The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh admire the vegetable garden with deputy head gardener Claire Midgeley
Friday, 25 May 2012

Into the Queen’s own Eden

When, more than 30 years ago, Bill Travers was granted access to the Queen’s private garden, he made a rare and touching film

Written by Roderick Gilchrist

There is an enchanting cameo just after the opening credits of The Queen’s Garden that has incongruous echoes of a country farmyard. A waddling mallard, which has just hatched six fluffy ducklings, is leading her quacking brood from their lakeside home across a daisydecorated meadow.

We have just seen them take their first flight, parachuting one by one from their nest high in the hollow of an old oak tree, and mother has decided to seek the sanctuary of a more enticing lake some way away. But she has now come to a halt in front of the impenetrable barrier of a pair of great green gates. It is at this moment that the long arm of the law intervenes. A kindly policeman with the unlikely name of PC Ted Chicken opens the gates, allowing the ducks to leave Buckingham Palace and head into the bustling world outside.

Watched intently by hundreds of delighted tourists, PC Chicken then raises his hand to bring the London traffic screeching to a halt and allows the little family to cross the road safely and enter St James’s Park.

This surprising, heartwarming event was shot as it happened for a remarkable film, The Queen’s Garden, which charts a year in the life of the monarch’s Buckingham Palace garden. The film, made in 1976, charts the passing of the seasons in this bucolic central London Eden, which is filled with wildlife and decorated with around 320 different types of plants. Security concerns make such access unimaginable today, so the film really is an extraordinary record of a largely hidden oasis.

The Queen’s Garden was produced and co-directed by Bill Travers, late husband of actress and conservationist Virginia McKenna, the narrator. They starred together in the Oscar-winning picture Born Free, the true story of Elsa, an orphaned lion cub eventually released successfully into the Kenyan wild by George and Joy Adamson.

Bill and Virginia’s understanding of the natural rhythms of nature and their love and instinctive feeling for wildlife persuaded the Queen to grant them unfettered access to her precious private space. Her Majesty even agreed to several walk-on roles, chatting casually with gardeners and smiling with obvious delight at the rampaging behaviour of her seven energetic corgis.

The garden was designed by Capability Brown and covers 39 acres, has two-and-a-half miles of gravel paths, a tennis court where Wimbledon champions have played, and many exotic trees planted by previous monarchs. They include a mulberry tree taken from a cutting in Shakespeare’s garden and planted more than 350 years ago by James I, who intended to start a silk-weaving business. Like the Queen herself, the garden is imposing but unpretentious. There are no Italianate flourishes. It is a simple English parkland of woods, lawns, meadows and a three-acre lake, which is home to kingfishers. There is also a conical-roofed summerhouse where Prince Charles and Princess Anne played as children on matching swings. This garden is Queen Elizabeth’s personal sanctuary, but the film demonstrates just what a remarkable nature reserve it is, too.

Grey herons fish in the ponds. Dragon ies buzz through the reeds. Rhododendrons bloom. And all is watched over by pink  amingos, a royal gift from times past. There are remarkable human elements, too. Just before 9am each weekday, when the Queen is in residence, a piper plays a lament under her bedroom, a tradition started by Queen Victoria in 1843.

Tradition is all-important here. Hay is gathered with wooden rakes that look like antique architectural instruments from a Hardy novel, and the Queen chats with head gardener Fred Nutbeam, whose team of gardeners resemble weather-beaten countrymen.

There is only one concession to Versailles-style grandeur in the garden: the 15-foot high, 20-ton Carrara marble Waterloo vase that sits, sentry-like, at the end of the lawn. It o— ers not just ornamentation but a reminder of the nation’s glorious military past. Napoleon commissioned it in anticipation of his victory at Waterloo. Instead, it ended up with the Prince Regent at the seat of the British monarch.

At one point, the camera pans to show the Queen, in pearls and summer frock, walking past the vase without a glance. You sense it is not her style.

The enduring scene of the mallard and her wandering ducklings might seem unsurpassable, but there is a passage which, in some ways, is even more of a metaphor for The Queen’s Garden and the monarch’s appreciation of the natural world inside it.

The camera lovingly captures a sparrow that has built her nest inside the golden crown embossed on the gates of Buckingham Palace – and we see the beaks of her newborn. Whatever treats may unfold during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, they are unlikely to be so joyous or life-affirming as this. 

How to order the DVD Secure your copy of The Queen’s Garden (price £14.99, plus £1.50 p&p) by phone: 01403- 240170. By post: The Queen’s Garden DVD, 3 Grove House, Foundry Lane, Horsham, West Sussex RH13 5PL. Please make cheques payable to Born Free Trading/Queen’s Garden.

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