Devon orchard: “We’re working on an exciting project to bring together a unique collection of Devon apple cultivars, numbering around 50. They will be a mix of eaters, cookers and cider apples, many which have stood the test of time and have amazing histories to tell.

“They’ll be planted in a different way to traditional orchards, magically incorporating wild flower meadows and working with the site’s undulating landscape. Planting will be undertaken in spring 2017”

Spiral makeover: The name has not yet been announced, but a well-known garden designer will be working with the Rosemoor team to redesign one of its colour-themed gardens, the Spiral Garden. “We want it to have a stronger link with our ever popular Hot Garden but with a range of plants used to create a cooler vibe and enhanced by beautiful water features,” says Jon. Initial plans have been made and it’s hoped work will start in autumn 2017.

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