In this trilogy of interviews, journalist Sally Williams and photographer Elena Heatherwick trace the joyful, tender, empowering relationships between women.
Jessica Stokes and Judith Lywood
Six years ago, Judith Lywood's gardener left without warning, a blow at any time, and especially in August. She had a densely-planted garden, with shrubs, climbers and perennials, plus an allotment, just opposite her house in Bath, Somerset. The grass was ankle-high. The dahlias needed deadheading. The climbing rose flopped from the trellis. A widow, then aged 82, Judith desperately needed help.
In walked Jessica Stokes. They had never met before; she was a friend of a friend. Bright, enthusiastic with an open face and a cascade of chestnut-coloured hair, she was a trainee horticulturalist. Judith took to her immediately. “She spoke her mind and I liked that,” says Judith, now. “No wishy-washy.” She offered her the job.
In the time since, Jessica, 31 and Judith, 88, have become more like comrades. Fifty seven years separate them, but they plot the planting of pots together, map out the many beds, and always have a proper lunch with a pudding prepared by Judith's housekeeper who helps with her care. When Judith was still able to drive, they'd pick up coffee and pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) and sit in the city centre, people and dog-watching. Now, Jessica helps with paperwork, shopping. Each buoyed by conversation. “Judith is interested in your life, asks lots of questions, is a modern thinker,” says Jessica. “She's inspired me to be a stronger person, to stand up for myself and fight for what I want.” Judith, in turn, is lifted by Jessica's vitality. She doesn't want to sit in a chair, all day. “I want to be part of life,” says Judith.
We meet in Judith's home, a five-storey Georgian house on the top of the hill, with a view across Bath. The sitting room opens onto the garden and the late February sunlight falls through the French windows in shifting patches.
Judith is dressed in a tartan skirt, a squash-coloured cardigan, and favoured, big red beads. Judith has an eye for colour. You can see in her home, a succession of elegant rooms with past and present mixed together. An oil painting of a prosperous Edwardian family – her husband's distant relatives who owned a brewery; dog baskets for her daughter's dachshunds, when they visit. Judith has three children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Jessica is wearing an outfit she reaches for routinely. “I have four TOAST dresses and two jackets that I live in.” She likes dresses – for the colour and print – but offset with workwear jackets and Blundstone boots. “I'm not girlie-girl. If I'm wearing this, I can nip into the garden and do some weeding.” She doesn't wear any make-up; another thing she shares with Judith, along with adding a flourish of colour: Jessica from scarves; Judith from beads.
The glue between them, of course, is gardening. “Judith has a very good eye, a clear vision,” says Jessica. When Judith moved to Bath, 20 years ago, after the death of husband, the garden had only an uncared for yew tree and a dense holly hedge which had grown too thick and high to see over the top. Now, the yew is clipped into soft-cloud like shapes, the hedge is low, which has ignited its lush, green character and both provide a framework for the informal planting in the beds where flowers bloom copiously, in summer: dahlias; salvia; geums; foxgloves in white or pink. “You feel enveloped in plants and scent,” says Jessica. “We get hummingbird hawk moths, birds. It's a really calm space.”
“She has the touch,” says Judith of Jessica. The ability to make everything in the garden look wonderful. Jessica's mantra is simple, organic, seasonal. A vase of catkins, delicate tête-a-tête daffodils and ferns, say. She loves to cram pots with bulbs in spring; cut flowers in summer, which she keeps in the tiny front garden of her home in a village, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, where she lives with her husband, Ben, a chef and coffee roaster and their dog, Kipper. “I like having sweet peas close to the window so I can watch birds dart in and out eating aphids.”
They both love abundance – “more is more,” says Judith – and are heartfelt about the transformative power of nature. “When you're in the garden, you don't feel old,” says Judith.
Judith grew up in London, where her father was a chemist, her mother a nurse. Her earliest memories are of a garden in Bray, a village in Berkshire, where her parents had bought a cottage, at the outbreak of war, when Judith was six. She remembers the earth smells, the pungency of leaves in an autumn bonfire. She spent most of her time with Binfield, the gardener. The hay he cut with a scythe smelt of clover.
She trained as a nurse, and married Alan, a businessman in 1960. They went on to live in Headbourne Worthy House, a big house in a village, near Winchester, with 17 acres. Her first proper garden. She planted around 100 trees. It was here where Judith came up with the idea of setting up a care home. Her elderly mother and mother-in-law had moved in and Judith, with her nursing background, looked after them. Today, The Dower House, a nursing home, near Winchester has 43 residents, and a five-and-a half-acre garden. “If someone likes pink, Judith will put pink tulips in a pot, outside their front door,” says Jessica. “She's very invested in people's care.”
Jessica grew up, the oldest of five, on the edge of a bluebell wood in Cambridgeshire. Her mother was artistic; her stepfather, an aboriculturalist and gardener. In 2014, after graduating from Bath Spa University, where she studied textile design, she saw herself as a stylist or a visual merchandiser. She earned a living as a sales assistant, lived in a small flat in the city centre and longed for a garden. As a child she'd dug for worms with her grandfather. She got an allotment and grew flowers. She found the textures, colours, scent, patterns, intoxicating. “It fulfilled me like nothing else.” In 2016, she trained in a private organic kitchen garden in Gloucestershire. She works there one day a week; three days for Judith.
There are disagreements. Judith favours extreme pruning. Jessica likes things more natural. When she arranges sweet peas in a vase, she includes the twisty tendrils. But they've learned from each other. “Judith has pushed me to be more experimental. To see what happens when you prune hard,” says Jessica. And occasionally, Judith will lay down her secateurs. Jessica points to the giant seed heads of a huge mophead hydrangea, in the garden, typically cut back in winter, and now a home for lots of ladybirds. “I've won here,” she exclaims with a laugh. “Jessica has training and knowledge and I respect her for that,” says Judith. “If she says, ‘I don't think that's right’, she's usually right.”
Interview by Sally Williams.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.