Twenty years ago James Fenton (pictured above left), looking for somewhere near Oxford to make a garden, bought a derelict farm with a hundred acres of land. About five miles out, south-facing with an established orchard, it was just what he wanted. His friends, on the other hand, thought he’d gone crazy. Fenton’s poems were born of a vivid engagement with life – the memory of war and children in exile – and he was as much a man of action as of letters. He had reported from the front-line in Cambodia and Vietnam, ridden a tank during the fall of Saigon, and survived months in the Borneo jungle with the explorer Redmond O’Hanlon. So why settle for a mid-life of rural domesticity?
Long Leys Farm was no pastoral idyll. The outbuildings were in ruins, a monstrous pylon delivering Swindon’s electricity supply loomed over the grounds, and the orchard was barricaded against apple-pinching kids with old bicycles, tyres and rusty buckets. Fenton’s friend Ian McEwan, the novelist, called it Scene of the Crime Farm: “It was a windswept, bleak stretch of open land and one of the barns had a rotting car inside. It looked like the kind of location a body might be found in an advanced state of decomposition and I earnestly advised James not to buy it. I told him he should look for an old vicarage somewhere.”
Fenton, however, was undaunted. “I’d been living in a house built in the middle of a mangrove swamp,” he says, referring to the period when he was the Independent correspondent in the Philippines. “If I was homesick, I used to read Anna Pavord’s gardening column and it got me thinking that when I went back to England I’d find somewhere I could make a garden.” That somewhere turned out to be Long Leys Farm, which has since become a plantsman’s Utopia – “a great collection” according to the gardening writer Robin Lane Fox, with rarities that draw collectors from as far afield as America.
Fenton’s dream was funded by an unlikely windfall. He had been commissioned to write the libretto for the musical of “Les Misérables”, and although his version was not used, his agent, Pat Kavanagh (my late half-sister), negotiated a rejection fee of 0.5% of the box-office receipts. In less than a decade “Les Mis” grossed £600m in 22 countries and Fenton, a one-time Trotskyite with an indifference to possessions, found himself a seriously wealthy man.
On a warm May day in 1994, when he was about to be elected as Oxford’s professor of poetry, Fenton threw a party in the grounds of Long Leys Farm. By now a library had been built on what used to be the hen house; a laburnum walk
underplanted with forget-me-nots had begun to make a canopy, and the assembled authors and academics could stroll into the rose garden and marvel at the wealth of varieties (250 in all) just coming into flower. Redmond O’Hanlon told the New Yorker that he could imagine undergraduates taking a taxi out to Fenton’s estate to read their poems in the evening light. “They’ll think: One more stanza, and all this could be mine.”
Fenton’s garden was not just a rich man’s whim. As theatre critic of the Sunday Times, he had lived in a terraced house in Oxford and grown vegetables on a nearby plot. “I loved my allotment and the other allotments around me,” he later wrote, “the immaculate working-class ones with their strict ratios of potato to onion to cabbage, the middle-class ones with their inefficient weeding, their courgettes and sweetcorn, their wigwams of climbing beans.” The allotment inspired his book “A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seeds” (2001), which makes a case for “neglected” bedding plants by advocating an annual, spontaneous approach to flower-planting. “Why should I not feel, this January, the same freedom as my pea epicurean, my marrow-maniacal friend?”
As he planned Long Leys, Fenton asked a gardening friend, Philip Dennis, to come up with a simple layout. In print he is virulent about the drawing-board aspect of gardening, placing snide inverted commas round “landscaped” or “features” such as paving and ponds, and dismissing formal design as a “terrible, stupid and expensive tyrant”. To Fenton, a blaze of morning glories on a New York fire escape or orchids hung from the eaves in coconut husks in the Filipino barrios had as much right to be admired as great estates like Powis Castle or Versailles. But Dennis convinced him that some kind of plan was essential, and he even came round to the idea of a pond and an island. “Philip’s inspiration was essentially Sissinghurst,” Fenton says. “He gave me a terrific start, but we fell out about the way things should go on.” Then his builder recommended a garden-contracting business whose owner was eventually persuaded to work for Fenton full-time. This was the dedicatee of “A Hundred Packets of Seeds”, Michael Collins, “without whom there would be no garden”.
Collins (pictured top right), who had been trained in basic techniques at Blenheim Palace, took on the physical side of the job while Fenton devoured books and articles. “To begin with we were level-pegging, but at some point Mike completely overtook me.” Given a lavish budget and a near-free rein, Collins gathered a taxonomist’s knowledge of flora, tracking down rare native orchids and growing exotic ferns from spores, such as the Resurrection variety, which curls up and plays dead in the desert, only to unfurl when it rains. “It was thrilling to watch him making himself a real expert,” says Fenton. “Before long I had lost track of what was in the garden. I think only Mike really knows. Visiting other gardens, I seldom see things that we don’t have.”
