Former Dior model discusses Kilver Court development
PUBLISHED: 06:00 28 May 2016
Monty Saul talks to Sarah Ford about an exciting new development at Kilver Court
Roger Saul’s grandmother was an avid plantswoman and from an early age he would be taken by the hand and led through her garden as she recited the plants’ Latin names.
Little surprise then, that when Roger first brought his future wife to meet her, his grandmother put Monty to the test.
“Roger had grown up with a gardening background and it was almost part of my ‘interview’ as a prospective wife when I was introduced to his granny,” Monty smiles.
“Fortunately I did Latin at school – although I was kicked out of the class and not allowed to take the actual O’ Level. I’ve got a good ear for languages so was I was able to store them and repeat them back. So I cleared the first hurdle!”
We’re talking plants and gardening rather than designer shopping today because I’m here to see the splendid Kilver Court gardens in Shepton Mallet and hear about the unveiling of the new nursery and its shop called The Wiggly Shed. Forming a natural link between the gardens and designer outlet village, and opened in March by Viscountess Weymouth, the nursery promises to be a treasure trove of specialist plants and seeds, weird and wonderful garden ornaments, plus tools and equipment.
It is the latest project from the famous British designer and his wife who met when Monty was a Dior model in Paris.
Roger launched the international fashion brand Mulberry and since he stepped down as chairman in 2002 the couple have continued to be in the spotlight, taking on new ventures such as the successful Sharpham Park range of organic spelt food products.
The couple retained ownership of Kilver Court, a beautifully restored textile mill which had been home to Mulberry headquarters. Today the 3.5 acre site has designer outlet stores for brands such as Jack Wills, L.K. Bennett and Rapha.
The gardens, tucked away behind the outlet village, feature a grand rockery, complete with waterfalls, a lake and the impressive piers and elegant arches of the Charlton railway viaduct. This was built in 1874 for the Somerset & Dorset Railway.
Known locally as ‘the secret gardens’ they are becoming increasingly better known as they appear on programmes such as the BBC’s Gardeners’ World and Escape to the Country.
Monty takes me on a tour via her beautiful gift shop in Kilver Court’s historic Great House. She stops to pick up a pair of fashion glasses from a shelf so that she can wear them in the photo and then leads the way to the lovely parterre. It was redesigned by Roger 20 years ago to provide interest for the world’s press and international Mulberry franchisees that would regularly visit the site.
“You wouldn’t think this exists behind here would you?” she says, explaining that the box hedging is inspired by the classic geometric designs found in one of their favourite places - the Place des Invalides in Paris. The pink roses are a Gertrude Jekyll variety; Roger recently chose the famous early 20th century garden designer when he was a guest on the Radio 4 Great Lives biographical series.
The gardens are cared for by a team of gardeners but there was a time when the site was abandoned and known locally as ‘the wilderness’
Monty says: “We often get coach parties of garden clubs here. When I was doing a history talk to one group, a chap remembered playing in the wilderness while the American soldiers went over the viaduct, chucking sweets out of the train window to the children in the garden below!”
Monty and Roger have three grown up sons and she became involved in running Mulberry after her modelling career.
She opened the first Mulberry factory shop 30 years ago and before that she ran sales in Chilcompton Village Hall.
“The village would become gridlocked!” she says, and recalled the day a taxi pulled up outside the first Mulberry shop in Chilcompton in the 1980s.
“Four Japanese people got out holding their Japanese magazine with a picture of Roger in it. They had literally flown in, got on a train to Bath, took a taxi to Chilcompton, kept the taxi waiting and spent their money!”
When Viscountess Weymouth opened the new nursery at Kilver Court she also travelled around the lake on a Venetian boat and cut the ribbon in front of the flamingo house. Roger gave Monty four flamingos to celebrate her birthday as the gardens were home to flamingos more than 50 years ago.
Monty plans to run the nursery shop, known as The Wiggly Shed, along the same lines as her successful gift shop in Kilver Court’s Great House - an eclectic mix of discounted stock and lovely things she has discovered herself.
“I don’t want any customer ever to feel intimidated. I can’t bear those shops where you have to apologise for opening the door. I love it when I can hear people howling with laughter downstairs when they’re reading the greeting cards I’ve handpicked.”
As well as garden tools, collectables and furniture, the new nursery will stock a very unusual selection of herbaceous, alpine and subtropical plants which Roger and Monty have found by scouring the country. Many of these plants will also be featured in the garden’s newly restored borders.
The ‘Babycham’ gardens
Kilver Court gardens were created by lace maker Ernest Jardine in the late 19th century for his factory workers.
The gardens were transformed the 1960s for the Showering family - the brewers famous for the legendary Babycham drink. The design was based on a gold medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Roger Saul bought Kilver Court as the headquarters for the fashion empire Mulberry in 1996.