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Thoughts & Musings by Sandra Visnapuu

"It's What You Take Away" - Rosemary Verey

It's What You Take Away - Garden of the legendary Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House

Rosemary Verey, considered one of the 20th century’s most famous garden designers; was the creator of, and the reason most came to know, Barnsley House. Built in 1667 of local honey-colored Cotswold stone, set deep in the countryside of Gloucestershire,  the house had come to the Verey’s through her husband David’s family.  An architectural historian, they both relished in its development - but she was also its author.

 Conventional, she was not; decorating with flair, grassing over an enviable garden for the children - but mostly, a woman who did, spoke and wrote of her accomplishments. It wasn’t until the children out-grew the need for grass that the garden known today became her passion.

I had known the late author and garden designer, Rosemary Verey, as a friend. If she thought you frivolous, you were relegated at the end of a very long rope, which she let me dangle from on more than one occasion. I think for many years it was my husband who she enjoyed for his gentlemanly presence (along with a good pour of red wine that saved the day).

Capricious, as well as known for her quick backhanded compliments, it took some time - but finally, while visiting our home in Charleston South Carolina, I did hear, “Sandra, you really are the real thing”…

Enviably, her first book in 1980, ‘The Englishwoman’s Garden’ was published when she was 62 years of age with 18 more to follow.

When I met Rosemary, she was involved with 2 local gardens - one for James Collier at Bibury Court Hotel and another, Highgrove: Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana’s country estate in Tetbury. Among a vast list to follow were King Hussein and Queen Noor’s, Elton John’s and numerous clients of little or vast wealth - but all seeking her out.

Times were different then. This was the Cotswolds, you could actually get the owner on the phone – or, even more incredulously, you could knock on a door and ask to see their garden.

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Barnsley House garden was perfection in its design. For even though a modest property of approximately 4 acres, it felt grand in scale while still it humbled you with its charm. Color and diversity of interest was paramount - not only from the view from within, but equally drawing your interest to move in and about the garden. Maintenance, often over looked, did not happen in this garden.

It was she who suggested we stay at Bibury Court Hotel, a few miles up the road in Bibury. We spent some extremely good times here alone, with our children and with friends. It was from here that we regularly visited with her at ‘Barnsley House’, taking tea on a blustery day, an occasional drink or dining together. Later when her eldest son Charles and his family moved into the large house, and she moved into the adjoining smaller building, we dined in the “Grotto”, aka the Conservatory, which served as her office and her dining room as well.

Remembering a “big mistake”; while accepting an invitation to dine with Rosemary at a certain time, it was also suggested that we come early to walk around the garden. Later, when there was a decision made to stop to see another garden on the way, my husband called to tell her our intentions, assuredly we would be there for dinner at the required time. Not a word was said, but at the appropriate time on entering the drive Prince Charles waved to us from his Rover as he moved to leave.

Another friend of mine in those early years was Martha Stewart. She was caring in the same way as Rosemary Verey. If I dropped over with a friend she welcomed them, if one of our boys were visiting a friend in Europe, she gifted a signed book for them to deliver.

Martha knew we were friends with Rosemary, and asked that when dining with her we might see if she would write the forward to her new book on gardening of her home in Westport, Connecticut. I gladly asked Rosemary and laughingly listened to her knowledge on Martha. She quoted the dollar amount of a contract Martha had just signed with K-Mart, which clueless I hadn’t even heard of. She would need to see the garden before writing the forward; her “only” request would be a round-trip ticket on the Concorde.

The message was delivered; admittedly of differing ages and backgrounds, these two grand dames knew their powers of the moment.

Rosemary, very fond of my husband, Kuldar, had accepted our invitation for his retirement party when we read of her death. Appropriately her passing was a feature on the covers of the London Times, the New York Times and so many other news outlets.

Still, I believe Rosemary would bristle with indignation when hearing that some have said she was the last of the legendary garden designers. She basked in the knowledge of who she was, thought her way the best way, for sure - but she also appreciated new thoughts and new talent when presented sparingly.

After Rosemary’s passing, Charles the elder son, felt it was time to sell Barnsley House, leaving its direction to another. It would be a herculean task to carry on the passion given to Barnsley House gardens.

 It was sold, opening as a B&B for a few years. However, I was disappointed, as I’m sure most would be who had known the garden. It was not looking anywhere close to its beauty once achieved.

This April brings another story though. Unknowingly, it sold again, this time, sign posted as a member of the Pride of Britain Hotels: ‘Barnsley House Hotel and Spa’.

 Fortuitously, we found ourselves taking Sunday lunch in what was once Rosemary’s drawing room, now a casual but accommodating dining hall for its hotel guests and the public.

On approach the manicured care, and tasteful thought of money spent wisely, is immediately noticeable and appreciated by all who find their way to Barnsley House today.

One look at the reception rooms and lounge (bar), all beautifully upscale modern - and absolutely inundated with warmth and charm, the mood is set.

Even though Rosemary might be shocked seeing people buzzing around in her interiors, critical and detailed to distraction - she was progressive to the end.

Intrigued by the transformation, still, my focus shifts to the windows reining over the garden. This had once been the front of the house; which then, as like today, had gotten the attention and expense of windows overlooking the street for importance. Happily, the view from within, now!

The Knot gardens had been perfection. There had been a simple crisscross pattern filled with herbs outside the kitchen door, now almost non-existent. The carefully planned knot of years past laid to the right of the Rosemary’s drawing room was somewhat woe-be-gone but still poised with considerable elegance.

What I did see, was a garden now getting all the attention to detail it needs to carry the legacy of its past while assuring continuity for on-going interest. Heavy pruning has taken place in various locations throughout the garden, and one can see the toppling of the Yews of Rosemary’s day looking short, fat and gorgeous! Mixed borders in and around the property now infused with the grace of stunning tulips (under-planted with mainstay perennials to come and annuals waiting for their moment to shine) are exploding.

 A rare warm afternoon in the Cotswolds, it took patience - but finally, the moment arrived when our coffee and dessert were to be enjoyed in the garden. Best loved!... sharing the garden with us outside on the terrace, up close to the earthy smells, the lushness of plantings, and blooms at arms length were those about to dominate the future,  Millennials!

Barnsley House enjoys a glorious history but its brilliance is in its future. It’s what you take away from it that inspires. Re-purposing its usability, giving history a revamp for contemporary lifestyles, while embracing the design that made it known: the garden.

 I hear the young do not appreciate beauty and quality. We need to step up and listen, as it appears they are spot on!

 My vote is with Rosemary Verey, I think she would be infatuated by this new young audience, outside, enjoying an aperitif in her garden.

The transition seems to be complete.