Sir Roy Strong's garden is 'a voyage of the mind'

Clare Foster pays a visit to The Laskett in Herefordshire, where Sir Roy Strong has spent decades creating a distinctive and very personal space 

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For the past 40 years, have been Sir Roy Strong's lifeblood. With his wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, who died in 2003, he has spent a large part of his life creating, altering and adding to the garden he began to carve out of a field when the couple moved to Herefordshire in 1973. Admired by many for its originality and theatricality, it has also been woundingly criticised by those who feel uncomfortable with its decorative ostentatiousness. Other purists feel that it errs from the so-called rules of garden design. But so what? A garden is such a personal thing; surely it should be whatever its owner wants it to be, whether quietly tasteful or delightfully quirky.

'I have never called myself a garden designer,' says Roy. 'I set out to make a garden for myself and my wife, and I have never stopped. The British have always gone to the countryside and made gardens; it's something that goes deep into our national psyche.' In the Seventies, as Britain was in recession, Roy became the youngest ever director of the Victoria and Albert Museum against a backdrop of unemployment and strikes. Ambitious and unafraid, in 1974 he put on the land-mark exhibition The Destruction of the Country House - a protest at the taxes and rising costs that were swamping country-house owners. 'It was a difficult period,' says Roy. 'I wasn't happy at work and the garden became a huge solace, something that Julia and I shared, but it was also very much a statement against the atmosphere of the time.'

In 2014, Roy's offer to bequeath The Laskett to the was declined after several years of discussion. Publicly snubbed, Roy initially reacted with an impassioned threat to change his will, stipulating that if the property had to be sold, anything personal to the couple should be removed from the garden. Since then, however, he has made the decision to leave the garden to , a charity dedicated to supporting people who work in horticulture. 'I'm sad that the National Trust didn't think The Laskett was good enough, but I now regard it as a great escape. I see what's happening to gardens like Hidcote, where they've been given the target of 200,000 people coming through, and I feel relieved. Perennial is a joy to work with. They deal with ordinary gardeners, real human beings. I'm thrilled and I know Julia would be, too.'

Spanning four acres, the garden is an elaborate assemblage of hedged garden rooms with surprises around every corner: follies, urns and fripperies mark a sequence of contrasting spaces, where the visitor moves from formal to informal, light to dark, open to enclosed. Although Roy dislikes the word 'formal', the garden cannot be described otherwise, with influences from the great gardens of both the Italian Renaissance and Tudor England. 'Gardening is architecture,' says Roy. 'You control where people go and how they view things, how you place things. I learnt about  the importance of structure from Hidcote; from the beginning, this was always going to be a garden of rooms and vistas.'

But more than anything, The Laskett is a garden of memories and past experiences, peopled by the spirits of loved ones, as well as those who have helped shape the garden. Described by Roy as 'a voyage of the mind', it is a living, visual autobiography, with different areas commemorating various episodes of the couple's lives. In his 2003 book The Laskett, Roy writes: 'It was always viewed with that higher vision in mind, one of a kind I learnt about through studying garden history. There I read that any great garden was not only an arrangement of plants and artefacts in terms of design and composition but also a tissue of allusions and ideas.'

Moments in time are remembered in each part of the garden, with different areas named after people, animals, places, events: the Beaton Bridge, for example, was built after the publication of a book on Cecil Beaton, while the Victoria and Albert Museum  Temple marked Roy's time as director. Crafted from a mixture of breeze blocks and Chilton stone, the temple is typical of many of the artefacts in the garden: it isn't real. 'When it comes to garden ornament, I have no snobbery,' writes Roy. 'To me whether it is real or phoney is irrelevant. Ornament in the garden is what you can successfully get away with.' Roy is marvellously unequivocal about the cost of his grand creation. In the Seventies, strapped for cash, he started the garden on a shoestring. But when money came in, Roy did not hesitate to sink it back into the garden. 'Julia hated spending money, but I love it, and to me it meant opportunities to create new things,' he says.

After Julia died, Roy decided, in his words, to begin a 'great cull', felling many trees and shrubs that had become overgrown and in the process opening up the garden and giving it a new energy and light. He built a grand colonnade to  provide shelter for visitors and, for his eightieth birthday last year, designed a grotto flanked by two reproduction statues he bought on the internet. 'No one will notice,' he says with a twinkle. Even more recently, he has overseen the creation of a new pond, where gardener Shaun Cadman can indulge his love of marginal plants, and a meadow section along Julia's Walk at the back of the garden. Although he does not do much practical gardening any more, Roy oversees the work of his two long-standing gardeners. 'Shaun is a real plantsman and Philip Teague is brilliant at topiary; to a degree, I let them get on with it,' he says. 'But I'm constantly wanting to move things, altering the garden - and this mustn't stop when I'm gone. I'm absolutely adamant that Perennial should continue in this spirit and that the garden does not just stand still. The whole life of a garden is about change'  

The Laskett Gardens are open for groups by appointment from April to September: | Roy's latest book, 'Scenes and Apparitions: The Roy Strong Diaries 1988-2003' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), is published this month

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