Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Here’s the story behind the love that built Victoria’s Abkhazi Garden

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Garden lovers, plant enthusiasts, and history buffs, have you been to Abkhazi Garden?

It’s a charming estate host to not only a garden, but an exquisite heritage home that has been transformed into a teahouse — it’s open to the public year round. 

Known as ‘the garden that love built,’ it can be found along Fairfield Road in Victoria and you may have passed by without truly knowing about this hidden gem.

Stretching out at just under an acre, this textural landscape has a mix of water features, rock, moss, and a variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. 

Abkhazi Garden
(Abkhazi Garden / Facebook)

Victoria Buzz had the opportunity to speak with Cherie Miltimore, Site Manager and Volunteer Coordinator at Abkhazi Garden.

We spoke about the history of the space and its many transformations throughout the years — especially how it came to be and how it was nearly lost to developers in 1999-2000.

She said it was initially purchased in 1946 by Peggy Pemberton-Carter and developed by both herself and her long-time friend and new husband, Prince Nicholas Abkhazi of Georgia after they both endured their separate prison camps during World War 2.

“The garden is known as ‘the garden that love built,’ but it’s also a garden of peace and healing,” Miltimore said.

Peggy was born in Shanghai to British parents and later adopted by a wealthy British family in her early life, and Prince Nicholas was born in Georgia as the last surviving son from an ancient line of kings. 

They lived their separate lives until fate would bring them together in the 1920s when they met each other in Paris. 

Peggy was studying the arts while Nicholas was studying law and economics and had moved to Paris as a refugee after escaping Georgia — where his father had been captured and killed. 

They became immediate friends and would keep in touch via letters and saw each other a few times over the years. 

However, not long after Nicholas joined the French army, he was captured and sent to a prison camp. Similarly, Peggy had moved back to Shanghai thinking she would be safe during the war and was instead held captive in an internment camp.

They would each spend several years in captivity — losing touch and uncertain of each other’s safety and well-being.

(Peggy’s armband / Still from documentary, Abkhazi Garden: Sanctuary from War)

When Peggy got out of the camp in 1945, she came to Canada to be with some friends she had met pre-war in Shanghai and would later publish a book called A Curious Cage, using notes from a diary she secretly kept, detailing her time in camp.

It was here in Victoria that she bought the property for $1,850 in March 1946, which at the time, was less than the cost of the house.

“It was the way property values were [back then]…it was a corner lot and there was a lot of rock on it, so I don’t think it was popular at that time as a property,” Miltimore said.

She also noted that for Peggy, who had experienced a lot of upheaval, the rock gave her a sense of permanence and provided inspiration to take this property and create something from the natural landscape. 

Earlier in the year, in January, Peggy had received a letter from Nicholas that was initially sent to her last known address in Shanghai — somehow, through the Red Cross, it made its way to Canada. 

He informed her that he would be moving to New York and asked Peggy to meet him there. 

“So, that was her big decision,” Miltimore said.

“Should she go to New York and meet him or not?”

Ultimately, she did decide to meet him in New York, and soon after she arrived, they were engaged on top of the Empire State Building and set course for Canada where they would marry and spend the rest of their lives together.

Abkhazi Garden
(Peggy and Nicholas / Abkhazi Garden, Facebook)

When you visit Abkhazi Garden, you’ll be handed a brochure detailing the different types of wildlife that have frequented the gardens as well as the variety of plants you will spot depending on the time of year you visit. 

There is also a map detailing the loop and location of both the teahouse and the summer room.

It was important to Peggy that both structures, the summer room and the teahouse, were built to blend in with the provided foundation to give the home an ‘undisturbed’ feel to the natural flow.

It is meant to make you feel enveloped in nature, with many narrow passageways through woven trees and plants and plenty of places to rest and reflect. 

As described in the documentary, Abkhazi Garden: Sanctuary from War, it is the only connection we have to Georgia and is recognized by the Ambassador of Georgia.

Miltimore said that it was almost lost after Peggy and Nicholas passed away — it had become too much work to maintain the gardens and they were at a loss. 

Developers had purchased the land and were planning on constructing an apartment building in its place. 

Caroline Duncan, an old neighbour, started a petition to save the gardens and purchase it from the developers and keep this unique part of Victoria’s history.

“The power of community…the Land Conservancy and [the community] were able to buy it in the year 2000,” Miltimore said.

Ever since, it has become a local staple and is nearly-entirely volunteer run with over 60 volunteers. 

If this is something that interests you, they are always looking for volunteers (though, due to popular demand, you may be placed on a waitlist). You can learn more about that here

Abkhazi Garden

  • Where: 1964 Fairfield Road
  • When:
    • April 1st to August 31st — 7 days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
    • September 1st to March 31st — Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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