“One of my earliest memories is being told off by my mother for picking flowers in the garden,” says Cath Kidston. “I can vividly remember her saying, ‘Never do that again!’ I could touch them and smell them, but that was it. She kept several potted plants by the kitchen door, and they would always include her geraniums, so I’d often rub one of the leaves with my fingers to release its scent. And that’s really where my journey with geraniums began.”
It’s a cold rainy morning in late November and I am standing with Kidston in her Cotswold garden, or to be more specific, in the middle of her greenhouse. Made by Hartley Botanic, it is jam-packed with a whole array of scented geraniums covering every surface available. “I’ve lost count of how many there are in here,” she says. “I definitely need to get another greenhouse now.”
For Kidston, 64, this is the equivalent of being a child in a sweetshop. Her eyes light up; this is her happy place. Immediately, she invites me to start rubbing the geraniums’ leaves. Her passion for this most humble of plants – some might call it an obsession – is clear to see. “I’m sure lots of people already know that geraniums which, in a slightly snobbish way people call pelargoniums, come in many different fragrances. But it was this aspect of the plant which really intrigued me.”
The rain is now pelting down, but Kidston hasn’t noticed. “You must smell this mauve one. It’s called Lemon Fancy and it’s amazing.” She’s right. The lemon scent is incredible. “This is one of the rose geraniums,” she says, pointing to another. “This is a Tomentosum. It’s very minty, very woody.” I soon learn that others smell of cinnamon, cedar, ginger, strawberry, even Coca-Cola. “And then, there’s the Radens,” she beams. “It’s one of my favourites. It has a citrus, minty scent. It’s magical!”
So engrossed is Kidston in this world of geraniums that it’s easy to forget that, up until a few years ago, she was the designer behind one of Britain’s most successful brands. Every major high street seemed to have her name emblazoned across a shop filled with clothes and homeware in her trademark vintage florals and colourful polka dots. And it all began with one shop in London’s Notting Hill in 1993. Never did she dream it would turn into a retail empire with a turnover of £100 million.
“Looking back, I just thought I’d be doing well if I had one shop and made just enough money to pay my mortgage,” she laughs.
But in 2015, she made the decision to leave it all behind. Having sold her majority stake to private equity investors a few years earlier, she agreed to remain on the board as creative director, but her mind was already made up.
“The company’s growth, its expansion, its incredible success… it totally changed things for me,” she explains. “I love coming up with ideas, I love the creative side of things, but the business had turned into a corporation and I’m not a corporate person. I’d had the most extraordinary creative journey building it up from nothing, and I was very rewarded financially, but it was time to go.”
We have returned to the warmth of her large kitchen which has a huge open stone fireplace, and where her two dogs, Gracie, a Bedlington whippet, and Billie, a Sealyham terrier, are snoozing at the foot of the Aga. She and her husband Hugh Padgham, who is an award-winning record producer behind the likes of the Police, Genesis and Phil Collins, first saw this Gloucestershire house in 2012.
“It was in a copy of Country Life” she says. “At the time, we were only living a couple of valleys away from here, near Slad, but this house was so off the beaten track, we never knew about it.”
It was originally a 17th-century farmhouse, owned by a wool merchant, reflecting the area’s historic connection with the wool trade. The main part of the house was finished in the 18th century, and there were later additions in the 20th. There are eight bedrooms, several living rooms and extraordinary original fireplaces everywhere you look, but it was possibly the view from the house that clinched the deal.
“The property came with 15 acres, but the house is situated in a rather strange position,” she explains. “As you come down the drive, which is filled with copper beech, hazel and holly, there’s a raised orchard to your right and to your left, a sudden natural drop in the land, creating this incredible view.
“Above us is a place called Painswick Beacon which is an Iron Age fort, from where you can see right across to Wales and the Severn Bridge. It was a huge look-out post on the Cotswold Way between England and Wales.”
The drop itself is covered in snowdrops in the spring, she tells me, and leads down to Paradise Valley, so called because a 12th-century king – it’s still being debated which one – saw the view and called it “paradise”. There are steep steps leading to the bottom of the drop, where their land also includes a small wood and an Iron Age burial ground which, at this time of the year, is covered in the red copper leaves of much older beech trees. A stream runs beside it with several ponds. “This place has been inhabited for centuries,” Kidston points out. “It’s just wonderful.”
