Lionel was nothing like the super-rich of today, who know nothing of horticulture but just import fully grown trees and use giant diggers to construct a wood in a fortnight. Lionel employed 150 men for 10 years to get the conditions right for his rhododendrons. Gardening was in his blood, and he knew what he was about. First, he planted shelter belts, clearing the trees and undergrowth, retaining the best of the trees, and preparing the soil for acid-loving shrubs and trees, digging the ground to “two spits” (two spades) deep and enriching it with leaf mould. Rhododendrons need a lot of water, and Lionel realised that the rain, though it tipped down on the Isle of Wight just across the Solent, fell much less on Exbury. So he dug boreholes, built a water tower and laid 22 miles of underground irrigation pipes.
Next, he employed 75 trained gardeners, first to plant the seeds and container-grown species and hybrids he’d bought, and the seeds sent to him from other enthusiasts and plant hunters. But soon he was producing his own hybrids in enormous glasshouses. It is astonishing to think what he achieved in 20 years. Five years into the project, the famous plant-hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward predicted that “Exbury will be the eighth wonder of the world.”
Well, that may be overplaying it a bit, but I do find it wonderful and hugely satisfactory to see what a driving obsession, imagination, great good taste, and mega amounts of money can do.
Today, Marcus Agius, ex-chair of Kew and husband of Kate de Rothschild, chairs Exbury Gardens. Kate and their daughter Marie-Louise, a highly successful garden designer, and a fistful of deeply committed family members, are on the board.
I suspect that this continuing Rothschild devotion to Exbury helps ensure that the 200 acres of woodland, arboretum and ornamental gardens are beautifully maintained, efficiently and imaginatively managed and constantly improving in a way that’s difficult for larger organisations to manage.
This Easter will see a celebration of ‘Wild Exbury’.with a host of family activities including a Wild Wanderers’ Trail and craft workshops. Guided nature walks are on the agenda throughout the spring and summer, as are forest bathing sessions.
Miniature steam trains chug through the grounds, over a bridge, through a tunnel, past the dragonfly lake, the mirror ponds, and you look down on a rock garden with boulders the size of small cars, newly planted with azaleas. Marie-Louise sometimes drives the steam trains, as did her uncle. On the train, you are constantly swivelling to see some new sight. There are no boring bits. Just massed plantings of vibrant colour in wonderfully up-and-down scenery – and the occasional metal sculpture of a giant insect to delight the kids. I’d even score it highly for the all-important coffee, loos and (mercifully tat-free) shop.
Exbury is a perfect example of the super-rich doing good for the rest of us, and doing it really well. Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit, as the saying goes.