GARDENING / Enthusiastic amateurs: Mary Keen visits a Regency garden restored in perfect period detail by volunteers

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The Independent Culture
PERIOD gardening is nowhere more actively practised than in the county of Hampshire: there gardens in public ownership, which are available to 1.5 million people, rarely come in 20th-century style. There is a medieval plot in Romsey and a 17th-century physic garden at Petersfield; plans are under way to commemorate the garden of an early Victorian dean at Winchester Cathedral, as well as for 18th- and 19th-century-style layouts on land that is currently a car park in Fareham. And, grandest of all, the sort of glass houses not seen since the Great Stove at Chatsworth are to be restored by a Victorian plant collector at the centre of a 1,000-acre country park at Havant.

I went to see one of the latest Hampshire achievements, a 1.5-acre Regency-style garden laid out on a semicircle of ground, before a fine crescent of 1828 terraced houses at Alverstoke near the seaside town of Gosport. Gilly Drummond is chairman of the Hampshire Gardens Trust, a small educational charity that has played a key role in the county's green-space conservation. 'It was,' she explained, 'a perfect opportunity for a co-operative conservation project of a designed setting for the only surviving Neo-classical crescent in the county.'

Originally, the ornamental pleasure ground boasted a marine promenade with views to the Isle of Wight, flanked by a shrub walk on the long straight side of its semicircle. At the centre of the space a Neo-classical bath house had once stood but, since its demolition, the ground had become overgrown, an open space much frequented by dog walkers, where the nightingales sang in the trees.

Having identified the site, the Hampshire Gardens Trust embarked, as it always does, on a long process of meetings and consultations with local residents. Later houses now stand on the land between the marine terrace and the sea; the owners of these, as well as everyone living in the crescent, had a chance to comment on plans for the new garden, which was to be Regency in style to match the crescent's houses. Hampshire County Council found money for restoring the basic structure shown on an 1850 Ordnance Survey map, English Heritage gave a grant to put back the iron railings, and Gosport Borough Council agreed to cut the grass and donate some shrubs.

But such schemes often fail, even with all that help, because of lack of funds to top up the planting and fine-tune the maintenance. The Hampshire Gardens Trust, with its 450 members, is 'committed to the care and renewal of gardens and parks endangered by neglect and development'. As well as identifying projects and packaging them for grant-giving bodies, it fires up the local community so that residents get involved in the bits that others cannot manage. 'There is,' says Gilly Drummond, 'so much talent out there.' Money, she says, is the last problem. 'It is the opportunity that is crucial.'

Local talent soon materialised in the form of Wendy Osborne, who lives opposite the crescent garden. Mrs Osborne is a painter married to an ex-naval officer, and from the start she found the project thrilling. The first amateur garden-maker and manager the trust has backed, she has set a precedent for using amateurs at the centre in other restorations. The trust exists to supervise such projects and to put people like Mrs Osborne in touch with experts and specialists. With encouragement from members of the Garden History Society, interested residents, piloted by Mrs Osborne, settled on a strategy.

Their priorities were that the garden should be in keeping with what the architect of the crescent, Thomas Ellis Owen, might have designed 165 years ago; and that it should also provide the opportunity for a whole neighbourhood to make something unique - a public garden with a private character. Some residents approved without reservation; others needed convincing. What Wendy Osborne describes as the elegiac neglect of the deserted garden still appealed to many. Others were too frightened even to plant a rose, 'in case they pulled it out'. Dog-owners were resolute on their rights - as the only public space not subject to a by-law on dog-fouling, Alverstoke Crescent was a mecca for dog-walkers. But Mrs Osborne kept going. She formed an association of friends of the crescent garden, read all she could about Regency gardening and, with the advice of garden historians, drew up plans, based on a John Claudius Loudon-inspired layout made for a Hampstead villa garden in 1835. Using her talents as an artist, Mrs Osborne painted a watercolour perspective of how the garden would one day look; this proved a turning-point in winning over the uncommitted.

The 130 Friends of Alverstoke Crescent Garden are now so delighted with their communal garden that the place has become a focus for local life. On a wet November day, 36 of them turned up to plant 2,500 bulbs. In December, others planted old-fashioned roses. Now, in June, those planters are returning to check that their roses are thriving. Wendy runs a newsletter that keeps the friends informed on the latest historical research. They are sticklers for this: a rose had to be sacked because it was introduced one year after the agreed cut-off point of 1850.

Friends potter over all the time to pop in an approved 19th-century primrose or foxglove. Everyone does what they can. Those with bad backs dead-head the roses, but there are 25 active hoers. There is also a system of 'godmothers': they adopt a shrub or a tree and check that it is growing up as it should.

The garden, and particularly the flowery shrubbery at its heart, demand a lot of maintenance. There are named pinks that will need to be regrown from cuttings every three years, dahlias to be lifted in autumn, roses to be pruned and cosseted, biennials such as foxgloves and hollyhocks to sow, and double frilly petunias to be planted out when the weather turns warm. This kind of gardening is intensive. In Loudon's day, labour was cheap, but now it is expensive. Not even the National Trust can afford to garden as the Crescent Friends are doing.

Sometimes the unconverted say: 'Volunteers are unpaid labour, you're doing the council's work' - to which Mrs Osborne, who spends about 20 hours a week in the garden, replies: 'I'm doing it for love.' There are occasional wails of, 'You can't spray there, we've just planted catmint' to council contractors. But, on the whole, both paid and unpaid are so proud of their achievements that any misunderstandings are soon resolved.

At a time when most local authorities are hardly able to keep pace with ordinary park maintenance, the generous outlay and commitment to horticulture in Hampshire is amazing. Thanks to its Gardens Trust, the county is the leader in this field. Similar trusts do exist throughout the British Isles. But so far, the people of Alverstoke are the first in a position to give parties - 'with or without a Victorian bonnet' - in an authentically reconstructed garden which they have had such fun making.

A range of activities connected with gardens in Hampshire can be seen at the Hampshire Landscape Fair in the Great Hall at Winchester from 10am-5pm every day until 30 June. For information on Gardens Trusts, write to Richard Ingle, Secretary, The Association of Gardens Trusts, Oaklea, Smarts Hill Road, Leigh, Reigate, Surrey RG2 8PF (030 678 268).

(Photographs omitted)