Contents of the Winter 2011 Northants News

        A Visit to 1, Ramsbury Drive                Trevor Wray

A visit to 1, Ramsbury Drive, better known as ‘Cactusville’, the home of Gordon Rowley.

When I was at Gordon Rowley’s 90th birthday celebration he put out a general invitation to his home and greenhouse collection the next day. Now I have wanted for years to visit the maestro’s habitat. There is much to learn about this curious subspecies of Homo sapiens which devotes a great deal of their waking hours to studying succulents (and naturally that includes cacti). So, did I want to spend four hours fuming in the fumes of the M1, M25 and M40 for a few hours looking around Gordon’s home and garden? My car was on the road at 9.00 next morning.

The night before, as befits a complex fieldtrip I did the necessary research on Google Maps and Earth of an interesting habitat. I have read of the desert garden against the front south wall of Cactusville. Was it visible from space? (Or at least those high flying planes they use these days.) Searching the location near the postcode produced nothing likely and no greenhouses in back gardens. Strange. Thinking laterally I remembered this was number 1, surely at the beginning (or end) of the road and sure enough there was a greenhouse at the back but a large tree at the front. The tree also partially obscured the Google ‘street view’. So a tip if you use Sat-nav to visit Gordon. You have not arrived when the Sat-nav says you have!

I was most warmly greeted by both Gordon and Len Newton and invited to partake of the elderflower cordial, a legendary drink in this part of Reading. I can report that supped in the shade of the elderberry tree that supplied the beverage this was most refreshing drink.

Elderflower cordial

Left The elixir! Len Newton performs the ritual ceremony of pouring the elderflower cordial and Right: Gordon, Len Newton and Roy Mottram in the shade of the elderberry that provides the flowers for that cordial.



Gordon Rowley, Len Newton and Roy Mottram

Whether to visit the greenhouse, tour the garden, (many strange plants immediately caught my eye), or gape in awe at Gordon’s vast reference library, (surely nothing like this in any other private collection?) was the question. I made for the greenhouse first.

In the greenhouse there was an eclectic mix of cacti and succulents that might be seen in any enthusiast’s greenhouse except… The greenhouse is divided into three sections; frost-free, tropical and cold and in the second warm section there were nine cactus like Euphorbias. E. obesa and E. meloformis were among them. Turned out they were all hybrids between these two species. Must have a try at that myself. One was a really curious plant reminiscent of E. gymnocalycioides but much easier to grow I suspect.

There were at least two flowering plants of Dorstenia bornimiana , a strange plant I had first seen at a Zone 6 show.

I was glad to see many different, and some obscure, Sedums, a lot of other members of the Crassula family and some weird plants from Gordon’s Teratopia book. With typical generosity Gordon invited us to take cuttings of things we fancied and my companion in the greenhouse was given a rare Sansevieria hybrid.

Euphorbia obesa X meloformis hybrid

Above: Strange plants still inhabit ‘Cactusville’... Gordon raised this hybrid between Euphorbia obesa and E. meloformis looking every bit like the choice E. gymnocalycioides.

My greenhouse tour over I was wandering around the garden. I had seen Colletia paradoxa and apparently Gordon had the other species of these strange trees. I heard Gordon calling us for a conducted tour of the house.

Yes, please!

We had the grand tour. We saw Gordon’s grandfather’s grandfather clock. (Think I got that right.) In every room there were books, plants and pictures. I would call it well organised but if I went down that route the FL would give be a good clip around my ear and tell me to behave myself.

Gordon Rowley at home in Cactusville

Left: Gordon introduces us to some of his treasures.

Right: The legendary Meccano Ferris wheel. Each cabin has a succulent themed passenger.


The Cactusville Ferris Wheel

In one bedroom was a collection of fossils. I have a lot of time for these; I collected them before I settled down to grow succulents. When Gordon showed us a Jurassic nodule with an ammonite in it I well recollect finding the same fossils on a beach near Whitby and the excitement of splitting the rock to display the encased ammonite.

There was also a large collection of butterflies. This was an aspect of Gordon I little suspected. On the windowsill here, (actually all the windowsills), were cacti and succulents. Gordon claimed that Espostoas grew very well on the south facing sill and certainly one looked well. Here was also a grafted Senecio rowleyanus (nice to see one at home), grafted on a shrubby Senecio species

In this room, Gordon showed us his vinyl record collection. (These are those discs of black plastic which used to revolve on a record player, I am sure you remember?) A lot of Beethoven, Brahms and Brandenburg (just the bs) and Boccherini Sinfonien Leppard. I am sure that is not Def Leppard! There was also a comprehensive set of paperbacks by the novelist Terry Prachett. Practically pulp fiction in the company of the other books there.

And there were of course the rare books. Many of them and we were allowed to look at several.

Above: A Cactusville windowsill with venerable Espostoa and grafted Senecio rowleyanus.

You will no doubt be wondering about the Meccano and especially that Ferris wheel. It is still there and each car has a cactus or succulent themed ‘passenger’. Does it dominate the room? Looking at the picture the FL says the books are worse but it is well known that she is biased against cactus and succulent books in general.

There were succulent based pictures in the bathroom and toilet.  In fact, covering every spare bit of wall. I could see that I would never be bored in this house while there was light to read.

All good things must come to an end and it was time to leave. With my head buzzing from the huge stimulating experience I returned to my car. Having arrived by Sat-nav I was not going to leave that way as the battery was flat (and the charging unit broken). Driving aimlessly around Reading until I found a M4 sign, I eventually found my way home where there are only a few hundred cactus books and just a few CS pictures.

A pretty good day out really!



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