My meeting with Major Tony Hibbert at his home in Trebah Gardens in Cornwall, England was memorable and enjoyable in the extreme. While travelling to some of the great gardens of south west England with my daughter Heather (the landscape architect in training) I had made prior arrangements to interview the man responsible for rediscovering this horticultural treasure: Trebah.
At 94 years old he has an amazingly sharp wit and a clear recollection of things past. Mind you, it might help that he has told the stories that he shared with us many times before.
Major Hibbert tells the extraordinary story of a 26 acre garden that time forgot and that he had no knowledge of until he acquired it. When he moved into the ‘house on the hill’ overlooking Falmouth harbour in 1979 his dream was to sip gin in the morning and sail in the afternoon. This was his idea of retirement after a life in the army and latterly the business world. As he put it, “We were trying to avoid work.”
A Great Way to Avoid Work
A life of leisure was not to be, thanks to a visit from the secretary of the Cornwall Horticultural Society the eighth day after they moved in. On that day Chancellor David Davies ‘poked his head around the corner’, introduced himself and was invited by the Hibberts to enjoy some gin on the patio. A drink or two later the Chancellor asked if he could show the Major some of the assets on his newly acquired property.
The tour revealed 20 metre (60 foot) rhododendrons, 4 metre high Australian tree ferns, a couple hundred specimen trees and the bones of a garden that, in its past glory, was considered one of the finest in England. Over 40 years of neglect had changed things and at that moment the new owners could see that their plans would change.
Mr. Davies suggested that 3 years of full time work would fix most of it. Tony and his wife thought, “Well, three years isn’t so long.”
At that point they devoted themselves to the rebirth of the place, never guessing for a moment that ‘retirement’ consisted of the launch of a new career that would essentially never end. Until then neither of them had gardened a day in their lives.
Time for a new adventure and to learn new skills
The origins of Trebah are as interesting as Tony’s personal story.
John Fox and his family moved onto the property in the 1840s. A successful business man who was into heavy steel making, he had a keen interest in gardening and plant collecting. During the many trips to London to meet the ships returning home with the raw materials needed for their manufacturing business, he would pick up plants that were brought back from the south pacific and the Orient by now famous plant collectors at that time.
The Australian Tree Ferns (Dicksonia youngiae), for example, were used as ballast in many ships. The ‘logs’ were rolled onto the docks of London where they were sold at an open auction. It is remarkable to think of these exotic looking ‘trees’ being rammed into the soil in the hopes that they would take root. And take root they did. The favourable climate of the south Cornish coast provided the perfect environment for them to put down roots and thrive.
Over 150 years later visitors can stand under the shade of these ferns and know the feeling that a toad or slug has in our own fern gardens. Many of the specimens that currently grow at Trebah are considered extremely valuable.
Asked what is his favourite part of the garden the Major (as he prefers to be called) points out the double doors of his dining room to the view over the English Channel. He exclaims, “That is it, right there.”
Do you have any regrets since moving here over 30 years ago? “None”
Did you get any help or advice from others as you refurbished the garden? “Yes. Lots and most of it was rubbish. But 10% was extraordinary and I am grateful to those who gave it.”
What distinguishes Trebah from the many gardens of England? This is a country, after all, known for its 500 year horticultural pedigree.
“#1. This is a garden for children.
#2. It is a garden for children with dogs.
#3. It is a real Cornish garden. The hand of man is invisible.”
What do you mean by #3? “A great garden – one with ‘heart’ – takes its cues from nature itself. The memorable view from the house at the top of the 220 ft slope is made possible by removing scrub trees that were in the way. New trees and shrubs are planted yearly to rejuvenate the garden and take advantage of the cycle of life and death of the plants that live there.”
He reflects on the Trebah Garden Trust that he created 20 years ago so that the garden would continue to be managed and protected for future generations. “A garden like this deserves the security of a 200 year tenure. 42 years of neglect almost ruined the place.”
What is next? He says that he needs to live for 4 more years. “I have too much work to do.” Right now he manages 3 websites including one for the Dutch Arnhem Fellowship (www.arnhem1944fellowship.org) for descendants of those who fought at the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands during the 2nd World War. He was there with the British Expeditionary Force as were many Canadians. “The Canadians fought fiercely, you know. They absolutely deserve credit for the liberation of Arnhem. You should be proud of them.”
Clearly Major Hibbert is a man with strong convictions and an ethic that has helped him in many ways and gotten him into trouble. He was arrested on the final day of the war for not following orders. His defence, “I was following Eisenhower’s orders and not those of my British superiors.” 65 years later he was given the ‘Key to Kiel’ Germany for holding the Russians back from that city at the conclusion of the war.
How do you feel about your 2nd career as a gardener? “If it were not for this garden I would have died of gin and boredom years ago. The thing that I really love about it is that I come from a line of artists. I could see the bones of the garden and I could visualize what it could be after 6 generations of gardeners had lived here. This has also been a wonderful opportunity for my late wife and I to make new friends.”
I turn to my daughter who has been taking notes for me. “I really enjoy touring gardens with Heather. As a landscape architect she sees things differently than I do.”
The Major smiles and asks her, “And does he listen?”
Listening has been easy for the past 3 hours, including a welcome lunch of home made beef stew. Both our tummies and our brains are full and nourished in ways that neither of us had anticipated.
Visit Trebah Gardens at www.trebahgarden.co.uk.