As a 13-year-old newly arrived in Somerset, gardening was the last thing on Cleve West’s mind. The craggy woods and heaths of Exmoor rearing up behind his back garden were just a place to go and soothe his teenage fury at being torn from his mates in London to follow his parents’ dream of running a hotel in the pretty village of Porlock.
Did he but know it, during those grumpy rambles across the moors he came to love, Cleve was gathering the impressions and experiences that would eventually inspire one of the most hotly anticipated gardens at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. “I was just walking and looking at the deer and enjoying the countryside,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about gardens, I didn’t know what gardening was.”
Now, 40 years later, he feels driven to explore that time in his life and the ways in which these innocent wanderings might have inspired his love of plants and open spaces.
“It’s really just trying to find that moment where the seed was sown.”
It was to take another decade – and a promising career as a would-be Olympic long-jump athlete cut short by injury – before Cleve found gardening. Since then he’s become one of our most talented designers, scooping five gold medals at Chelsea and winning Best in Show two years running.
His garden this year, though, takes him right back to those early days on Exmoor, scrambling through the woods on Porlock Hill, picking whortleberries and hiking along rocky clifftops. He says it’s not a recreation of one particular place, but an interpretation of his memories – and an attempt to capture the feeling of what it’s like to stand on Exmoor.
Everyone, suggests Cleve, has a special place that inspires them; a place that leaves an indelible impression. “I think there’s always somewhere, a landscape or seascape, where people are hooked in.” The challenge for Cleve was to translate his recollections of Exmoor into a show garden.
A twist on oak and stone
One of his favourite Exmoor places was Shillett Wood, at the end of a long, steep valley called Hawk Combe, where a winding river rushed over wet stones, set in a green woodland of twisted oaks. “The oaks in Shillett Wood are probably no more than 10m tall and have real character because they’ve been battered by the elements,” he says. “I just remember walking in there and thinking, ‘My God, it’s like the enchanted forest’.”
Photo credit: Simon.V.Horton
If Cleve’s memory of this place was to be reflected accurately in his show garden, he would need to be creative in his use of plants. So although he admired the ancient English trees at Shillett, for the show garden Cleve is using the lower-growing, gnarled-looking downy oak (Quercus pubescens) to better evoke the magical atmosphere he remembers. Early plans for the show garden feature rocks tumbling through the trees, a nod to the the cliffs around Porlock and Hurlstone Point, the rocky promontory with spectacular views over the long shingle arc of Porlock Bay.
Water, always a presence on Exmoor, runs throughout the garden; there’s even a sunken pool at its heart. It also nearly did for the design when the River Severn burst its banks and -Cleve’s design is a different slant on the steady trend towards more natural-looking gardens at Chelsea. Last year saw designers conjure up scenes from nature inspired by the Mediterranean, a New Zealand vineyard and Cornish hedgerows.
Towering above them all – quite literally – was Dan Pearson’s astonishing recreation of a corner
of Chatsworth in Derbyshire, complete with stream, wildflower meadow and monumental piles of rock. It won Best in Show and looked as though it had been there forever, rather than just the three weeks it took to build.
It’s a naturalism that Cleve admires, but doesn’t want to copy. “I thought Dan’s was probably one of the best gardens we’ll ever see,” he says. “But for me there’s no point in trying to recreate something, because nature– in this case Exmoor – does it so much better anyway. If I want to go and see that, I can just nip down the M5. So I want to do something that’s challenging, slightly different, yet still acknowledging my roots.”
Cleve spent just six years on Exmoor, but the experience left a deep impression that he’s carried through a lifetime. “I do miss that luxury of being able to walk out into a wood and just walk for miles and miles and miles without seeing anyone,” he says. “This is a very personal garden: it’s me. It’s almost like expressing an emotion, paying respect to the thing that enticed you into the world of gardens in the first place.”
Sally Nex is a professional gardener and writer. This will be her 10th RHS Chelsea Flower Show as a reporter. She’s also trying to tame an acre of semi-wild garden in Somerset’s Blackdown Hills.