Kidston and her husband divide their time between the Cotswolds and their London house in Notting Hill. One of the other reasons for moving was that their last Cotswold garden required a lot of maintenance. “It was beautiful, with a classic, formal feel to it, but it required a lot of work to keep it looking like that,” says Kidston. “While I love to see things growing in the garden all year round, I’m not a good gardener.”
However, there were still plenty of things to do in the new garden. After she got a new greenhouse installed at the back, she then had a large terrace rebuilt at the side of the house to take in the views. Other projects included clearing away the wood’s thick undergrowth to encourage the return of more bluebells, aconites and other woodland flowers.
She also planted tulips and alliums in the long grasses of the orchard, which includes apple and plum trees, and verbena, fennel and erigeron in the smaller borders around the house. Beside the greenhouse, she then created beds for her favourite herbs and cut flowers. “Every year I grow cosmos, sweet peas and dahlias. I have a thing about wanting flowers in the house all year round, even more so than seeing them in the garden. I don’t feel the house is awake unless I have vases of flowers in it. My mother was the same, especially if we had visitors.”
Kidston was one of four children: an older sister and two younger brothers, one of whom sadly passed away six years ago. They grew up in the countryside in Hampshire, where, like their mother, they were never out of the garden.
A turning point in all their lives came when they were all still very young. Kidston’s father died of a brain tumour when he was only 50 years old. Kidston was 19. It was around then that the family moved to mid-Wales, to a house on the River Wye, where her brother and his family still live now. Looking back, she can see the positive power that any garden can have.
“When my father died, I think the garden helped my mother a great deal, even if it was just doing that most mundane of tasks – weeding. As any gardener knows, there’s always something that needs doing, something that needs nurturing, and I think my mother was drawn to that aspect of it. I think being closer to nature, whether it’s pottering around your garden or going for a walk in the countryside, can be very healing.”
Both her grandmothers were also passionate gardeners. On her father’s side, Nancy Sheffield became famous for the garden at her family home, Sutton Park in North Yorkshire, and Kidston and her siblings would often go up to see her.
On her mother’s side, her grandmother Isabel Atherley, who lived close to where they are now, provided the inspiration for the name of Kidston’s latest venture, C. Atherley. “She and her sister were the last of the Atherleys on our side of the family,” she explains. “I just thought this was a lovely way to remember them.”
Of course, a new company was the last thing on Kidston’s mind when she left her eponymous brand. It was the first time she had not worked since leaving school at 17, when she got a job at Bendicks in Chelsea, making up boxes of mint chocolates. She was looking forward to long lunches with friends and lazy afternoons strolling around art galleries, not to mention a few well-earned holidays. But she soon realised that having nothing to do wasn’t in her DNA. Then, lockdown happened and she increasingly found herself in the greenhouse accumulating more and more geraniums. This is when her hobby turned into something much bigger.
“I think I’ve got a slightly addictive personality and during lockdown my fascination with scented geraniums just grew and grew. One day, I can remember counting 250 of them.”
It was at that point that she began drawing them. “For me, drawing is a form of relaxation, so picking up a pen or pencil is the most natural thing in the world,” she says. She turned a building off the side of the house into an office and had already taken steps to set up a small print studio, called Joy of Print, back in London, when she hooked up with Denis and Lesley Aaronson, whom she had known for years and who own the luxury toiletries business Heathcote & Ivory.
“We just got chatting about what we were all up to and that’s when we thought how great it would be to work together again. By then I also had an idea for a new business using the scent of geraniums. They put me in touch with a master perfumer in Somerset and, suddenly, all these things started to fall into place.”
After two years of trying to perfect everything, she finally found the right fragrance. Using her favourite Radens geranium, she launched C. Atherley’s first fragrance, Geranium No. 1 earlier this year, with a collection of bath and body products scented with hints of lemon, mint and cedar. A candle has just come out in time for Christmas, and her first bar of soap is due next spring. In the meantime, she’s already got the scent for Geranium No. 2 and No. 3, and No. 4 is in her head.
Clearly, Kidston’s love affair with the seemingly unassuming geranium is far from over.
The Geranium No.1 collection by C. Atherley is available from c-atherley.com