UK: MASTERCLASS - SIR PETER AND THE RABBITS.

UK: MASTERCLASS - SIR PETER AND THE RABBITS. - SmithKline Beecham's chairman Sir Peter Walters is an avid gardener - and no lover of rabbits. Horticultural writer Christopher Lloyd visits his four-and-a-half acres in Sussex.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

SmithKline Beecham's chairman Sir Peter Walters is an avid gardener - and no lover of rabbits. Horticultural writer Christopher Lloyd visits his four-and-a-half acres in Sussex.

Genial and relaxed may not have been the description that subordinates would have applied to Sir Peter Walters during his long tenure at BP, but latent assets have room to come into their own in later life. One of his three homes, where he intends to enjoy his retirement, was where I visited him during the August drought, and there he pursues a principal hobby, gardening. This is at the Old Vicarage, right next to the flint-structured church and its graveyard wall in a 600-strong parish in West Sussex. Walters and his wife Meryl moved in here in March 1993 and he loves the place. One can see why.

The typically Regency-style house, with a shallow pitch to its roof, was built in 1822. The south entrance front has what one might almost call a statutory evergreen Magnolia grandiflora - the one producing waxy, lemon-scented chalices - bulging forwards from the wall. Few old vicarages are without one. But the main area of garden lies to the north, on steeply falling downland, with the noisy A24 all too near at hand and a wooded landscape stretching to the North Downs, beyond.

Walters has four-and-a-half acres and, where they approach the road, he has planted 1,300 trees which, in time, should deaden the sound. Alders and poplars are particularly fast-growing. Beyond them there are oak, cherry, beech and ash, even a trio of London planes. For them to develop properly, with sufficiently wide spacing, perhaps one tenth of the number would suffice, but Walters intends to administer the necessary thinning when the need arises.

He has been interested in gardening since owning his first house, one of 22 subsequent homes. There, he taught himself to make bricks with cement and shingle, using seed trays as moulds and antiquing the surface by lining them with wrinkled newspaper.

The vicarage became redundant and was sold by the Church in 1966. The first subsequent owner commissioned garden designer Percy Cane to draw up a planting plan. He must have been totally ignorant of site and soil, recommending quantities of rhododendrons for a garden on the South Downs where raw chalk is only just beneath the surface.

The next owner was an artist and turned an outbuilding into a studio, which is a useful adjunct. But the garden became almost totally neglected, and early work entailed hacking a way through dense scrub, bonfires and many mundane tasks, all of which the owner gladly entered into. It is he, not his wife, who has the say-so where the garden is concerned. 'I tell her to keep indoors'. But Lady Walters takes an interest; that is encouraged.

Rabbits are a serious problem. One with myxomatosis has lately been seen nearby, so the hope is that there will be a useful resurgence of the disease. In the meantime, the entire property has been enclosed with rabbit fencing. Rabbits are pretty good climbers, as Walters witnessed when one surmounted the new fence at a height of three feet. An extra foot has therefore been added.

Some plants have individual rabbit enclosures. A lavender hedge, which Walters planted one weekend and intended enclosing the next, had been completely eaten by then. He loves propagation by taking cuttings and lavender is one of the subjects tackled in this way. There is a new greenhouse, which will contain a propagator, while a cold frame will enable hardening off. An area used for vegetables and soft fruit was shown as a rose garden in Cane's plan. First things first. Hybrid tea and floribunda roses loathe chalk anyway.

So does much else. A chlorotic wisteria on the house front has bright yellow foliage. But many plants love these conditions and the free drainage that goes with them. The garden's master plant, free-standing in lawn turf, is a weeping ash tree. It was already a handsome specimen as seen in a photograph taken in 1870, and is still going strong.

There is also a mulberry, probably as old as the house, but that is none too healthy and Walters intends planting two more. I hope they'll be the right sort, Morus nigra, the black mulberry. The white kind is a rotten thing. Walters doesn't mean to die till he has seen his trees through. Good luck to him.

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