Entering someone’s garden via a stepladder over the fence is not the most conventional way to start a visit, but that’s what happened when I went to look at Kay Thomson’s garden earlier this month. Her garden shares a boundary with that belonging to her friends Susan Bennett & Earl Hyde, the irrepressible assistant county organisers for the NGS in NW London, and the stepladder arrangement is a pragmatic one for friends whose gardens adjoin but whose addresses don’t.
I was actually booked in to visit Susan and Earl’s garden, but on arrival Susan was keen for me to see Kay’s fabulous ‘Cornish’ garden as well and soon I found myself handing my camera and notebook to Kay on the other side of the fence before clambering inelegantly up and over into Kay’s garden, followed by Susan. Kay was waiting to welcome me on the other side, and took me of a tour of her garden, which more than lived up to Susan’s enthusiastic billing.
Coming through the back door as it were, we walked up the garden to the house to start where NGS visitors make their entrance. Kay has solved the problem of how to make her ‘side return’ interesting by using hers to house a shed, a small greenhouse, and a glass case museum, showcasing finds from nearby Alexandra Palace, where she works. It’s an imaginative use of a space that is the bane of many a London property.
Once an arid desert, the concrete terrace at the back of the house was dug up by Earl (what a neighbour to have!) and re-laid with attractive paviours and is now the setting for a mainly containerized Mediterranean garden, featuring oleander, jasmine and a rampant grape vine that romps the length of the garden fence. The terrace makes the ideal stage for the gazebo from which wine will be dispensed this year for Kay’s popular NGS evening openings.
The garden’s central section takes an astrological theme, with borders arranged in a circle around a pristine lawn (representing earth) that contain plants chosen for their astrological significance. It’s a novel approach – perfect for a garden that opens its doors to visitors, since it’s such a fertile talking point and everyone inevitably wants to check out what ‘their’ plants look like. I for one was delighted to discover that hollyhocks and rosemary are two plants that come under the sign of Aries, while Taurus (my husband’s star sign) features foxgloves, lovage and thyme. This year Kay and her gardening collaborator Nicholas Wood-Glover have added herbs to the planting scheme, taking Culpepper as their guide.
A sturdy wooden pergola, planted with red, white and blue wisteria (to mark the Diamond Jubilee), has been cleverly set at an angle across the width of the garden, nicely framing the view into the final ‘room’.
An evocation of Kay’s native Cornwall, this part of the garden transplants the West Country to North London, with stunning effect. Once again, neighbour Earl played his part, volunteering to dig the pond that, says Kay, has been a catalyst for the whole garden, attracting wildlife and human visitors – “I’m never short of people wanting to come and sit by the pond”, she laughs.
Taking care to keep her plant choices as authentic as possible, Kay has populated this sunny area with Cornish hedgerow favourites such as valerian, echinops, Mexican fleabane, crocosmia, fuschias, tamarisk and thrift. Many of these have happily taken up residence in the nooks and crannies of the dry ‘stone’ wall, built by Nicholas from the concrete that was hammered out from the side return creation. Continuing the coastal vibe, the pond has its own beach and is fringed with water buttercups, bulrushes and arum lilies, as well as a statuesque common dock, which looks surprisingly handsome in this context.
Not content with the pond’s original beach, Kay has mulched the borders around the pond with smooth grey pebbles, between which grow stands of equisetum, miscanthus and stipa. Tucked in among the vegetation a wooden rowing boat, an old porthole and coiled ropes strike a suitably nautical note and are a bit of fun. A homage to her homeland, Kay’s Cornish garden is a labour of love, and soaking up the sun on its terrace it’s easy to see why it’s such a magnet for visitors. The garden, Kay tells me, is a place to get away from it all, and a place of optimism. Taking Voltaire’s Candide as her touchstone, Kay has followed its hero’s resolution to “cultivate our garden” and has created a garden that is quite simply a joy to be in.
66 Muswell Avenue
London N10 2EL
Kay Thomson & Nicholas Wood-Glover
Evening openings: 1 & 8 July, 6-8.30