Mottisfont – the National Trust collection of old roses

Mottisfont – the National Trust collection of old roses

Ask any old rose lover in the UK to name their favourite rose gardens and the chances are that among the top three will be Mottisfont in Hampshire.


This is the home of the National Trust’s collection of old (pre-1900) roses, collected by the legendary Graham Thomas, the Trust’s first gardens adviser. There are over 500 roses in the walled garden. At peak season it can be busy so try to get there early or at the end of the day for some peaceful enjoyment (the Trust extends the garden’s opening hours in the peak season).

Most of these old roses only bloom once. Though this may be disappointing to some and mean you have a small window of opportunity to see the garden at its best, the upside is that when they bloom in June many of these roses give it their all and look fabulous.

Mottisfont was a priory at the time of the dissolution. It is likely that roses were grown there for medicinal purposes.

After 1536 the priory was handed to Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sandys. He demolished the priory and built a Tudor ‘palace’ – Edward VI visited in 1552, and Queen Elizabeth I dropped in on two occasions. Over the centuries it was modernised, the house expanded and the walled garden built. The house and 2,080-acre estate were handed to the National Trust in 1957.

In the post-war period there was a strong fashion for hybrid tea roses, which had been developed for their ability to perform in rose competitions. The hybrid tea (with its almost tulip-shaped bloom – the sort people give on Valentine’s day) became the rose most people thought of and chose to plant.

It meant the old once-flowering shrub-like roses began to be lost. Graham Thomas began building a collection. For 40 years he travelled the country collecting cuttings of old roses from other fans, including Vita Sackville-West.

Studying the bloom, prickles, leaves and hips he was often able to identify roses thought lost. One of these was the ‘Quatre Saisons’ rose, or ‘Autumn Damask’.  It was grown by the Romans and one story suggests it was brought to England some time before 1513 by a young Englishman working as a mercantile agent in Venice. His name was Thomas Cromwell.

Yes, that is the same Thomas Cromwell who went on to become Henry VIII’s bruiser and who organised the dissolution of the monasteries that brought an end to the life of the Priory that once stood at Mottisfont.

Interestingly, Cromwell’s rose nearly disappeared in the 20th century, but Thomas rediscovered it, rescued it and grew it at Mottisfont. I don’t know if that’s irony or symmetry.

For a long time the ‘Autumn Damask’ was the only rose in England know to flower more than once – in early Summer and Autumn. Robert Calkin, the fragrance expert who created the scent descriptions for David Austin’s roses, says: “If sunshine had a fragrance it would be like this rose.”

Many rosarians will tell you that Mottisfont is not the garden it was in Thomas’s time. In recent years management at Mottisfont seem to have wearied of this collection of roses. Many of them require too much attention to look their best. Modern roses are bred to require no insecticides and fungicides, and it is fair to say that some of the old roses are not holding up well to an organic regime. But plenty are. There is a reason they have survived – their owners loved and tended them.

In its pomp, therefore, the garden is still a sight to behold. It is well worth a visit, and so close to the New Forest that you can make a great weekend of it. If you can, try to visit Hinton Ampner – another fine garden – while you are in the area.

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.