I started to write this over the Christmas holidays and soon realized that I had gone way overboard on its length. I am not at all surprised though, as this garden has haunted me ever since I visited it in early December 2010.
Barbados is the most easterly of all the islands in the Caribbean and considered as the most British of them all, and for this reason, regardless of its colonial roots, is still one of the top destinations for UK visitors. It is often dubbed the ‘Little England of the Caribbean’ which is not surprising as it has seaside towns with names like Dover, Hastings and Folkston, though with a very tropical twist! You might think that after two weeks in the Caribbean, Matt Biggs and I had been gardened out – but not so! On the penultimate day of our Caribbean cruise, we decided to visit a garden that had been highly recommended by Rosemary Alexander, Principal of The English School of Gardening. Was it as good as Rosemary suggested? The answer has to be a resounding yes!
The most well known garden on this tropical island is Andromeda, a fabulous and deservedly popular garden created by Ms. Iris Bannochie in 1954. It was first opened to the public as a fund raising event for the Barbados Horticultural society in the seventies and now owned by the Barbados National trust. Having been there many times over the years, we couldn’t resist the chance to see a comparatively new garden in the Caribbean.
It was a typically humid and blisteringly hot day in Barbados with its luxuriously tropical climate and aromatic air. Our Cruise ship the Braemar was docked at Bridgetown port on the western side of the island in the most ridiculously post-card blue sea imaginable. With the sun beating down on our heads, our small group of intrepid garden fanatics – my good self, Matt Biggs and two friends, Dave and Anne Edwards, went in search of transport. Just outside the port area all the taxi drivers were vying for trade next to some of the most perfect specimens of the palm Bismarckia nobilis I have seen in the Caribbean. For those of you who have never seen this glorious beast, it is a fan palm with – as its name implies, a noble stature, and the most stunning silvery blue fronds, and no you can’t grow this dramatic Madagascan Palm in the UK – I tried once and failed miserably, as this king of palms only thrives in hot humid countries which our fair Island certainly is not!
Hunte’s Garden is still relatively unknown to visitors as it was only opened to the public four years ago and is as yet not mentioned to any great extent in Barbadian tourist literature. Haggling with one of the drivers we nearly called our adventure off as taxies are not particularly cheap in Barbados compared to other islands like Grenada. The half hour journey took us across the rolling countryside of Barbados into an area known locally as the highlands in Castle Grant- the Parish of St Joseph. We drove through a landscape that was dominated in some areas by tall sugar cane plantations which towered either side of the road. We passed through villages and an old sugar refinery that was still very much in use.
After our leisurely drive we arrived at our destination – a recessed opening to the left side of the road amongst tall tropical vegetation and towering palms. The unexpectedly grand entrance is dominated by two massive square terracotta coloured columns topped with delightfully ostentatious Italianate urns. Either side of the entrance is a lush planting of tropical’s like Patchystachys lutea, the yellow shrimp plant – Zamia furfuracea the Cardboard cycad and Anthurium – Ermm! Well, let’s just say it had very big leaves! We left the taxi driver outside the gate and walked bemused with anticipation through the rather imposing iron gates. It was difficult to know which way to turn as inside the gate you could either turn right into Hunte’s nursery or left, which we did, walking through a narrow passage way past dense tropical foliage. We soon met Anthony Hunte the owner, who appeared, as if out of nowhere, and lead us into the garden and onto a long wide paved terrace overlooking a deep gully. The spacious terrace was covered with every type of pot and container imaginable, all dripping with exotic plants growing to perfection in the steamy jungle heat of late morning. I don’t know what I had expected, but whatever my mind had conjured up, this was far better, in fact more like a surrealist fantasy world than reality! Was I still dreaming? Matt said to me, beaming with delight – ‘this, Mr William (as he calls me) is what you have been trying to create in your garden back home – and what you can do if you don’t have a British winter’. Matt knows I struggle against the elements to obtain a mere reflection of this style of gardening in our, oh so short British summer months!
We had only allowed ourselves one hour in the garden, so wanting to capture everything, I furiously began taking photographs. Anthony Hunte beckoned us all over and insisted that we sat down on one of the many wicker chairs and benches that were placed artistically like a stage set, amongst a vast array of pots and containers. What I had already seen of the garden was so captivating – how I could I listen to Anthony, take photographs and see the garden in such a short time! He was obviously such an interesting character and orator; I didn’t want to miss a thing! Our friend Dave Edwards could see Matt and I were both struggling with the dilemma of only having one hour in such a paradise! With a smile he said ‘stay as long as you want, I will pay the taxi driver as a gift to you both for introducing myself and Anne to such a fabulous garden’. What joy – Matt and I could hardly contain ourselves! We could now relax into absorbing the extreme beauty of this unknown paradise.
Anthony Hunte was obviously a great showman and wanted to tell us stories about the garden and its construction. It was soon evident that he loves having an audience. I took a photograph of him with his gardening gloves on just before he could take them off. Now we were in for a treat as he talked about the garden and his life with such passion. He loves hearing classical music in the garden and from hidden speakers the lilting tones of Maria Callas drift around us and through the towering palm trees giving a very ethereal feel to the garden.
