ELGIN is as famous for its magnificent, large English-style gardens, as it is for its apples. The area has always had a large English community. Many of the early farmers were soldiers who stopped off in Cape Town, on their way home from India after serving in the British Army. They settled in the fertile area beyond the Hottentots Holland mountains.
The “Englishness” – combined with a crisp climate that is particularly suitable for growing roses – helped nurture the areas strong gardening tradition; a tradition perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the Western Cape.
Luborne, Freshwoods and Palmiet River are very well known names of Cape gardeners. These were gardens were created by inspired and imaginative women. Lady Bourne’s romantic blue bell woods and cherry trees enthralled visitors every year.
The burden of inheriting a famous garden is great. Greater than simply inheriting the house. Everyone expects you to modernise and change a house, but they’ll censor you for pulling out a tree or altering a bed. A garden is by no means the tangible creation it might seem, but rather the tangible extension of a particular gardener’s personality. Just as no two people are alike, so no two gardens can ever be the same. Change is inevitable when a garden is handed on to its heirs.
Strangely, the woman who is most renowned for her English garden at Elgin, was not English. She was born in the Free State. Lady Bourne, Union Secretary of Defence during World War One, built an English –style thatch roof house amidst the apple orchards. She set about creating the garden that was to become the show piece for decades and an inspiration for generations of Cape gardeners.
She opened it every year for charity in the spring when the blue bells flowered, and roped in all the young wives of the district to make and serve tea. Hers was the romantic garden with lilac hedges and swathes of bluebells. When someone asked her how she could get everything to look so wonderful, she retorted: “it’s easy. You dig in compost for forty years.”
Today the garden that Lady Bourne started in 1937, on the bare hillside among the apple orchards, is owned by farmer Mark Stanford, and his wife Gail. The garden went through 10 years of neglect after Lady Bournes death, during which time the owners lived overseas, visiting the farm once a year. “You can’t garden from overseas” says Gail, who had the unnerving task of putting the garden to rights when her husband bought the farm. “I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse to inherit a garden as famous as this one,” she says. “The older people round about, who have come to see what we’ve done, have approved. They like the changes we’ve made.”
Lady Bourne devoted 50 years of her life to the garden. She worked in it constantly every day. Gail, with three young children of 12, 10 and 7 has to have a very different approach to the garden. Above all, it must be user friendly for the energetic demands of children.
“There wasn’t a drop of sun in the house because the garden had become so over grown”, says Gail. Mark removed some 100 trees, among them a line of gums that grew very close to the house. Lawns were extended and more space made around the house. Gail says that many interesting plants had been lost by being overgrown.
She was newly married when Mark bought the farm, and he gave her a choice of either Lady Bourne’s house or another house on the property. “I chose Lady Bourne’s house because I loved the house and gardens,” says Gail. She is a farmer’s daughter and grew up in the area. Both she and Mark knew Lady Bourne.
Lady Bourne’s famous Judas tree is still there and so are many of her flowering cherries and the red oaks. And of course, the bluebells that made it so famous each spring. The garden still rambles informally into shrubbery. Gail has retained many of the old stone paths close to the house. Very conscious of having taken over something wrought by time, she has left places where the roots of the old wisteria have pushed up stones of the pathway. “Those things give character to the garden,” she says. The garden once all consumed by passion of an elderly gentlewoman, is now the happy hunting ground for robust, country children and dogs. Although drastic changes have been made they have opened up the garden to the sunlight, and brought it to life for the next generation.