Words: Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles
When you are a busy media personality with a crusading image you occasionally need somewhere to unwind. For former That’s Life presenter and ChildLine founder Esther Rantzen that place is an idyllic 17th century cottage in the depths of the New Forest.
More specifically it is the rambling wildlife garden that surrounds it and the buttercup meadow that climbs the gentle hill beyond her garden gate.
For Esther, who at the age of 72 still works at a ferocious pace, it is a welcome refuge from the stresses of the 24/7 treadmill that can all too often dominate her life in London.
Amateur Gardening caught up with Esther during a sultry summer weekend at her much loved hideaway. Sitting on a seat dedicated to the memory of her documentary maker husband Desmond Wilcox, she took in the view.
“Coming to the cottage is the perfect way to unwind. As soon as I walk through the gate I feel it. I sit here watching the sunset, listening to the wonderful birdsong and it is as though the wrinkles in my brain are literally being ironed out.”
Esther has known the Forest since childhood - her cousin managed an estate for the local MP back in the 1950s. So when she and Desmond decided to look for a country home it was an obvious choice of location. That was 28 years ago and the property they fell in love with was a long way from becoming the gorgeous home it is today.
“It had been a working farm and needed a lot of attention,” explained Esther. “The end wall was falling away and there wasn’t really a garden at all. Just a little bit at the front. The rest was agricultural. Desi saw its potential straight away though.”
They called in leading garden designer Sarah Eberle. “I simply told her my dream. We talked about Monet’s garden at Giverny and how I would love to be able to sit in the evening sun looking back at the house with a view over water and under arches and that’s exactly what she did. “It worked so well. There’s nothing I like better than sitting in the garden with the shadows slowly creeping towards me, eating cherries and listening to the tapestry of sound that you get from different layers of birdsong.”
Esther works hard to encourage wildlife. “There are unmown edges, there are nettles and Queen Anne’s lace and buttercups. I do everything possibly to attract butterflies and birds. I also have a pond with newts and other water-dwellers.”
She points out the ragged robin, forget-me-nots, ox-eye daisies, leopard’s bane and aquilegia that grow in profusion in this naturalistic but ever so slightly choreographed garden. Esther favours traditional wild flowers and a no-nonsense approach. “I don’t speak too much Latin,” she says.
Her original plan was to create a garden where her three children could play and discover the joys of nature. A carving of the Eastern goddess Queen Sita - mother figure and protector - stands silently watching. Esther says she was acquired on a holiday in Bali and arrived in the New Forest in rather unspiritual fashion - on the back of a forklift truck. “I like to think she’s looking over us though” Certainly the deity, shrouded in clematis and ivy, looks at home in the rich Hampshire countryside.
Esther beams as she describes the joys of the beech and oak forest surrounding her home. “It’s beautiful in all seasons. There’s extraordinary colour. It’s wonderful, it’s wild, it was somewhere my children could discover how to climb a tree, how to fish for sticklebacks, how to get dirty. All those things that it’s very difficult to do in London.” Now grown up, all three children - Emily, Rebecca and Joshua - still love the place. “There’s a magic about the New Forest and once it’s got to you I think it gets you for life,” says Esther. In 2009 Rebecca even married in the garden. The traditional Jewish ceremony was lavishly covered by Hello magazine. She and her husband Jim are now expecting a baby, Esther’s first grandchild.
Though she loves nothing better than patrolling her garden with trowel and trug, Esther admits she has two dedicated gardeners keeping it in check. Meanwhile a neighbour does the mowing, including a majestic path that extends from her back gate to the top of the primrose hill
“I’ m away so much I couldn’t possibly cope with it all myself. My real gardening is on the roof terrace of my London flat. Here I just potter about doing a spot of pruning, cutting-back that kind of thing. I spend a lot of time dreaming up new ideas too. I suppose this is my fantasy garden.”
For many years she was helped in her horticultural imaginings by New Forest born and bred gardener Roy Hayter. “Roy had the most amazing green fingers. Everything he planted grew. Sadly he died a couple of years ago just after his 90th birthday. He was a wonderful man, very knowledgeable. He taught me a lot about gardening.”
Roy also helped Esther create a vegetable graden. Full of produce in the days when the cottage was a family home, it is now rather neglected although she hopes to persuade a friend to help give it a new lease of life.
“She grows wonderful vegetables and is currently selling a country house which she’s definitely going to miss. At the moment she’s talking about finding a London allotment. I’m going see if I can get her to become an eminence gris for my veggie patch. She can come and stay with me and we shall both toil on the land under her guidance.”
Readers might be disappointed to discover that even in its prime Esther’s vegetable plot didn’t yield any of those rude shaped carrots and potatoes so beloved of That’s Life.
“Sadly we never had any odd shaped vegetables from here to use on the programme. It was a very, very conventional veggie patch.”
In fact, she says, it was the only disciplined part of the garden. “Everything else was romantic and free-flowing. If a bluebell or primrose decided to self-seed somewhere I would be thrilled. “It always amused Roy because he had another employer who took quite a different view and insisted that everything was clean and tidy and in straight lines. It must have been strange switching between us.”
Although it seems the most beautiful and peaceful place to visit, Esther’ says the cottage and the garden have never been the same to her since the death 12 years ago of her beloved ‘Desie’. She has planted a grove on top of the buttercup hill dedicated to his memory. Sitting there looking back across her picture-perfect two acre estate with the roof of her cottage peeping through the trees should be a restful and calming experience. It usually is but occasionally Esther says the memories of what used to to be are just too much.
“When I was sitting there last night I just knew that Desie should be sitting beside me wearing a battered straw hat with a glass of cool beer in his hand and we should have been contentedly planning the week ahead, talking about the kids and our new grandchild. It got too much for me. I had to go and see a friend and we had a barbecue. I just couldn’t sit there any longer. It was too painful.”
She is philosphical about living with her grief. When I suggest the garden and Desie’s grove must be a comfort to her she fixes me with a knowing stare. “Not in the slightest,” she says firmly. “There was a whole year when I couldn’t visit at all because I saw him everywhere. Now I’m getting used to it a bit and I think with a new grandchild it might be a little easier.”
So with the prospect of the garden once more becoming a nature playground for little feet she is already busy putting up safety gates and planning for the future.