T H E
G E N E R O U S
G A R D E N E R
Natasha Spender’s Provençal neighbours along a quiet country road near Maussane-les-Alpilles scratch their heads when asked directions to Mas St Jérôme, her French home for nearly forty years. They have no idea where it is − have never heard of it or her − until a man chopping wood down a dirt track exclaims: ‘Ah, the English writer!’ and gives directions back up the track.
It is easy to see how Lady Spender, now eighty-four, and her late husband, Sir Stephen, the poet, who died in 1995, could have managed to live in the area so inconspicuously for so long. The garden surrounding Mas St Jérôme is a mass of trees and shrubs that blends almost imperceptibly into the olive groves and craggy limestone countryside of the Alpilles region around it.
Natasha Spender’s garden was made famous by the publication in May 1999 of her book An English Garden in Provence, a beautifully written record of how she and Stephen had built up Mas St Jérôme from a ruined farmhouse surrounded by impenetrable brambles, and how she had created her garden single-handedly from scratch. It was also a loving account of the life she and Stephen had led there since buying it in 1964 for £500 as a place in the sun. The names of illustrious friends, including Iris Murdoch and John Bayley (annual visitors for twenty-five years – ‘I adored them,’ she says), Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West pepper the text, along with useful information about how to create a garden in a terrain with a very limey soil, long hot dry summers, biting mistral winds and occasional hard frosts.
Natasha Spender, at the window of Mas St Jérôme.
In July 1999, just two months after the book came out, disaster struck. Stephen’s biographer John