The first time I went to Great Dixter, the late Christopher Lloyd's home in East Sussex, I was on trial, and it felt like it. I was working at The Observer (The Independent hadn't yet been launched) and had suggested the paper should try and bag Christopher as its gardening correspondent. We'd had an initial lunch in London, but on Christopher's side, suspicions lingered. In retrospect I realised, I'd been too deferential. It always brought out the worst in him. To an onlooker, the worst was often very funny, but I wasn't looking on. I quickly learnt that, as with a terrier, you had to turn to face Christopher. Then he was less likely to bite.
Quite soon after that first meeting, a card came, inviting me down for a night. It must have been summer, because we sat in the Yeoman's Hall, the big room giving on to the terrace at the back of the house. It was only used in the summer months. I slept in the old nursery – or rather didn't sleep. There was a full moon: some of the time I lay in bed watching the moonlight's patterns move over the walls of the room, the rest I spent standing by the window, over-revving like a learner driver, looking out at the garden, filtered by the night into monochrome silvers and greys, long shadows falling over the grass, the topiary dark and watchful. My head nearly burst.
The stillness of the house is what I remember from that first visit. You felt it particularly on the landing, coming up the shallow wide stairs in the dark (I never found a light switch – never wanted to) into this unusually big space. You could just make out the Lutyens latticework on the side of the stairs, the big window ledge heaped with gourds and a sheen rising from the wide polished boards underfoot. Standing there, you absorbed the stillness, let the house enclose you. An ancient cushion-framed mirror on the landing, with glass misty and opaque, was almost my favourite thing in the house.
Mostly I was at Dixter in the winter, when day life was lived in the parlour, the cosy room at the far end of the great hall. I loved this room. In the winter, the fire, built on a great heap of ash, never seemed to go out and in late November, with a cold, drizzly day outside, it was a wonderful place to be. Christopher was one of the few people who still thought champagne was a good thing to have, halfway through a dull winter's morning. He kept a well-stocked cellar, and was always generous with it. In that room is fixed a memory of wood smoke, champagne and Christopher or me reading aloud. He introduced me to the writings of the great naturalist WH Hudson and the epicurean Edward Bunyard whose book The Anatomy of Dessert, published in 1929, was one of his favourites. One morning, I was telling him about a friend at whose funeral I had been asked to read some Tennyson. "Read it to me," he said. There were at least four editions of the poems in the bookcase which covered the far wall, and we spent the rest of the morning reading poems out loud.
Whatever time of day you turned up at Dixter, you pretty much knew where you'd find Christopher. He was like a badger in that respect, his movements round the house following a familiar pattern. There's a kind of groove in my memory that follows a drinks tray through the great hall to the door in the corner, then up the stairs to the solar. This magnificent room runs the whole width of the house, with windows either end and a huge fireplace against one wall. Again I see it in winter, the drinks tray (with olives) set on the first table, the lamps on, the fire (even bigger than the one in the parlour) burning brilliantly. Christopher was well looked after by the people who worked at Dixter. The logs were always stacked ready by the fire, always dry. Christopher was usually on the sofa with dogs wriggling about under a blanket. The dogs were always dachshunds, recently voted the dog most likely to bite, given the chance. Christopher would have relished that. After the death of one of the sausage dogs, I almost persuaded him to get a whippet – but he would have missed the aggression.
I generally sat to the right of the fire in a wing chair covered in tapestry work that Christopher and his mother had done together. Towards the end of his life (he died in January four years ago), I'd sit on the sofa too, because then he could hear more easily what I was saying. We rarely talked about gardening. Rather late, he'd disappear to cook dinner (always excellent), followed by another procession across the great hall with coffee on a tray. The final ritual was the unpicking of the fire, the remains of logs pulled away from the heart to the edge of the great heap of ash.
I always approached Dixter through the lanes from Bodiam. This way, there was plenty of time for anticipation to build. From the woods, you emerge into Northiam and take the final left-hand turn into the lane that leads directly past the horse pond to the house and its surrounding phalanx of outbuildings. Opening the wicket gate was almost the best moment of all, the porch standing wonkily ahead, the garden familiar, yet always surprising. What might be flowering in the long grass either side of the path? What would head gardener Fergus Garrett (the most devoted and loyal friend Christopher ever had) have arranged by the porch? Over the years, the clusters of pots there became ever more outrageous – like Christopher's shirts. Though his shoes never changed – always broad, flapping boats – as he got older the fraying Viyella gave way to cottons in deep purple, yellow and orange, bought for him by Fergus. He wore them with panache, as the old rose garden, closed in for decades by its Lutyens yew corset, wore the outrageous exotic garden that arrived there in 1993.
No house said "Welcome" like Dixter did – and the essence of the house and the complicated, essentially private man who lived there is beautifully captured in a major retrospective, Christopher Lloyd: A Life at Great Dixter, which has just opened at London's Garden Museum. The drinks tray is there, with its cargo of Syndicate whisky. So is the old laptop on which he wrote his long-running Country Life column. There are letters and photographs of course, but also samples of his expert embroidery (and a home-preserved bottle of raspberries from the never-disturbed shelves of the cavernous larder). It's a moving tribute to a great man and it reminds me that nowhere did I laugh more than at Dixter. Nobody do I miss more than him.
Christopher Lloyd: A Life at Great Dixter runs to 12 September at the Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1, 020-7401 8865, gardenmuseum.org.uk. The house and garden at Great Dixter, Northiam, Rye, East Sussex TN31 6PH are open Tues-Sun and Bank Hol Mons, garden 11am-5pm, house 2-5pm; admission to both £9.35, garden only £7.70. For more info, see greatdixter.co.uk. Look out for a book, 'The View from Great Dixter: Christopher Lloyd's Garden Legacy', edited by Rosemary Alexander and Fergus Garrett, foreword by Beth Chatto, to be published by Timber Press this October with recollections of the man and the place from more than 120 of Christopher's friendsReuse content