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Abkhazi Garden.

FROM THE HIGHEST POINT IN ABKHAZI GARDEN, WHICH SPILLS OVER A HALF-HECTARE OF CLASSIC, ROCKY HILLSIDE IN THE SHADY SUBURB OF FAIRFIELD, YOU SENSE YOU'VE ENTERED A FRAGILE HAVEN. THE EFFECT IS HEIGHTENED BY THE OLYMPIC MOUNTAINS OF NEARBY WASHINGTON STATE ENCIRCLING THE VIEW TO THE SOUTH, AND, TO THE WEST, VICTORIA'S FEW DOWNTOWN HIGH-RISES PEEKING OVER THE TREETOPS. STEP DOWN AMONG THE RHODODENDRONS AND SILVER SPRUCE, HOWEVER, AND YOU ARE IMMEDIATELY LOST IN A WORLD OF INDIVIDUALLY CRAFTED GARDEN SPACES THAT FLOW BETWEEN SUBTLE TIERS LIKE A MOUNTAIN KINGDOM IN MINIATURE.

"The secret to this garden," confides garden volunteer Helen Currie, "is the celebration of its size and micro-vistas."

"Knowing the history of this garden is what makes it special to me," adds Peter Symcox, another dedicated volunteer.

Their sentiments are echoed by many. Visiting New Zealand horticultural expert lack Hobbs notes how important it is for visitors to understand the garden's background and the influences on its design. To Hobbs and his group of Kiwi gardening enthusiasts, who came to Victoria specifically to see Abkhazi Garden, this is far more than a collection of pretty plants. "You can see the bones of what the garden has been in the past, and what it will be again," says Hobbs.

The Abkhazi name and the garden's heritage draw people from around the globe to this small sanctuary. For here is the stuff of great romance: a fairytale story complete with true love, the trials of war, a dramatic battle, and a happy ending.

The garden was created in 1946 by Prince Nicolas Abkhazi, born to royalty in the Russian state of Georgia (and exiled after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution), and his British bride, Marjorie (Peggy) Pemberton-Carter. The couple originally met in Paris in the 1920s, and corresponded frequently up until the Second World War. At the outbreak of war, Nicolas joined the French army. Peggy was living in Shanghai, China, where she had settled after many years of world travel. Detained separately in prisoner-of-war camps--Peggy for 2.5 years in China, Nicolas for 13 months in Germany--they reunited in New York, and married in British Columbia soon after the war.

The Victoria property was bought with funds from the sale of Peggy's few remaining assets in Shanghai, and the newlyweds set about creating the garden that would become their life's work. For them, the garden took priority even over building a new home. The pair lived in an apartment for a year before constructing the pretty wood cottage that overlooks their garden today.

Using the natural landscape of rock and Garry oak meadow, and combining this with their love of Asian themes, the Abkhazis designed a garden that is extraordinary in its depth and vistas. Vibrant evergreens and Japanese maples clothe the upper slopes and sweep down over a series of small ponds set in natural depressions in the stone. Narrow paths link the levels of the garden, winding between rhododendron woodlands and smooth lawns at the garden's lower end. Bent grass flows from the base of the rocks between banks of heather, an element that, for Peggy, recalled the flow of the Yangtze River. The spreading branches of Garry oaks lattice the lawns with their shadows.

Almost from the start, the Abkhazis invited the public into their garden to share its beauty and peace. For Peggy, in particular, the garden represented a haven. The rock, she said, gave her a sense of security and permanence after the upheaval of the war years. The royal couple entertained many visitors in their years together, until Nicolas died in 1987.

According to Maria Serafina Camara, who kept house for the couple for many years, before Peggy died in 1994 she instructed friends not to cry for her but to celebrate with champagne her reunion with her beloved prince. The ashes of each were scattered in their garden, and a simple unmarked stone monument below the cottage stands testimony to the legacy this remarkable couple left to Victoria and the world.

Then the dramatic battle. The garden was threatened in 1999 when a private developer bought the Abkhazi property with a plan to build up to a dozen townhouses on the site. Responding to public outcry and the organized efforts of community volunteers, a white knight stepped in. The Land Conservancy of British Columbia co-ordinated an urgent fundraising campaign and, with extensive loans, was able to buy the garden for $1,375,000 in early 2000, narrowly rescuing it from the bulldozers.

While still a beautiful place, the garden had not been tended for nearly a year and needed attention. A squad of volunteers has worked year-round since to bring the garden back to its glory days.

As volunteer garden adviser to The Land Conservancy, Cyril Hume led the initial restoration, making every effort to follow the Abkhazis' vision. "We needed to ensure that we understood what Peggy and Nicolas saw in the garden," Hume explains, "and maintain that integrity."

Hume was inspired, he says, by the similarity of this garden to the Sukhumi Gardens in Nicolas's native Abkhazi province in Georgia. Indeed, as word of the threat to Victoria's Abkhazi Garden spread around the world, many Georgians e-mailed Hume with pleas to save the property. "This," states one, "is part of the cultural survival of the Abkhazi people."