In a notebook of mine are scrawled in hit-and-miss phonetic Latin the names of plants I’ve coveted at Long Leys. One page entitled “Wishlist 23 March 07” has ticks next to black Hellebore, Turkish bluebell and climbing Fritillary, and crosses after species Peony tomentosa, Tulipa cretica and Edgeworthia chrysantha (Japanese Daphne). A tick indicated a possibility I might acquire one of these beauties; a cross meant that they were so prized that there was no chance. For several years Collins, with Fenton’s grudging blessing, agreed to moonlight in my garden for a few hours every Sunday, with me hanging on his every word. At other times I went to Long Leys for inspiration, lingering longest in the walled alpine area where there was always something startling in flower, regardless of the season. Most had been acquired from specialist nurseries, some skilfully propagated by Collins. Looking back, he says he learnt his plantsmanship fast. “But this was my only topic and James had hundreds of things on the go.”
One was overseeing a modern extension by the architect Charles Barclay to bring the house up to the scale of the garden. With vast, ceiling-high windows overlooking raised beds and the fields beyond, it was designed to showcase a monumental Renaissance fireplace made for a mansion on Fifth Avenue, which Fenton had bought at auction in New York and shipped back. These overlapping interests began to reveal themselves in his writing – he would compare giant hogweed to Gothic fan vaulting – while the column he wrote for the Guardian skipped encyclopedically from Mughal paintings to John Dowland’s lute songs to polenta and piano exams. Then there were the books – poetry anthologies, opera libretti, a history of the Royal Academy…though there has been no collection of new poetry since “Out of Danger” in 1994. Fenton’s Philippines years produced “Manila Envelope” (illustrated by Alex Garland, later to write “The Beach”), and the superb “The Milkfish Gatherers”:
They drag the shallows for the milkfish fry –
Two eyes on a glass noodle, nothing more…
His garden hasn’t directly inspired a single poem (the flowers in “Yellow Tulips” were bought from a shop). But Fenton’s partner, the African-American writer and academic Darryl Pinckney, sees Long Leys infiltrating his work in all kinds of ways. “His selection of D.H. Lawrence and his garden poetry, the Oxford lectures which are very connected to the garden…A certain idea of Englishness goes with it. It’s an intellectual setting for him, a place of contemplation – he’s not there for countryside life. I’d look out the window and see James walking around and I could tell from the pace what he was working on – verse or prose.”
Only a poet would savour the arcane vocabulary of horticulture with such relish: “monocarpic” (dies after flowering), “edaphic” (pertaining to the soil), “tomentose” (woolly underneath leaves). And the garden itself reflects the eclectic idiosyncrasy of Fenton’s poetry, which is both English and cosmopolitan. Old English roses are underplanted with tropical gingers, and the flamboyant planting Fenton loved in the Philippines – “a shrieking fringe of cannas and a yelling assortment of bougainvilleas” – can be seen in beds where strident colours compete for attention. “Would Vita Sackville-West have approved? Or would she have thought it common?” Fenton playfully muses in a passage recommending plants that might have failed a taste test. His approach owes much to Christopher Lloyd, who made the celebrated garden at Great Dixter in Sussex and battled against the timid palette and “ghastly good taste” of so many gardens. “Lloyd’s deployment of dahlias was a gesture of defiance.”
To Mike Collins, who loves wild plants in their natural habitat, Fenton’s insistence on Victorian bedding was unsettling. And that wasn’t all. Collins had been taught to keep a garden in order, but Fenton loves “flowers that hop around”. His signature plants carpeting the paving outside the kitchen door are hummocks of thrift, daisies and a viola called “Bowles Black” which have all been allowed to rampage. “Irrefutably black when grown in isolation,” he has written, “it enjoys fooling around with other violas. Keen on bloodlines are we? Then we should ‘rogue out’ the less perfectly black seedlings. But to me the variations are all part of ‘the music of what happens’.”
“Isn’t it lovely”, Fenton said one day, “to see all those thyme seedlings coming up in the cracks?”
“It was lovely,” replied Collins, who had conscientiously weeded them out.
“But once he understood,” Fenton says, “everything followed from that.”
There were setbacks. The laburnum walk Fenton had envisaged as “a gallery of dripping yellow, dazzling, fragrant and cool” was destroyed by honey fungus, and a member of Collins’s family inadvertently sprayed all the roses with brushwood killer. “Mike was devastated and offered his resignation. But there wasn’t a moment when I thought it was his fault.”