He told us how he had moved to Castle Grant in the central highlands some 20 years ago and discovered the great growing potential for exotic plants on Barbados with its rich and fertile soils. He had always wanted to create a garden of his own and bought the 10 acre piece of land in the hills of St Joseph about six miles from the well known Andromeda Gardens. He regales with great fervour how the former plantation includes a magnificent Great House, staff housing, stables and other yard buildings. He tells us how he renovated the stables situated here on the gully’s edge, and converted them into his home backing onto a natural sinkhole-like gully originally formed by the collapse of a large limestone cave below. It was overgrown with the local vegetating including masses of towering palms. The location itself was a working sugar plantation for several hundred years and a small factory on the site made sugar syrup.He bought this plot about 6 years ago and after two years of hard work planting and re-arranging it was ready to open his creation to the public. The garden itself is about 1¾ acres in size. It might be the newest garden in Barbados, but with the speed of tropical growth, it looks as though it has been established for decades.
Even with our greatly extended visiting time, I have to part from his words of wisdom and go off on a personal mission with camera in hand as he takes my friends on a magical mystery tour of the garden, descending down step after step to the floor of the gully passing a landscape thickly planted as though it was in the great Palm House at Kew but by far, far better. There are drifts of brightly coloured Bromeliads, Colocasias from green to black in every shape and form, Dieffenbachia’s, Caladiums in mesmeric colours – a vast array of impatiens which Anthony calls weeds, stately cane Begonias and of course countless plants of which I have not a clue what they are!
From a very green lawn at the base of the gully I could see Anthony pointing out the many delights of the garden above and around him, almost as though he was conducting, with all of the plants performing on command as if it was an extension of his mind. The many tall palms give strong verticality and almost cathedral like grandeur with their height rising far above the garden.
Along with the palms and native vegetation, he has planted exotic and rare species from around the world in a roughly circular amphitheatre like depression with the eye of a true artist of the garden. There is nothing formal about Anthony Hunte’s style of gardening, as he interplant’s the natives with a vast array of ludicrously coloured tropical’s giving a stage set like feel to the garden on the grandest of scales. Statuary abounds throughout the many levels – laughing Buddha’s, Greek statues, gargoyles even a bust of Christ isn’t out of place, all purposefully placed amongst the dense tropical growth. Urns on their own or full of water are to be found everywhere looming from dark lush corners, as are several large rusty iron containers that had been part of the sugar making process, but now filled with water hyacinths and other floating exotics underneath towering tropical’s.
There are countless small clearings joined by secret pathways and flights of stone steps connecting the many levels with chairs, tables and recliners all hidden from each other by thickets of tall Alpinea’s, brightly coloured Heliconia’s , massive bananas, vast multicoloured Cordyline’s and such exotics as Acalypha wilkesiana in its many forms. There is great freedom in the planting; in fact the garden feels very cosy and personal.
Time flew by as it always does when you are enjoying yourself. Anthony was now back at the top of the garden on the terrace with a group of guests and friends. He called down to me to come up and have some rum punch. Still taking photographs and with Mariea Callas filling the air I slowly climbed the stairs passing irresistible flowers and lotus in containers as I made my way through light drizzle back up to the terrace. From there, Anthony led us up more steps to his house.
Like the garden, this was yet another revelation, as it is decorated with such eclectic furniture in a wonderful mishmash of styles from colonial to very rustic, and like the garden, all placed with great thought. One of his dining rooms is an old tin roofed outhouse with delightfully damp walls green with mould, surrounding a long table with twelve chairs and yet more palm trees in containers. Above the table hangs a large locally made iron chandelier. Through a doorway you are lead to a veranda with another twelve rustic chairs he bought in Mexico surrounding yet another long table. Down the middle is the most lavish of table decorations consisting of red Anthurium’s, orchids in full bloom and large Indian oak tree seed pods interspersed with sea shells.
Eventually, I step onto the enormous balconey at the back of Anthony Hunte’s house. This grand structure is open sided with a heavy Greenheart wood roof and feels very much like a transition between the garden and house. Here, you can look down on his magical jungle garden below or relax on one of the myriads of chairs, sofas and recliners, or a planters chair with slats that swivel out so you can rest your legs at the end of the day. There are pet cats and dogs very much at home with their surroundings reclining leisurely in the sultry heat around the house. There are several tables bedecked with a delightful clutter of wooden fruit, wooden baskets, shells from the beach, books and objet d’art. This feels like the centre of Anthony’s kingdom. Here, we are brought a punch made of Mount Gay rum and freshly squeezed juice – this deliciously aromatic nectar of the gods is brought on a tray covered in fern leaves surrounded with large Hibiscus flowers collected from the garden. We enjoy our punch while surveying the garden from above, looking past orchids and palm fronds while Anthony tells us more stories as we listen to music in the background. He says with a wry smile about Maria Callis, ‘we got married you know – mind you, she was already dead at the time!’ This was followed by, ‘I will be 80 in 12 years you know’ – a very interesting way of telling your age! I would love to have spent hours in Anthony Hunte’s presence, but alas it was time to wrench our way from this wonderland in Castle Grant- the Parish of St Joseph.
Before leaving we had a look at his small nursery which is brimming over with with tropicals of every type and then bid him farewell. Luckily for me though, I will be returning on another cruise in early March, and so will have the pleasure of hearing more stories and being lost in Anthony Hunte’s garden paradise once more…
The garden is open seven days a week apart from Christmas day and maybe new year’s day depending on how Anthony feels!
Hunte’s Gardens and Nursery Castle grant, St Joseph, Barbados W.1A
Admission $10 US per person which includes drinks. Tel: +246-433-3333 www.huntesgardensbarbados.com