GARDEN VISITING will never be quite the same again without the familiar sight of Tom Hewer in Panama hat, field jacket and flamboyant kerchief around his neck sharing host duties with his wife Anne at Vine House, their beautiful garden in Henbury, Bristol.
Tom Hewer always took the same spot, by the stream and ponds and never far from the glades of rare and beautiful trees they had planted together. He wore his knowledge lightly on open days for the National Gardens Scheme. He was as pleased by a child's chatter about a primrose as he was discussing the finer points with fellow botanists.
Hewer was a leading pathologist. He was also an inveterate traveller and hawk-eyed botanical explorer who collected in remote places for both Kew and the British Museum. He had plants named after him. But he was, above all, one of the finest gardeners of his generation thanks to his long, creative partnership with his gifted wife Anne.
He was born in 1903, the son of a Bristol corn merchant. He was educated at Bristol Grammar School and Bristol University, where he studied medicine. He then went to Johns Hopkins University in the United States. The Depression years hit the family business, and Hewer spent five years as pathologist to the Sudan government, living frugally and sending the bulk of his income home to support his parents. He become Senior Lecturer in Pathology at Liverpool University and in 1938 returned to Bristol as Professor of Pathology, a post he held until his retirement in 1968.
He married Anne Hiatt Baker in 1944. Anne has gardening in her blood. Her father, Hiatt Baker, built a beautiful natural garden at Oaklands, near Bristol, and was a close friend of the writer Canon Henry Ellacombe, author of the classic In a Gloucestershire Garden (1895). The two plant-hunted together on horseback in the Alps.
Tom and Anne shared a passion for informal gardening, using plants freely, generously and as naturally as possible. In 1945 they bought Vine House, a pretty, modest country house in north-west Bristol. The scruffy two-acre garden with its rolling topography, streamside position and little quarry was the great attraction.
The Hewers celebrated VJ Day with an immense bonfire of scrub cleared from the garden. He used string and bamboo canes to represent proposed plantings, checking the layout from an upper window as he and Anne mapped out their ground plans. They chose the best trees and shrubs and encouraged the loveliest plants. They cherished plants with personal associations: an oak grown from an acorn picked up at Innsbruck Palace, tree peonies from the Hiatt Baker collection, cyclamen carried triumphantly home from the eastern Mediterranean. Tom delighted in creating artificial features and was particularly thrilled when his cunningly made 'spring' in the quarry face fooled a visiting professor of geology.
He combined his outstanding work in medicine with his botanical interests. A trip to northern Iran to investigate causes of cancer, for example, offered plant-hunting opportunities which he seized. He believed passionately that travel broadens minds and was a leading member of the English-Speaking Union. He wrote for both medical and horticultural journals. He found time to serve as chairman of Bristol Zoo's Animal and Gardens Committee.
As a journalist, I first knew the Hewers in the 1960s as supremely elegant members of the Bristol Great and Good. When I inherited the 'Gardens to Visit' column on the Bristol Evening Post, though I barely knew the difference between a peony and a pergola, Vine House was an early subject. Tom greeted me like an honoured guest, gently coaxing me in the right direction. Over the years I learnt more about English gardening at its best at Vine House than anywhere and saw that Tom and Anne's hospitality was universal and utterly genuine. Vine House, to the many thousands who visited it over the years, offered a beautiful, reassuring picture of civilised life at its most admirable.
Tom Hewer retired from Bristol University heaped with tributes. He was a Pro-Vice-Chancellor in his final three years and then an Emeritus Professor. He maintained a busy social and public life for years afterwards. Towards the end he became forgetful and it maddened him that plant names became harder to remember. To wait patiently until the name came at last was a way to repay a fraction of the patience he had shown to garden visitors.
Pilgrims will be glad to know that that the Vine House openings advertised in the present NGS 'Yellow Book' for Easter and May will take place as planned.
The day Tom died the magnificent, dominating Magnolia Kobus, which was one of the first trees he and Anne planted at Vine House, began to show the first tips of bloom. It was a natural tribute.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content