Gardening: The Himalayas of Hampshire

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The Independent Online
A small slice of England has been transformed into a Nepalese- style valley, as Patricia Cleveland-Peck discovers.

Members of the Brigade of Gurkhas who died serving the British Crown are to be honoured by a Hampshire garden planted entirely with Nepalese plants, and containing a simple stone chautara. These four-walled, roofless resting places are dotted along paths in the Nepalese foothills. Within the chautara it is customary to plant two ficus trees for shade: the pipal, Ficus religiosa, beneath which Buddha sat when he received his enlightenment; and the banyan, Ficus benghalensis, considered a place of good spirits because both Lord Krishna and the god Vishnu sheltered under it. The pipal is regarded as the female and the banyan the male, and it is the Gurkha custom to "marry" these two trees whenever a new chautara is built. Our climate dictates that in the Hampshire garden these trees will be planted in containers and taken inside during winter. They are being grown from cuttings, and are considered still too young to undergo even a token marriage ceremony.

The garden is the brain-child of Major Tom Spring-Smyth, who was based in Nepal while serving with the Gurkhas and who has himself collected some of the plants. He remembered that within the Sir Harold Hillier garden and arboretum near Romsey was a steep-sided valley similar to Nepalese terrain. Having persuaded the directors of Hilliers and the local council that creating a Nepalese-style garden there was a good idea, he enlisted the help of other eminent plant hunters, such as Roy Lancaster and Tony Schilling, and set about planning the garden.

It is made up of two levels, separated by a retaining wall constructed from the same stone as the chautara. The lower, damp level contains a small pool, and a canopy has been planted of such trees as Himalayan white birch (Betula utilis), Sorbus microphylla, Rhododendron arboreum, Magnolia campbellii, Prunus rufa and Pinus wallichiana. Beneath this is a shrub belt of rhododendrons and other shrubs including the lovely Daphne bholua `Gurkha', found by Major Spring-Smyth and given its name because "I saw it standing out on the snow with its wonderful flowers and gorgeous scent - and, just like a Gurkha, it was at its best in most inclement conditions."

Major Spring-Smyth has also provided bulbs of the 3m high lily Cardiocrinum giganteum, and seed of some lovely Himalayan poppies. Split between the damp and the drier areas are plantings of Hedychium densiflorum, Euphorbia longifolia, Astilbe rivularis, Inula hookeri, Tricyrtis maculata, Hedera nepalensis and other Nepalese plants.

"Nepal has a range of different climates and the thought came to me of having a memorial garden where we could celebrate the marvellous plants we've received from the region, as well as the brilliant service the soldiers have given us," said Major Spring-Smyth.

The scheme would not have reached fruition without the help of Brigadier CJD Bullock, curator of the Gurkha Museum at Winchester, who helped secure the sponsorship. "It is customary for the cost of a chautara to be donated in memory of a loved one," he said. "I approached the Kadoories, a Hong Kong family who have been benefactors of the Gurkhas, providing village communities with bridges and hospitals. They agreed to sponsor this garden in memory of Sir Horace Kadoorie, who died in 1995." The garden will be opened today by Sir Horace's niece, Mrs Rita McAuley.

Gurkha Memorial Garden, Sir Harold Hiller Garden and Arboretum, Jermyns Lane, Ampfield, near Romsey, Hampshire (01794 368 787); Gurkha Museum, Peninsula Barracks, Winchester (01962 842 832).