The story of RHS Garden Rosemoor

Rosemoor became home to Lady Anne Palmer and her mother following the death of her father, Robert Horace Walpole, the fifth and last Earl of Orford, in 1931. At that time the garden was, as she describes it, ‘dull and labour intensive, typically Victorian with a great use of annuals in beds around the house.’ The Stone Garden, designed by Lady Anne’s mother, was the first area of hard landscaping.

After the Second World War, Lady Anne returned to live permanently at Rosemoor with her husband Eric Palmer and young son. During the war the house had been used by the Red Cross as a temporary refuge from the bombing for people from London’s Docklands and East End. The Palmers regained possession of the land and, with a herd of 50 Ayrshire cows, ran the estate as a dairy farm for a number of years. With the combined pressures of a young family and a career in local government allowing little time for dairy farming, the herd was sold and the farm reverted to pastureland rented out to local farmers for grazing. These grass lets continued until the estate was generously given to the RHS in 1988, since when they have been transformed into the acclaimed ornamental gardens and Bicentenary Arboretum.

Lady Anne’s interest in gardening began in 1959, when she caught measles from her children and, while recuperating in Spain, met the noted plantsman Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram. He opened her eyes to the beauty of the Spanish maquis and this became the first of many expeditions around Spain and England to see plants. Ingram also invited her to visit his garden in Kent and to take some cuttings and young plants back with her to start a garden of her own. She did just that and so started the plantsman’s paradise we know today at Rosemoor. Lady Anne travelled widely to form her collection, including South America, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, the USA and Japan, and such wide travels have led to great diversity among the 4,000 plants represented in Lady Anne’s Garden.

When Lady Anne gave Rosemoor to the RHS in 1988 it consisted of the house, the 3.2ha (8 acre) garden around the house and 13ha (32 acres) of pastureland. In 1989 work began on building the new visitor centre, named the Robin Herbert Visitor Centre for the Society’s President at the time. This modern building, with its panoramic views across the garden, incorporates a shop, plant sales area, restaurant and lecture theatre. A new entrance road, car park and maintenance tracks were also needed, as well as drainage and water-supply systems, electricity, gas, telephones and sewerage.

Steep learning curve

The building of a new national garden is not something that happens often, and the Society has learned much from this project. The two biggest difficulties have been the heavy clay soil and the large amount of rain which, when the two meet, creates a sticky mess.

First, the sloping site had to be regraded to smooth out its bumpy surface and to achieve a gentle fall to the river. More than 13,000 tonnes of soil were removed from the new entrance area and car park and redistributed in the formal garden to level off the site. For much of the first couple of years, Rosemoor resembled nothing more than a sea of mud. Work continued apace and attention fell next to the small seasonal stream which was diverted and dammed to form a series of pools and falls, with massed streamside plantings leading to a lake, which doubled as a reservoir containing all the irrigation water for the garden.

With an underpass to link the new and the old gardens completed and the reservoir filled, the garden opened to visitors on 1 June 1990. The pattern of the formal garden was outlined by more than 1,200 hedging yews, and 2,000 roses formed the first ornamental plantings. Bisected by the A3124 the garden remains two very distinct areas. On one side is the original garden - Lady Anne’s garden - which remains a diverse collection of plants in an informal setting, and on the other is the new garden, a formal, decorative area in a glorious woodland setting - truly an astonishing achievement in such a relatively brief time.

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