I was interested in a previous article by Rick Goater in which he mentioned his grandmother visiting Mrs Doncaster’s garden in 1952. For some years, I lived three doors away in our (then) new house overlooking the green in Merdon Avenue.
I have in my possession, a Royal Horticultural Society journal, published in 1982, which contains a fascinating article about the garden by Roy Lancaster. Mrs Doncaster, at that time, had collected and grown uncommon and ornamental plants for fifty years.
Her garden, as I remember, was packed with rare and beautiful species including very special rhododendrons and azaleas, magnolias, camellias and wonderful collections of snowdrops and fritillaries. It was a true treasure trove of beauty.
I remember, one morning I was outside my house washing my car when another car drew up. (It must have been in the mid 1990s). A young nurse got out of the car and struggled to help Mrs Doncaster out and into a wheelchair. (She was living at a local nursing home.) I volunteered to push the wheelchair and we manoeuvred this amazing old lady around her garden.
She was virtually blind but knew the route she wanted to take and stopped us so she could examine particular plants and talk about them. We walked the circuitous route for an hour and it was clear that every plant had significant meaning, beauty and history for her. It was an experience I will never forget.
Twice, her house was burgled and she was left for dead but she would never leave – until she became too frail to live alone. Her housekeeper and friend was Doris Redding who lived in Common Road, just round the corner. She was a delightful lady and stood up to Mrs Doncaster, who was a lady with a mind of her own.
The Sunday Telegraph wrote a long article about her garden and her friendship with Doris Redding. Doris’s son Martin inherited the property and continued to tend and maintain it. He said, at that time that he wouldn’t sell it as he felt Mrs Doncaster’s presence looking down on him and he didn’t want to incur her wrath!
The house is no more, the garden has disappeared under three large newly-built houses and I sometimes wonder what became of the most exotic collection of plants around, collected by a plantswoman of extraordinary vision, determination and knowledge.