Led up the garden path

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 1993, 12:00am

IT IS Open Door government in Upper Albert Road and no mistake. We may not have the foggiest notion what is up on our behalf with the heavyweight issues but the gates have certainly been flung open on the subject of azaleas and camellias.

The public will be admitted to Government House on March 7 to walk around the garden, nameless, in jeans, and irrespective of their place on the social or political ladder. They even took me at my word, or half of it, when I showed up at the gate the other day for a preview with Miss Jane Lui, Gardener To His Excellency.

''I've come to see Miss . . .'' ''Aaah, yes. Come this way,'' said the welcoming Corporal-of-Horse, ignoring any formalities of the gatehouse and walking me up to the front door. My ''Look at the birdie and say 'Cheese'!'' colleague followed me through the gate on his motorbike, a most unofficial sight.

Jane was at hand by the portico, looking almost donnish in slacks and a padded check jacket. As the gardener, she is an Urban Services Department Amenities Assistant Grade 1. That surprised me. I thought they would have had a man out from Kew to do it. With the estimates for The Governor's Household rising from $17 million to $23 million for 1993-94, at least one. Instead, they have wide eyed, perky Jane, thirtyish (no answer budded to that specific question), who did a month's general horticulture course, five shorter ones, and read a lot.

I suspect that, for Jane, this is not work, it is fun.

She guided me around the paths the March 7 visitors will be allowed on, with a diversion into the nursery and the greenhouse at the start. These are to the right of the house itself, tucked behind the staff quarters which front on to the Upper Albert Road wall.

It is a peculiar little world behind there, a housing development in miniature with washing out, patrolling policemen and children coming home from school. Only the cars confuse the picture: two Daimler Imperials and an ageing Rolls-Royce Phantom. Another, a rather soupy looking Jaguar which actually had a number plate, I assumed the Governor Mr Chris Patten and his wife, Lavender, use when they want to night club incognito.

Jane hauled my attention back to her nursery annuals, neatly lined up in their pots ready to be taken into the garden and planted. There were chrysanthemums, begonias and pansies - honest there were. I was brought up in a part of Manchester where the first flower I saw was on a seventh birthday card. If you fell on grass, you cut your knee. Horticulture, for me, was somewhere out there with aeronautical physics but I wrote down the name of everything that was pointed out, like ''tree'' and ''lawn''.

They are there.

So is the greenhouse, an elegant five-year-old lantern design with slatted windows which keep a constant temperature of 26 degrees Celsius. This is lodging to a range of potted foliage, rotated in and out of the main house once every month or so. I cannot say I have ever liked indoor pot plants. They remind me of the Victorians and spinsterhood. I can think of better things to put in greenhouses too, like tomatoes, just as the ace gardener in our family, Uncle Wilfred, did. His were so big, they intimidated the lettuce.

I wonder what ''Emily'' thought about it. She is in the greenhouse, a white head and shoulders bust of an upper class English girl, inscribed with that name and, on the base, purported to be by ''O'' in 1891. She should be sad there among the rubber leaves but she is well cared for.

We walked down into the Lower Garden towards the East Gate, where deputations usually hand in petitions. The Lower Garden effectively describes all the garden of any note - mostly at the back and sides of the house. The Upper Garden is the one at the front you see from the road and is no more than a glorified traffic roundabout.

It was in the Lower Garden that Whisky and Soda first struck. They came upon our ankles with a pudgy little white poodle called Bobo whom Whisky was clearly courting. I can tell Bobo's ''mummy and daddy'' the end result will be a cross between a pan scrub and the end of a kettle drum stick.

The path round the perimeter of the Lower Garden follows Lower Albert Road at a discreet height. There are impressive mini groves of bamboo, one an uncommon gold which seemed to command the failing afternoon light. A judicious selection of trees live on the garden's steep slope, enough for a sense of woodland but not too many to kill the light. When asked if they might consider planting more, Jane adopted a hush to her denial as though something rash had been suggested.

The glory of the garden are the azaleas - 10 varieties, a rejoicing of colour. Lady MacLehose had a big hand in their development. They were a passion of hers, a counterpoint to her love for ponies. I had always imagined ''gels'' with pruning clippers from Cheltenham helped her. I could not imagine Amenities Assistants going more than a couple of jumps with Lady MacLehose but Jane said it was always so.

One bush, near the bottom of the steps up to the back lawn, is of an exceptionally rare type in contrasting pinks. Interestingly, with so many azaleas, the Government House garden has not gone in for crossing them into new strains.

''Oh, no hybrids,'' Jane said, wrinkling her nose a little. ''Too complicated.'' On the other side of the black metal fence is Mammon, the moneyed highrises. Up the 54 steps to the lawn, you stand, under the Governor's terrace looking out across the green sward to the mute, towering windows of Central. The scene is oddly empty. You see no faces in the tinted windows. The buildings stand there eyeless on the perimeter, waiting. You are alone on the grass. You feel naked but brave. Let them come. This is a stand-off of values. This is some backyard.

Government House itself is endearingly bananas. Part cinema, part ministry, part golf club house, the wartime tower with its byzantine windows is straight out of a Japanese cartoon. Plants in Chinese urns and ageing bonsai trees on sills fail to soften the Imperial Japanese Army's eclectic view of art deco. There is something they have done with the way the curtains hang at the windows which suggests - South Kensington? In a window in the tower, my colleague's long lens seemed to confirm two watercolours on paper had indeed been stuck on to the glass.

The borders around the terrace are pretty; they are packed with a busily colourful spread of impatiens, begonias, peonies, salvia and dahlias. Rhododendrons and luscious big pink camellias stand off to left and right.

From the excitement in Jane's voice on the subject, clearly the lawn is a bitch. Spring and summer it must be mowed once a week. It must be spiked. It must be raked. It must be fertilised. It must often be hand-weeded. Looking at that lawn I did not wonder Jane needed 10 full time staff. That lawn will disappear under a tonne of well-meaning lap sap between 10 am and 5 pm on March 7.

Whisky and Soda struck again. Mrs Patten came down the steps from the house to remonstrate with them. ''Whisky!'' she shrieked. I knew how she felt as she chased the fleeing beasts into the undergrowth where we were headed. On the way I spied a small Norfolk fir, a gift to Lady Wilson, planted well into the lawn. So, they had planted a tree - and in the wrong place.

Lady Wilson took an interest in everything, Jane said, and I told her I could believe it.

Mrs Patten, it seems, enjoys the garden but has expressed, as yet, no dislikes of what is, or will be, in it. Unless she or the Governor says something to Jane, nobody else does; no private secretaries or senior housekeepers. This leaves the Amenities Assistant Grade 1 very much responsible for her patch - all 9,000 or so metres of it.

Leaving, I admired the great gnarled magnolia tree under the drawing room window. Underneath it stood a sign saying ''Planted by H. R. H. Princess Anne, 1971''. I marvelled out loud at its rapid growth and accelerated antiquity. Jane was near mute with disbelief.

''A gardener just dropped that sign there. This tree is a century or more old. Princess Anne's tree is over there!'' she exclaimed, pointing to nothing more than a shoulder-high bush next to the Norfolk fir.

I think I was set up.