What struck Hume most about the garden is how its "palette of oak and rock" combines with the Abkhazis' artistic flair. This is a truly personal garden that the creators wanted to share with the public. "It is," Hume says, "an intimate and artistic, emotional and horticultural experience of two extraordinary people."

Valerie Murray, The Land Conservancy's appointed full-time head gardener, carries on the work at Abkhazi Garden with her volunteers. She is eager to expand upon the Abkhazis' vision and let the garden continue to evolve naturally. The property is once again open to the public; volunteers host tours, coordinate special events and meetings, and run a small gift shop located in the cottage.

Alison Spriggs, spokesperson for The Land Conservancy, is cautiously optimistic about the garden's future. "Long-term protection is definitely the goal," she says, noting that fundraising efforts continue. "There have been few preservations of private historic gardens, so if this is to be a cornerstone for the future, we must make the right choices."

For visitors from near and afar, the Abkhazi legacy lives on. "I love the evergreens," sighs volunteer Margaret Smart, "and what Peggy said about the rock really struck a chord with me."

"Wherever you are in this garden, you can see the thought that went into it and appreciate it," says Peter Symcox. "You can't separate the garden from its history."

Maria Serafina Camara, now a garden volunteer, looks up from where she is kneeling amid the greenery and holds up a battered old brush. "Look what I just found," marvels the former housekeeper. "The brush I used to clean the rocks with. The princess, she liked the garden to be perfect, always."

Camara leans back on her heels and smiles. "I think this brush, it was waiting for me to come back and do the princess's wishes again."

RELATED ARTICLE: A CITY IN BLOOM

SEVEN GLORIOUS GARDENS

Victoria is Canada's "City of Gardens." Spring to fall, 1,000 flowering baskets adorn Victoria's lampposts, and floral displays transform the city's major public gardens.

1 Abkhazi Garden (250-598-8096; www.conservancy.bc.ca), 1964 Fairfield Road: 0.4 hectares, $7.50.

2 Beacon Hill Park (www.city.victoria.bc.ca/residents/leisure_prkben.shtml), downtown, off Douglas Street south: 74 hectares, free. A mix of natural forest, wild meadows, and groomed flower gardens, with ocean and mountain views.

3 Butchart Gardens (250-652-5256; www.butchartgardens.com), 800 Benvenuto Avenue, Brentwood Bay: 22.25 hectares, $20 in summer. A famous floral display, with a resplendent Sunken Garden, Rose Garden, Italian Garden, and Japanese Garden.

4 Finnerty Gardens (250-721-7014, www.victoria.tc.ca/Environment/UVicGdn Friends). University of Victoria, off Ring Road to Parking Lot 6: 1.2 hectares, free. A major collection of more than 200 rhododendron and azalea species.

5 Government House Gardens (250-387-2080, 250-356-5139; www.ltgov.bc.ca/gardens/), 1401 Rockland Avenue: 14.5-hectare estate, free. The English Country Garden, Victorian Rose Garden, and Rotary Garden in front are open to the public; the property behind (The Terraces, Garry Oak Woodlands, and Cary Castle Mews) may be toured with Friends of Government House, $10.

6 Hatley Park Gardens (250-391-2511, 250-391-2600, ext. 4456; www.royalroads.ca), Royal Roads University, 2205 Sooke Road: 230-hectare estate, free. A National Historic Site, with a 1908 stone castle, native forest, Italian Gardens and Japanese Gardens. Castle tours with Friends of Hatley Park, $3.

7 Horticulture Centre of the Pacific (250-479-6162; www.hcp.bc.ca), 505 Quayle Road: 42-hectare site, $7. A mix of wetlands, Garry oak glades, and two hectares of specialty demonstration gardens: a Native Plant Garden. Rhododendron/Hosta Garden, Winter Garden, and more.

RELATED ARTICLE: TO KNOW IF YOU GO

STROLLING ABKHAZI GARDEN

GETTING THERE

Abkhazi Garden is at 1964 Fairfield Road, a five-minute drive from downtown Victoria or a 10-minute ride on the No. 2 Gonzales city bus. The garden is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday afternoons from March through September (admission $7.50); gift shop and tearoom are open weekends October through December.

FURTHER READING

* The Curious Cage: A Shanghai Journal, 1941-1945 by Peggy Abkhazi (Sono Nis Press, 1981). An account of the author's prison-camp experiences, written during her internment in Lunghua Prison Camp, Shanghai, China.

* A Curious Life by Katherine Gordon (Sono Nis Press, 2002). A biography of Peggy Abkhazi's life.

MORE INFORMATION

* The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (250-479-8053; www.conservancy.bc.ca). Fundraising efforts continue, to pay off the mortgage on the Abkhazi property and to establish an endowment for continued garden restoration and preservation. Visit the website to make an online donation or to purchase a $29.95 copy of a CBC Television-produced video on Abkhazi Garden.

* Tourism Victoria (250-953-2033; www.tourismvictoria.com).

* Tourism Vancouver Island (250-754-3500; www.islands.bc.ca).

photography QUINTON GORDON
COPYRIGHT 2003 Tourism British Columbia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Conservation
Author:Gordon, Katherine
Publication:British Columbia Magazine
Geographic Code:1CBRI
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Words:1681
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