People come to visit the Milner home at Qualicum Beach because they want to see the house and woodland garden, which has been named one of the 10 best public gardens in Canada by Canadian Geographic Travel.
But they also come to the 28-hectare estate to savour a little royal history.
Built in 1931, the home has an emerald lawn that rolls down to a beach facing Georgia Strait. It has rolled out the red carpet for several royals, including the Queen, Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Most of the property is a wilderness of Douglas fir forest, but four hectares have been tamed into gardens that, depending on the season, are a riot of flowering rhododendrons, trilliums, roses and more.
The home was originally built for the sister and mother of General Noel Money, whose family owned tea plantations in Ceylon, but the property was bought in 1937 by New Brunswick-born lawyer Horatio “Ray” Milner, a renowned philanthropist and businessman.
“He wanted a getaway, a summer cabin, and the footprint was smaller then,” said Geoff Ball, the estate’s executive director and horticulturist, who lives on the site.
Milner and his first wife created a garden, but after she died in 1952, he married a woman who transformed the landscape into what it is today.
An enthusiastic artist and gardener, Veronica Milner was also a British aristocrat — the widow of Desmond Fitzgerald, 28th Knight of Glin, County Limerick, Ireland, and a descendent of the First Duke of Marlborough, which meant she was related to Diana, Princess of Wales.
Diana and Charles visited the garden during the celebrations for Expo ’86, and the Queen and Prince Philip also stayed at “Long Distance” for three days the following year. (Veronica gave it that name because it was so far from her old home, and because telephone calls for her husband were almost always long distance.)
The home was designed along the lines of a Ceylonese tea plantation house and expanded over the years, with a new garage and studio space added in 1968. It looks cottagey but is actually a sprawling 6,500 square feet and originally had seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms (including servants’ quarters upstairs), with each main bedroom’s ensuite opening onto the garden.
“This was a nod to the Celanese tea plantation, where this was done so servants could come in and tend to the baths without bothering anyone,” said Ball. Every bedroom has a walk-in closet, too, with built-in drawers, and all the windows have pull-down screens.
Some of the bedrooms have been converted for other uses now — including washrooms and tea and meeting rooms — but Ball said the goal has always been to keep the original feeling of the home.
Over the years, other famous people have visited the estate — including Winston Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames — as well as members of international garden societies. The property regularly hosts special events, weddings and school groups — children from kindergarten to Grade 7 come to learn about inhabitants of the forest, gaining greater understanding of ecology and the natural world.
University students also study here, as the estate now belongs to Vancouver Island University, which acquired it in 1996. Veronica donated a large portion of its value and an anonymous donor helped with the rest. “It wouldn’t have happened without the donor, the guardian angel who covered some of the back taxes,” said Ball, who noted Veronica retained tenancy rights until her death in 1998. Three years later, it was opened to the public.
In those early days, Ball said, world-renowned botanist Roy Taylor was an “invaluable” help, offering advice and assistance to staff and volunteers, guiding the estate’s focus.
Taylor, who retired to the area, was one of the top garden directors in the world, serving as director of UBC’s Botanical Gardens and executive director of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Today, Milner Gardens and Woodland is run by 15 staff and about 225 volunteers.
Ball said about 25,000 visitors every year come to enjoy the history, setting, teas and special events. The estate has one of the best Christmas light shows in the mid-Island, he said, adding children love its fairy house event held every summer, where they can run around discovering little houses in the woods.
“Veronica believed in fairies and said she had seen the little people in Ireland. She felt this place was quite magical,” said Ball, who noted she was a very interesting character with two distinct sides to her nature. “She could be fascinating and charming, and she could also be a tyrant.”
Veronica was not only fond of oil painting and creating pastel botanicals, she was also a serious gardener, a member of the VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver, the University of Alberta’s Devonian Botanical Garden, the Royal Horticultural Society and a Fellow of the Garden Conservancy.
She was also a member of the International Dendrology Society, which promotes the study and conservation of woody plants and shrubs, and she collected many of the trees and shrubs at the estate while on business trips abroad with her husband.
Ball said visitors to the garden often speak of the property as an oasis, an island of magic, “and I felt it myself, too, 20 years ago when I first drove down the drive. I was in awe of this gem. I’d been told how beautiful it was, but you can’t quite imagine it till you come here.
“It’s not the same beauty of the big showy gardens such as Butchart Gardens, which other guys do very well. This is a completely different style and it hits you at a deep level. It has a raw beauty, something mystical and tranquil. It’s a garden for peaceful walking and gentle reflection, a place where you breathe deeply and feel you have escaped the world.
“There are no fireworks here,” he said with a chuckle.
Veronica’s style was neither formal nor patterned.
She embraced the style of Irish expert William Robinson, a champion of wild gardening and planting things in drifts, who encouraged the honest simplicity that led to the English country garden approach.
“She always allowed space for plants to fill out, to flow and naturalize and intermingle. Some of her rhodos are now 35 feet high,” Ball said.
A non-profit society supports the garden with fundraising through ticket sales, teas, memberships, gift shop sales and events, and he said the university benefits through experiential learning and horticultural courses for students.
“It is a living lab for us.”
Details of hours and openings at www2.viu.ca/milnergardens/