Looking for Brenda

by Trish Gibson

Researching a book can be rewarding and hugely enjoyable. I have spent much of the last year on the phone, in the library and on the road trying to discover more about the pioneering garden designer and landscape architect Brenda Colvin (1897-1981). I am expanding my MA dissertation about her into a fully fledged biography and needed to discover more of her gardens, talk to more people who worked with her and – most difficult – find out more about her personal life.

One method of enquiry that proved useful was a ‘research request’ printed in both Country Life and the RHS journal, The Garden. A fair number of generous people responded to my pleas with news of garden plans still in existence and offers for me to visit what was left of her work. One of these responses arrived one morning as a postcard. A very shaky hand (which took some time to decipher) declared that the writer had known Brenda well and had often holidayed with her in some remote part of the Scottish Highlands. This sounded very promising. There were very few people who knew Colvin personally, and certainly even fewer who had travelled and holidayed with her. I hadn’t even known that she had visited the Highlands.

The writer of the card – a Sir John – lived in Essex. I replied speedily full of gratitude but as I live in Cornwall, rather than plan an immediate visit, I said that I would phone to talk to him in a few days’ time. By return of post, a letter from Sir John’s secretary pleaded with me not to phone. Sir John, being now 95 years old, was at times confused, she said. On a good day she knew he would have plenty of information to share with me. If, however, it was a bad day, well . . . I replied that I was prepared to take the risk and suggested a date when I knew I would be in London and could make the journey out to Essex.

The day dawned. It looked a fairly straightforward car journey: out of London on to the M25, round eastwards and then off on the M11. I hadn’t reckoned with deepest, rural Essex. If I’m honest, I hardly realised such countryside existed. I’m ashamed to say I had always imagined Essex as not much more than part of London’s suburban sprawl. After two and a half hours on the road I realised I was going to be late for my appointment. As requested in the case of delay, I rang Sir John’s housekeeper and explained I was a little lost and would be with them in about half an hour.

Finally, flustered and frustrated, I arrive. I face a beautiful Elizabethan manor house, all soft pink brick and mullion windows. Someone comes out to greet me – Sir John’s niece. She’s kind and welcoming and we go in. There in the corner sits Sir John – a charming gentleman with rather twinkling eyes who greets me kindly. I begin to relax – it looks as though I’ve found him on a good day.

Coffee arrives, we make some polite chat and then, finally, we get round to the reason for my visit – Brenda Colvin. Sir John’s niece says she hopes he’ll share with me the rather saucy story he’s just told her – brilliant. This sounds really promising. I lean forward, switch on the tape recorder. ‘I knew Brenda Colvin rather well’, he explains, ‘She was quite a character. We holidayed together pretty often. She was the second wife of Colonel . . .’ My heart sinks. ‘Oh dear’, I reply, trying desperately not to look too disappointed. ‘Now, that is a shame. My Brenda was never married’.
There’s a bit of a silence. Sir John’s niece asks whether I’ve come far. ‘Oh, just from Cornwall’, I reply. I linger a little longer, finish my coffee and leave. Nothing gained for the book but, anyhow, it makes an amusing story.

PS Of course, if you can help me with any information about my Brenda, I’d be extremely grateful. Contact me on 01208 880308 or by email trish.gibson@btopenworld.com

Trish Gibson worked for many years as a BBC magazine subeditor and website content producer. She has an MA in Garden History (Bristol).