Gardening: Quavers in the borders

A large, historic garden can be a millstone as well as a blessing. At How Caple Court they have an operatic answer - Kirsty Fergusson talks to a family for whom music is the food of finance
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The Independent Online
One of the nicest things our latitude has to offer at this time of year is the lingering dusk. (Lingering midges, it has to be said, are not such a joy.) Idling in a garden on a summer evening, glass of wine in hand, the scent of roses and lilies on the cooling air and the traditional musical accompaniment of birdsong, insect activity and the distant whine of a lone strimmer working overtime, has to be one of the great pleasures of life. But for the private owners of large gardens of historical importance, these tranquil evenings are more likely to be spent grappling with schemes to finance the restoration (both in terms of planting and building) and to maintain their rose-scented acres, than in sybaritic idleness.

At How Caple Court, which stands high above the River Wye in Herefordshire, for three generations members of the Lee family have been applying themselves to restoring and funding their gardens. Although the house is medieval in origin, the gardens were laid out in the early years of this century by the present owner's grandfather-in-law, Lennox Lee. The look is distinctly Edwardian: clipped yew hedges frame a series of stone terraces, dripping with old roses and campanula; in the Florentine sunken garden a Virginia- creeper-covered loggia overlooks a format crossing of deep rills; and a pergola hung with old roses curls around a pool, fed by run-off water from the arable farmland above the garden. Meanwhile, a piece of elaborate engineering that once supplied water to a staircase waterfall awaits restoration. It won't have to wait much longer, though, according to Vanessa Lee (daughter- in-law of How Caple's present owner, Hilda Lee) who has just started up a specialist plant nursery and shop in the garden.

The nursery is doing a roaring trade in roses popular with the Edwardians: 'Kiftsgate', 'Seagull' and 'Rambling Rector', which may all be been in the gardens to good advantage. It also sells acers, fruit trees and unusual herbaceous plants. At present, while the nursery is young, the stock is bought in, but Vanessa is keen to include plants propagated from the garden as soon as possible. "Thanks to the nursery, the tea shop and the entrance money, the garden is now paying for itself," she says. Not bad going for a garden which, just over 20 years ago, had been almost entirely funded by the sale of Christmas trees.

"We also work extremely hard," adds Vanessa, speaking for the family as whole. "We're always here, and our two gardeners, Howard and Brian, do a fantastic job: coming in at weekends too, and helping with the opera and jazz."

The annual outdoor opera in the garden plays its part in the upkeep and restoration, too. There is a pleasing resolution to the apparent incongruity of opera with grubby toil: last year's production of Madam Butterfly paid for a much-needed cement-mixer. Vanessa's sister-in-law, Georgie, has taken over the organisation of the music at How Caple since Georgie's father, Peter Lee, died last year.

Peter and his Austrian wife Hilda, both great lovers of opera and jazz, had first conceived the idea of music in the garden five years ago. Fuelled by their own enthusiasm as well as by talk (and occasional evidence) of Britain's "new Mediterranean climate", they took the plunge and staged their first garden opera - Don Giovanni - on the old grass tennis courts that lie in a sort of natural auditorium below the house. The weather held and the Friday jazz/Saturday opera proved so successful that the formula has been repeated annually, to growing audiences.

Last year's production of Madam Butterfly, which attracted more than 700 people, saw rain fall for the first time: "The cast disappeared for a few minutes and came back wearing cagoules," laughs Georgie. "And the audience put up their umbrellas - like coloured parasols. No one got up and left. Talk about mad dogs and Englishmen ..." Her partner, David Newall, is a relief co-ordinator for disaster areas, "which would be useful if the weather turned absolutely awful," she notes wryly.

"This year's opera is Verdi's La Traviata, preceded by an evening of jazz with the singer Stacey Kent. Vanessa describes the difference between the Friday jazz evenings and the Saturday opera with some amusement: "On Friday everyone's talking and drinking during the music," she says, "and dancing, too; there's a really lively atmosphere. On Saturdays, although lots of people come who were here the night before, the atmosphere is rapt and attentive."

Well-maintained historic gardens with an interesting future as well as an important past in private ownership are an endangered species these days; it is rare to come across a family who can turn a garden around, cover the costs and enjoy something of the sybaritic life on a summer evening, too - midges permitting.

The gardens at How Caple Court, near Ross-on-Wye (01989 740 626) are open daily, 9am-5pm - adults pounds 2.50, children pounds 1.25. 'La Traviata' is staged on 12 and 13 June, tickets from pounds 12 on Friday and pounds 22 on Saturday.