In 1914 William and Agnes Bourne decided to build themselves a home for their retirement. To this end, they bought 654 acres of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Northern California, built a large country house and then surrounded it with 16 acres of formal gardens. Luckily William was the owner of one of the richest gold mines in California, so he wasn’t constrained by budgeting issues.
The house is very modern by European stately home standards, and has proper plumbing, flushing loos and a gas cooker … plus of course the obligatory ballroom. It’s a comfortable and unexceptional rich man’s home, and the most interesting thing about the house is that it was used as the Carrington’s mansion in the opening and closing credits of Dynasty.
But the main reason people visit Filoli, especially at this time of year, is to see the gardens. So off we went, on a sunny April afternoon, curious to see what a formal garden in California looks like. And the answer is that is looks absolutely stunning.
It’s stunning because all the spring plants here are in flower at the same time – and I have no idea how that happens. In England we have daffodils first, and then tulips, with rhododendrons and azaleas a bit later, and so on. But here there were daffodils and tulips and cherry blossom and camelias and bluebells and forget-me-nots and lilac and rhododendrons and azaleas and wisteria and even one huge peony, and they were all in full bloom together – and the effect was absolutely magical.
The sunken garden was designed to highlight the views of the mountains in the distance, and the carefully placed pots of tulips leading up to two rows of fir trees are clearly some kind of fancy perspective trick. Although why you’d want to make your garden look bigger when it’s already 65 acres, I’ve no idea. Personally, I’d want to make it look smaller, to stop all the gardeners from giving up hope and resigning.
The garden was full of people taking photographs: leaning precariously over flower beds, squatting in front of colourful displays, or limboing under particularly attractive trees to find the best angle. And I haven’t seen such an enthusiastic response to cherry blossom since I was in Japan – you had to wait your turn in a very orderly queue if you wanted a picture in front of the most beautiful trees.
Then, when we strolled into the woodland garden at the edge of the property, I finally discovered the secret to the magical quality of Filoli Gardens …
… Mr Tumnus lives here. Having suffered under the ‘always winter and never Christmas’ totalitarian regime in Narnia, he’s obviously decided that there’s a much better quality of life to be had if it’s ‘always springtime and never any half measures.’