This was a real partnership, and the two men’s tastes began to merge. Collins spent four years growing the ginger Hedychium spicatum from seed he had collected on a hike in India, while a delicate spiralling orchid (pictured overleaf) that he’d tried nurturing in a raised bed to no effect now hops around outside the kitchen with the promiscuous violas. Fenton and Collins sparked in each other a compulsive passion for collecting. “Two obsessive minds met,” says Robin Lane Fox. “Gardeners often hunt in pairs – Vita and Harold [Nicolson], Christopher Lloyd and Fergus [Garrett], Eric Young and Mr Moon. In Mike, James found the perfect partner. ”
It was Lane Fox who suggested creating a pair of raised iris beds, 25-feet long, but Fenton and Collins’s combined craze for all Iridaceae soon took over. To sustain interest, they added spring crocuses to flower after the early reticulata irises, followed by hardy June irises. “By April”, Fenton wrote, “the absurdly formal procession of the bearded irises begins in order of height: dwarfs first, tall fellows last. May, June and July are the periods of iris glut. In August the beds would turn orange, red and yellow as the crocosmias kick in, in their many varieties. September would see the first of the true autumn crocuses and these would carry the baton through to November.”
Their other mutual obsession is snowdrops. “The initial interest was James’s,” Collins recalls. “But then galanthomania grabbed hold of me and now it won’t let go.”
“We snowdroppers call it ‘galanthene’ – it’s like heroin,” says Hitch Lyman, whose nursery in upstate New York has 450 different types. When Lyman visited Long Leys, he thought its collection “glorious”, envying in particular the spread of Galanthus gracilis, a variety with twisted leaves from Asia minor, which is also Fenton’s favourite. “Its name means graceful, and it is,” Fenton says. “It seeded itself for us.” Today, what began as a few clumps lifted from the borders has grown into a snowdrop collection worth, Collins reckons, hundreds of thousands of pounds.
It was soon after an open day at Long Leys in July that Fenton broke some dramatic news to Collins: the house and garden would have to be sold. “You have to do these things; say these things.” There were a number of reasons why, led by the fact that Pinckney now teaches in New York and lives at their apartment in Washington Heights. For Collins, it was a shattering blow. The two decades at Long Leys “made my life actually,” he says, “and I never really expected it to end.” His professional relationship with Fenton had long since merged into friendship; when his marriage broke up he moved into the flat above the library, where he
remains to this day. “It’s been amazing to see,” says Pinckney. “That sense of a real collaboration between them, as much as a folie à deux. Mike learnt something far beyond his schooling and really entered into the spirit of the place. It was a great wonder and a joy to James; as an old leftie, this was his thing. He used his fortune to employ people and change their lives.”
At Long Leys in October there was a touch of bleakness about the house with some of the bookshelves standing empty and 80 packing cases already filled. The garden, however, was flourishing. The border planted for late flowering with dahlias, salvias and gingers was still rioting, and there were even snowdrop –
a pot of the autumn-flowering Galanthus reginae. But I couldn’t help wondering whether in February, when the snowdrops flower en masse, the next owners will appreciate the difference between Lady Fairhaven at £50 a bulb and the charming gracilis – “light and exquisite, like Mozart rather than Beethoven,” in Hitch Lyman’s words. Or will they see only an impressionistic haze of little white flowers? “That’s the painful subject,” says Pinckney. “It’s not giving up Long Leys, it’s what will happen to it.”
Showing me around, Collins seems optimistic: “It’s good for me to have a change.” He has already had one offer of part-time work, and there are bound to be more. Fenton had offered to set him up as a nurseryman, but it feels too precarious in the current climate, so instead he is helping to buy Collins a house with enough land for his treasures. “James has been so generous that I don’t have to worry.”
Fenton can’t see gardening being a part of his own new life. What about getting a place in Connecticut? “You’d have to live there. You’d have to devote yourself.” Could he not find an American Mike? No answer; just a scathing look – as scathing as when I suggest he might at least want a bowl of Galanthus gracilis as a reminder of Long Leys. “I won’t be fobbed off with something like that. Anyway, it’s against the law”
[to bring bulbs into America]. Always emotionally impenetrable, Fenton refuses to be drawn about his feelings on losing Long Leys Farm. “You move on,” he says definitively. “You do other things.”
This is what Pinckney calls “his consolation” – the prospect of renovating a Harlem mansion. Searching for a property “where we can put a library’s worth of books”, Fenton has become enchanted by ornamental cornices, oak-wainscoting, corinthian columns and mahogany panelling; he has looked at brownstones ranging from a synagogue to a funeral home which still contained coffins and uncollected ashes. It’s another massive project, but if friends are concerned, they’ve learnt to keep quiet. “I shot my bolt over Long Leys,” Ian McEwan says. “I’ve never been more wrong. It turned out to be one of the supreme gardens of England.”