Farewell Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. Australian National Treasure Dame Elisabeth has died at her beloved Cruden Farm home. She was 103. To gardeners, Dame Elisabeth was the creator of Cruden Farm, and a great supporter of Open Gardens Australia. Her lifelong philanthropy and charity work endeared her to all Australians.
I had the great privilege to meet Dame Elisabeth a few years ago. I was visiting Victoria with fellow horticulture journos Helen Young and Judy Horton and I asked friend (and now fellow GardenDrum blogger) Anne Latreille if she could get us in to see Cruden Farm. Anne, of course, is the author of Gardens of a Lifetime, the story of how Dame Elisabeth transformed Cruden Farm into the great garden it is today.
To my astonishment and excitement, the answer came back – yes, Dame Elisabeth is happy for you to see the garden, but she’d also like you to lunch with her! Talk about star struck. We were all so excited.
When we drove up that magnificent tree-lined driveway and parked the car it suddenly occurred to us we didn’t have any thank-you gift. We’d been at a cherry farm that morning and had bought the most delicious cherries we’d ever eaten – but being cheapskates, only the second quality ones. So there we were in the Cruden Farm carpark, divvying up the cherries and making a parcel of them to present to Dame Elisabeth. Wrapped in newspaper. So classy!
Anne gave us a fabulous tour around the gardens. What has stayed with me is that although Cruden Farm is a ‘grand’ garden, it is also a very intimate garden, and very much a reflection of its owner. Even then, at nearly 100 years old, Dame Elisabeth would tour the garden nearly every day, discussing with her long-time gardener what needed to be done.
And then it was time for lunch. “She eats very quickly” we were warned. Dame Elisabeth wanted to know all about us – who we wrote for, our interests in horticulture and so on. She preferred more formal address, so we were Mrs Stewart, Mrs Young and Mrs Horton, and we dutifully consumed our hot meal, delicious pudding and 2 small glasses of wine in record time. I was seated at her right and designated the wine pourer. At one point she picked up her empty glass, waved it at me and said “come along, Mrs Stewart!”
Dame Elisabeth was charming and friendly and made us feel important to her, which is one of the reasons she was so well respected and loved by all Australians. She made every minute of her long life count – a lesson from which we could all learn – and spent much of it in service to her community and her country.
And as we left, we spied her through the drawing room window, eating cherries straight out of the newspaper wrapping!