Reaching for the skies

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
June 2018

Steffie Shields shares thoughts, and verses, about ‘heavenly’ climbing roses.
Today’s landscape architects are finding novel solutions to the challenge of increasing urbanisation and lack of ‘breathing’ space. The media have been praising Milan’s remarkable ‘Bosco Verticale’ or ‘vertical forest’ development where two high-rise, residential blocks, one towering to 110 metres, the other 76 metres, have completely transformed the city centre skyline. Nine hundred native trees, in varied heights three, six and nine metres, are set, together with a wide range of shrubs and plants, in huge planters filled with earth and lightweight pumice stone, all integrated into verdant, wraparound balconies.

This taller ‘hanging gardens of Babylon’ concept set me thinking about plants that thrive by going up in the world. I wonder if anyone has suggested turning the tragic, black shell of London’s Grenfell tower into a memorial upland forest. Imagine arbours of climbing roses and ramblers in amongst small copses of trees, their divine, perfumed blooms scaling the heights and blowing in evening breezes…

The artistic landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818), whose bicentenary is being celebrated this year, was particularly partial to ivy, it seems, simply because it was a plant that, like him, needed support. On moving to a cottage in Hare Street, an Essex turnpike village, he appropriated a front garden by enclosing much of the village green and planted climbing roses to block out the view of hanging meats and animal carcases at the butcher’s shop opposite. He advocated the newly imported, single-petalled ‘China Roses’ for their ‘rouge beauty’ and dainty foliage. Planted in full sun, they flowered constantly and needed minimal pruning.

Since time immemorial, uplifting arbours of entwined trees and roses have featured in gardens monastic or fortress castle garths down through the ages. Much more than screening, roses offered shade and solace, let alone heart-warming romance. When Repton came to write his ‘memoir’, he decided that the China rose cultivar could not vie with the genuine English scented rose. His poem on the joys of blossoming roses now features on his memorial stone outside St Michaels and All Angels Church, Aylsham, set in a small rose garden, recently restored by Norfolk Gardens Trust:
Not like the Egyptian tyrants – consecrate,
Unmixt with others shall my Dust remain;
But mold’ring, blending, melting into Earth;
Mine shall give form and colour to the Rose;
And while its vivid blossoms cheer mankind,
Its perfumed colours shall ascend to Heaven.

Repton’s Red Book watercolours and designs influenced many nineteenth-century clients to add height and colour to small town gardens by constructing various wooden trellis and ironwork arches to support climbing roses. As a result, interest in luxuriant rose gardens or ‘rosaries’ blossomed through the Regency period. According to Professor Stephen Daniels, his biographer, ‘Repton’s climbing roses, their perfume as well as their appearance, are another metropolitan refinement of village life’.

I have come across several Lincolnshire manor house and rectory gardens where old metalwork frames, undoubtedly forged by village blacksmiths, lead the way up the garden path to the front door. Holywell Hall has a cool, wire tunnel, a rose-laden archway framing a view to a garden ‘room’ beyond. A fascinating, low ‘rosary’ at Rauceby Hall, still situated below the balustraded terrace, presumably entranced visitors looking down on entwined rose swags, with heady perfume wafting up. At Normanby Hall, when the walled garden received its twenty-first-century makeover, magnificent new ‘Victorian’ wire frameworks supported climbing roses to give structure, colour and welcome shade at the junctions of gravel paths.

Later Edwardian designers took pergolas to new heights on long boundary walks. Aswarby Park gardens, recently added to Historic England’s Register of Parks and Gardens of national significance, feature unusual, tall and rounded brick ‘leaning pillars’. They once held wooden beams laden with scented roses that successfully screened the utilitarian kitchen garden, making a show-stopping ‘Rose Walk’ towards St Denys Church. Petwood House Hotel gardens, also newly registered and restored are worth a visit, including an extensive brick rose pergola in the Temple Garden.

Most climbing roses are repeat-flowering. Abundant blooms are ideal for clothing structures, arches, arbours and pergolas or transforming high walls or an ugly house façade, filling evenings with fragrance all summer long. Belvoir Castle has a splendid rose garden designed by the renowned Harold Peto (1854-1933) in the shape of a boat on the hillside. Here pillars of roses will be blooming freely in time for the new Belvoir Garden Festival on 14th and 15th July. Look out for the luscious Rosa ‘Parade’ and the contrasting, graceful clusters of double, creamy-white ‘Astra Desmond’.

David Austin, the celebrated rose-grower, has made a huge contribution to rose cultivation countrywide, including at Easton Walled Gardens, on frames in amongst grasses or punctuating herbaceous borders. See David Austin Roses online, to compare gorgeous images of both old-fashioned and modern climbing roses, many with typical frilly, multi-petalled flowers. I love those such as Rosa Marie-Louise, or Rosa ‘Crown Princess Margareta’ with deeper-coloured hues in bud, that open to contrasting paler, pastel hues. Everyone should grow the early, delicate yellow Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’, of course a highlight at Joseph Banks’s Garden in Horncastle.

A profusion of scarlet roses, Rosa ‘Etoile de Hollande’, envelop the wood pergola in Wyndham WWI Memorial Park in Grantham, a tour de force admired by every passerby on Belton Lane. Check out NGS Yellow Book gardens charity openings such as the Moat at Newton or rose-clad Aubourn Hall. Note down names of silk or velvet-textured roses, whether with single, large flowers or in small clusters, or sketch a variety of structures that might elevate your own gardens or screen a garage wall.

Years ago, the late Geoff Hamilton recommended climbing rose ‘Pink Perpétue’ as a good-doer. I’ve grown it ever since, an almost constant, faithful flowering presence. Rosa ‘Warm Welcome’ with daintier, vivid orange flowers and equally attractive orange hips, is another firm favourite, less robust, but shooting vigorously upward with a vine on our BBQ ‘loggia’ pillars, with the gorgeous ‘Sally Holmes’ alongside, a shrub rose I am trying to train to climb!

2017 was a great year for roses. After all the cold and rain, who knows what blue skies and ephemeral feast for eyes and souls lies in store? Will summer 2018 bring more green walls and ‘vertical forests’ in our urban settings? Just remember, take time to savour roses’ perfume. Finally, a memory stimulated by Repton’s ode, let me share my father’s rather different verse, a last word which might amuse, entitled A ‘Composition’:
When hubby grows too old to keep,
I’ll shove him on the compost heap;
So when at last he decomposes
He’ll help to fertilise the roses.
Thus moving him from marriage bed
To bed of English rose instead;
And he may well console himself,
To know they’ll be in blooming health.
(R.E.H. Hadingham 1915-2004)

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