Christopher Stocks


Winfield House | Gardens Illustrated

Winfield House / Gardens IllustratedGiven the level of security that surrounds Winfield House, the American ambassador’s compound in London, I phone ahead to ask its head gardener, Stephen Crisp, whether I’m likely to be strip-searched on my way in. ‘Now that’s just wishful thinking,’ he drawls, and from there on we’re away. Not many head gardeners have quite such a dry sense of humour, or for that matter quite such a fabulous cat as Miss Tabby, who escorts us round the premises with her diamanté collar sparkling in the sun.

Given his youthful apprearance it’s slightly hard to believe that Crisp has been head gardener at Winfield House for more than twenty years. When he arrived in 1987, fresh from Wisley and five years at Leeds Castle, as he says ‘To be kind the garden was a bit of a sleeping beauty. You couldn’t even see the house because there were Leyland cypresses all along the front; it was just awful. But I thought to myself, there’s an opportunity here to make something.’

Winfield House stands in the north-western corner of Regent’s Park, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the London Central Mosque. It was built between 1937 and 1938 for the Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton, then one of the richest women in the world, in a style that might best be described as Enervated Neoclassical, which has about as much allure as a large provincial post office with ideas above its station. Still, it’s the garden that we’re here for, and that is something special, partly thanks to its size – at five hectares (12.5 acres) it’s the largest private garden in London after Buckingham Palace – but also because it’s a model of what can be achieved with only three staff and a restricted budget.

The house is jammed rather uncomfortably into the far western corner of the site, with an entrance drive behind it and a narrow strip of what’s now dense woodland that screens it from the wide public road outside. The contrast with the south-east-facing garden front could hardly be greater. French windows open out on to a broad paved terrace, with the three hectare (seven acre) expanse of the Great Lawn – perfect for Presidential helicopter landings – sloping gently away towards the tree-lined boundary. If it wasn’t for the occasional screech of police sirens and the BT Tower looming over the treetops one could easily be looking out across a country estate. It’s an impression that Stephen has subtly reinforced by clipping a browse-line below the trees, making them look as if they were constantly being nibbled by cattle or deer.

The formal gardens extend in a narrow strip on either side of the house, along an axis that extends roughly north and south from the front terrace. They’re designed to provide interest all year round, though they’re most heavily used in the summer for diplomatic events. The main northern axis opens with a boxwood parterre between the house and the kitchen wing (disguised by decorative trelliswork) with a statue of the young Barbara Hutton, followed by a small rose garden, originally designed by Sir Peter Shepheard in 1983, with classic hybrid tea-roses like ‘Iceberg’, ‘Munstead’, ‘Dreaming Spires’ and the unfortunately named ‘Golden Showers’. ‘There used to be “Ballerina” too,’ Stephen adds familiarly, ‘but she never enjoyed the conditions so I got rid of her and replaced her with “Clarissa”.’

What Stephen calls the Green Garden – a simple, contemporary design of Dryopteris ferns and ornamental grasses (notably Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’) enclosed by boxwood hedges – leads on to the Summer Garden, in some ways the climax of the whole scheme. A square enclosure, in the manner of a medieval garden, it replaced an earlier rose garden and was, Stephen explains, ‘kind of inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s stained glass,’ which he saw during a lecture tour to Chicago. ‘None of the quadrants are the same but you get a sense of symmetry. It’s about strong graphics and colours, not the Laura Ashley approach to gardening we’ve been yoked with for so long.’ Intriguing combinations of plants – dahlias and tradescantia (both of which are heavily mulched in winter and treated as outdoor perennials) with climbing roses, miscanthus, sedums and olive trees – give a colourful show in summer but also ensure that there’s some structural interest through the cold months too.

On the other side of the house is an ebullient Gold Border, reputedly designed by Lanning Roper in the mid-1960s, beyond which is the newest addition, an attractively simple circular fountain designed by Stephen in collaboration with the American landscape architect Morgan Spurlock in the year 2000. From here a quiet woodland walk snakes along the wooded boundary of the Great Lawn, underplanted with spring bulbs and hellebores.

It’s very much a working garden, with ambassadorial staff occasionally chuntering surreally by on golf carts, and it all feels very trim and scrubbed: the flagstone paths, for example, are kept completely bare of plants, ‘for health and safety reasons’ explains Stephen, which gives the place a slightly antiseptic feel – but only in the same way that Buckingham Palace, say, feels more like a workplace than a home. Yet what a place to work, I reflect as the gates swing shut behind me, and I return to the undiplomatic world outside.