The Blog

How a British Gardener Gave Me Goosebumps in Sweden

How often have you truly felt - in your mind at least if not physically - the sensation of "goosebumps"...the slightly scary reaction to cold, fear or excitement? It's quite rare.

When the great Austrian ski champion Franz Klammer watched his sensational Olympic downhill run filmed during the 1976 Innsbruck Games 20 years later in Telluride, Colorado, I asked him how he felt seeing it again. "It gave me goosebumps" he said.

A few days ago I was on the receiving end. I had just enjoyed a magical tour of one of Sweden's most famous and picturesque baroque castles, Läckö Slott, right on the shores of Lake Vänern, the country's largest, in Western Sweden. We were then invited to meet the castle's celebrated but modest British landscape gardener, Simon Irvine and his delightful curly-haired retriever, Olle.

Irvine, also an author, had moved to Sweden in 1990 to live with Marika, an intern he employed while running the gardens at Sydenham House, a 17th century manor house in Devon. She became his second wife and the mother of his youngest two children while he took over running the gardens at Läckö Slott. Having chatted away happily with him and taking notes about his gardening skills during a quarter of a century at the castle, I asked him to spell his name. "Ah" I said, when he told me. "You spell it just like Andrew Irvine, the young climber who disappeared on Everest with George Mallory in June, 1924."

"Yes" he said. "He was my uncle." Cue goosebumps!

Why? Partly because in 1989 I had dedicated my first ski book to Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, thus:

"When I am an old man, I will look back on Christmas 1923 as the day when, to all intents and purposes, I was born. I don't think anyone has lived until they have been on ski".

ANDREW IRVINE, Disappeared on Everest, 1924.

But also because, like many, many others, I had always been haunted by the almost mythical quality of the story.

Not that Simon had ever met his famous uncle, who was 22 when he and Mallory died in an attempt on the summit which became shrouded in mystery in more than one sense when they were spotted on the north-east ridge heading for the peak during a break in thick cloud. And never seen again until Mallory's body was found in 1999. Irvine's body has yet to be found. No one knows for certain whether they made it to the top. Andrew's brother Alexander (Alec) - Simon's father - was not born until 1911, and Simon himself wasn't born until 1952.

He told me: "As you've said, I never met him. However I think it is fair to say that he was "always there". My father, who was 13 when Sandy died, didn't say so very much about him, but we all knew that he was his favourite brother and that Sandy was synonymous with adventure. Father told us how he used to ride off-piste in Snowdonia in the sidecar of Sandy's motorbike, how Sandy used to stand him on a pile of bricks and "blow him up" with gunpowder, although the gunpowder angle has never been confirmed.

"They seem to have been a fairly wild bunch. My cousin, Julie Summers has written about the family in a book called 'Fearless on Everest'

"I had hoped that when they found Mallory they would also find Sandy and that it would be in my father's lifetime. But it was not to be. It would be nice to know if they actually made it to the top. They would, of course have been the first, preceding Hillary and Tensing's historic climb in 1953 by more than 30 years."

Mallory had always promised that if he got to the top he would leave a photograph of his wife there. "The fact that Mallory did not have the photograph of his wife in his pocket when he was found would suggest that he had left it at the top as promised" says Simon. "That camera is the only possible source of proof and it would be wonderful if they found Sandy and if the camera contained pictures of them at the top. But those whose loss was greatest will never know."

Läckö Slott castle offers 40-minute guided tours (including a tour of Simon Irvine's garden) from May to September. (+46 510 48 46 60,

For accommodation, Bjertorp Manor, Sweden's "youngest" art nouveau "castle" is just an hour away. One night's stay costs from £69 pp (two sharing), including breakfast. (+46 512 300 500, Return flights from London Gatwick to Gothenburg with Norwegian Air costs from £48 pp.