“You couldn’t pick a worse hobby,” said my friend Katie, whose cousin has completed a course in topiary. “For one, you need to plant a box hedge and then wait for 13 years until it grows large enough to get chopping. She had a point, it’s not that I don’t love my flat in East London, it’s just not the forever house. The dream is a cottage in a West Country village near Bath and Bristol, a pipe dream let’s face it. “What we need is to find someone with lots of hedges and might let you loose with an electric strimmer!” Who in their right mind would let me do that I thought to myself. “There’s always those little cages you can train box hedge to fill,” she continued. But who wants teddy bear shaped topiary when you can aspire to Levens Hall house in the Lake District.
The Romans first introduced topiary to Europe and used slaves to prune their hedges into shape. Since then, it’s faded in and out of fashion, the height of its popularity being in the Tudor and Victorian times. The Victorians and Edwardians were particularly ambitious; growing fantastical shaped topiary in the shape of teapots and birds. Today, garden lovers dismiss topiary as being the preserve of country estates and Disney Land. Which is a shame when you consider they are evergreen, need pruning annually and will look their best even in winter. The same cannot be said of your rose bush or lawn all year round.
So imagine my delight when I bumped into this handsome herd of topiary elephants on a quiet corner of North London. These whimsical creations are the work of Tim Bushe – could a man of topiary have a better name?! An architect by trade, who was egged on by his wife to create a cat from their own front garden hedge. Instead he started with a train engine, then cats, herds of elephants and Chinese dragons followed, raising money for charity in the process. (Tim was also part of the Bright Old Things pop up in Selfridges recently.)
What could be further from the idea of the quintessential Victorian house? Homeowners that dare to playfully express themselves and challenge the confines of the ordinary terraced home. A piece of sculpture, wholly achievable, affordable and amusing. The old estate agent’s adage of “you can take a whole street with you” if you inspire your neighbours (to make home improvements) rings true here. In fact, everywhere I turned, all the surrounding streets were at it – growing privet hedges ready for a radical haircut. Thankfully, I’ve discovered that privet hedge grows at roughly 3 feet per year, a good deal faster than it’s slower cousin Buxus Sempervirens. Almost enough time for me to decide on my own enthusiastic design… I had better get planting!
Lastly, as of this month, I'm thrilled to be working with House and Garden's brilliant new website, continuing to write about unique and cherished places of interest I come across. It's a fantastic site, where I could lose myself for hours, so do have a peek!