Catching up with Tony Hibbert

Tony Hibbert

Tony Hibbert

Some people are born lucky; that could apply to me, but I believe my good fortune may come from a different source. In 1944, I was posted as missing believed killed. After 3 weeks, my mother, greatly distraught, visited the local clairvoyant with my sister. During a séance, they were told that a relative who had passed on to the spirit world was taking care of me, that I was alive and well, that I would be home within a week, but that I seemed to be limping.

While the séance was in progress, I was in Holland making final plans with the Dutch Resistance for the escape of 134 of our Parachute Troops after the Battle of Arnhem. Three days later, we led them back to our own lines. Forty-eight hours later, I was able to ring my mother from Lincoln Hospital to say I was safe but that my right leg was in plaster. The fracture to my leg happened after the séance. That is the only case of witnessed pre-cognition I have heard of.  I was a part of it and still find it impossible to understand.

After I was invalided out of the army, my guiding spirit wafted me safely on a magic carpet through an eventful and wonderful life and finally with my family to Trebah on my 64th birthday, though under false pretences. My wife Eira and I thought we were coming here to enjoy a sybaritic retirement drinking gin on the terrace and sailing and fishing. But we were persuaded to give up the first 3 years to restore the garden, which we had not known existed. It has taken already 22 years and still quite a few more are needed to complete the restoration. My guardian spirit certainly knew his/her stuff; we’d have died of gin poisoning and boredom years ago if we’d stuck to the original plan and I’ve had the happiest and most creative 22 years of my life here.

What were your principles in restoring the garden?
We had a wonderful canvas to start with – a 26-acre mature garden which had become a jungle. The framework was still there, with a fabulous collection of beautiful and exotic trees and shrubs set in a location to die for. Neither Eira nor I knew anything about gardening but, on my mother’s side, my family had a number of talented artists going back to the Norwich School and I have just allowed their genes to rule my intuition. On the technical side every gardener in Cornwall rallied to help with their advice, without which we could have achieved nothing.
It took us five years to clear the hundred or so trees that had fallen and the acres of rubbish that had grown in the years of neglect. We discovered that there had been 15 owners since Charles Fox laid out the garden in 1830. Each had contributed something to the garden, which had therefore evolved in a haphazard but strangely beautiful and natural way. There were no plans to work from and perhaps there never had been. So when we started replanting, we were free to experiment and innovate and learn from our mistakes. ‘Suck it and see’ has been our modus operandi, and our hard working and long suffering garden staff have been a model of patience and forbearance. But together we have created something unique – a garden of dreams. My father would have chuckled. He was one of the most highly decorated airmen who survived WWI, serving in the RFC and RAF, and of course the motto of the RAF is ‘Per ardua ad astra’ which succinctly encapsulates our efforts.

Did the Formation of the Trebah Garden Trust change your outlook?
We formed the Trust precisely because of our change of attitude. By 1987 we discovered that, out of 80 great Cornish gardens listed by Thurston in the 1930s, 20 had been lost or were in danger. We realised that, however much work and money we put into the garden, it would all be wasted unless we first gave it security of tenure. It had changed hands seven times in the 42 years before we arrived. We offered it first to the National Trust who accepted it and promised to look after it forever, but required £500,000. endowment which we did not have. So we decided to open it to the public in 1987. We took advice from the Duke of Bedford who said “Before you open (the garden) to the public, first build three times as many loos as you think you will need, build a good tea room and a car park and if you do this, according to the Woburn computer, 78% of your visitors won’t even notice if you don’t have a garden at all.’  We followed this advice and in 1990 our visitor numbers had reached 50,000. We formed the Trebah Garden Trust as a registered charity and gave to it the house, garden and cottages.

