On retirement, my late friend, John Riley, spend some time in Devon before moving to Ireland. John was an East-End boy, of Irish parentage, and there were regular recollections of his evacuation during the Second World War, of summers with his mother hop-picking in Kent, of his days in the Posts and Telegraphs, of fishing outings, of golfing days and garden visits and, whenever he turned to this latter, he insisted that should I ever go to Devon I simply must visit Marwood Hill Gardens. John died a few years back and when planning a garden-visiting holiday to Devon this year we made sure to include Marwood Hill Gardens – and John’s recommendation was perfectly justified.
Before our visit I knew no more about the garden than that John had enjoyed his visits there very much and that he had recommended it so very highly but our visit raised many questions in my mind. It was immediately obvious that this was no ordinary garden but one created with great skill and a deep understanding and love of plants. It was only on our return home that I looked more into the origins of the garden.
Dr. Jimmy Smart bought Marwood Hill in 1949, a Georgian House with a two-acre garden across the road. He later built a house in the garden itself, purchased additional land piecemeal which eventually extended to 20 acres. It is a steep site, rising from the valley of a small stream. This stream was dammed in several places, making a pater noster run of small lakes, and the surrounding ground and slopes were planted with a selection of choice trees and shrubs – Magnolia weisneri and Magnolia dawsoniana among the eighty or so magnolias in the garden, for example. A trip to America to visit camellia shows lead to his erecting a glasshouse to house the more tender species and cultivars and this is still in use. He went on to show his own camellias and to be a judge at such shows for the RHS. Retirement from medical practice in 1975 brought a new phase of planting and development in the garden and Dr. Smart went on to hold a National Collection of Astilbes and Tulbachias.
The Royal Horticultural Society awarded Dr. Smart the Victoria Medal of Honour and the citation shows the regard in which he was held: “This Victoria Medal of Honour is given to you because we recognise you both as a supreme plantsman and a great gardener whose generosity has given pleasure to thousands of other gardeners.”
A beautifully positioned Acer griseum
Dr. Smart died in May 2002, aged 88, leaving the garden to his nephew John Snowdon and it remains a private garden fulfilling the hope he expressed in “The English Garden” magazine in 1998: “My ambition is to ensure the garden is a source of pleasure to visitors.”
I can attest that it certainly is and that the recommendation of my late friend, John Riley, was perfectly correct. Worth a visit if you are in the area and I hope you get better weather then we did when we were there – torrential showers with the odd moments of sunshine.