A Council of Management whose members are chosen to give the widest range of experience and expertise and include a nominee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, manages the Trust.  The Council is elected by the members of the Trust of which we now have around 1500. In 2001 we received a grant of £1.9 million for a new visitor centre and garden improvements from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Objective One. So, with financial and tenure security now assured, we can get on with massive garden development, confident for the first time in its 160-year history that it will still be here and open to the public for our great- great- great-grandchildren to enjoy. The greatest gift any owner can bequeath to a garden is first to plant for 200 years ahead and then to give it security of finance and tenure. This can only be done satisfactorily by giving it to a registered charity created for it or to the NT or RHS.

Do you hold a personal view on restoration?
Yes, vehemently. I loathe the great pretentious formal gardens of England’s mansions and the Chateaux of the Loire. I have tried to recreate a natural, wild Cornish garden where it is hard to detect the hand of man. It is difficult to run a garden like Trebah if you are a dedicated plantsman. You have to love it but be totally ruthless. When we arrived here there were three trees blocking the view to the river – two of them rare and beautiful. I have a wife who is perfect in every respect, except that she can’t bear me cutting down any trees. Fortunately she had planned to go to China for three weeks just after we arrived here. The moment she’d gone, I cut down the three trees and spent the rest of the time removing every last trace that they’d ever existed. When she returned she realised there was something wrong and when she eventually found out I was on bread and water for months! There is generally only room for one Prima Donna in one garden which, regrettably, often leads to a too rapid turnover of head gardeners. Where there is tolerance and diplomacy on one or both sides, the sky’s the limit.

And your philosophy?
Try to create a one-off garden different from all others. Don’t design your garden out of books but do pinch any good idea you see working in practice, and be pleased when you see other people pinching your ideas. They’ll never do it quite as well as you.
Create a happy garden with surprises round every corner and where children are welcome, and which is full of the music of children’s laughter and birdsong. Never disappoint your visitors. Plant your garden so that there is colour, scent, drama, beauty and happiness in every month your garden is open. If you’ve got nothing to offer, shut the garden or let them in free.
And never forget that all gardens are black holes into which you can shovel unlimited amounts of money for no visible return. If your garden is open to the public, you must run it as a professional viable commercial enterprise. Don’t be embarrassed by running it at a profit. If it’s a charity, all the money will go back into the garden which can’t be bad.

What of the future?
Everything we have done to date has been to ensure that the Trust has a long-term future. It will take us one or two years to get our management skills up to scratch to gain maximum results out of the new buildings and infrastructure we have just completed. I hope that by 2007 we shall have repaid all our borrowings and after that to build up an endowment to be used as a safety net to meet any crisis.
Our Constitution states that our objects are: (a) To preserve enhance and re-create for the education and enjoyment of the public the gardens of Trebah and such other properties for which the Trust may accept responsibility; (b) To promote the education of the public in the arts and sciences of garden land.
We have been developing (a) and (b) vigorously since we opened, and after 2007 we shall be able to ratchet everything up by several notches. At present we are getting around 130,000 visitors a year. We are planning to increase that to around 150,000, but the extra visitors must come between November and March. By careful management control and by spreading visitor numbers evenly across the year, we can run the Trust efficiently without destroying the peaceful enjoyment of the garden by overcrowding.

If you could look ahead 50 years what would you like to see?

  • A funicular or ski-lift elevator to bring visitors up from the beach
  • Trebah registered as an English Heritage Grade I garden (now Grade II)
  • Trebah providing accommodation to house visiting students.

The climate, having been through a ten-year cold spell in the 2030s, has returned to a period of warm winters and hot summers retaining around 45 inches of rain a year. The garden is still the same old beautiful, natural wild garden of dreams so loved by so many. The date is 9th May 2054 around midday and my successor is sitting comfortably in a deck-chair on the terrace with gin and tonic in hand. The sun is shining through the translucent new foliage of the beeches and copper beeches lining the narrowing vista down to the sparkling blue of the Helford River. The music of birdsong mingles with the laughter of happy children. And my successor is pondering whether to use the fact that, in so many ancient languages, ‘paradise’ is synonymous with ‘garden’ for the lecture that evening.