I’m gradually discovering what a beautiful and interesting county Somerset is. I visit regularly to see my niece and her family (with whom I’m in a bubble) and it’s been a joy exploring with them some nature reserves and gardens over the last couple of years. During my last visit a week ago we fitted in trips to a magnificent bluebell wood and a garden with a special place in twentieth century garden history.
The wood, to the east of Taunton, is managed by the RSPB. On the morning of our visit the sun had emerged after a heavy shower, the weather this month being more characteristic of April than May. The scarp walk we followed was aptly named, taking us up steep slopes, with steps built in in a couple of places. Bluebells flourished beneath the broadleaved woods, the blue haze interrupted here and there with other wildflowers.
East Lambrook Manor Gardens was created by Margery Fish and her husband Walter in the 1930s and is an exquisitely planted showcase for the English cottage garden style which she championed in her garden writing. Narrow stone-paved paths wind through the various rooms of the garden, allowing you to admire the treasures planted throughout. The immediate impression is of informality, until you reach the avenue of tightly clipped egg shaped evergreens. Thinking at first they were yew, closer inspection showed they were in fact conifers and I have since read on the website that they are Chamacyparis lawsonia fletcheri, raised from cuttings of the original ‘Pudding Trees’ planted by Margery Fish.
Tempting as it is to keep looking downwards at the wealth of herbaceous perennials in the garden, there are several trees to admire which would look well in small and medium sized gardens. For example, Cornus florida which I fell in love with in Kew Gardens many years ago, distinctive for its large white bracts in April and May. Another favourite. of which there is a sprawling specimen in Kew’s Mediterranean Garden, is the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastris). East Lambrook’s specimens are far daintier.
Many of the interesting plants in this plant lover’s garden are sold in the plant centre. Just beyond the stands of plants for sale is a raised bed built from what looks like the hamstone which features in much of the architecture of south Somerset. This showcases specimens of a couple of dozen geraniums, all clearly labelled, a perfect way to compare colours and leaf shapes, scale and habit. This display is just one example of the way in which this garden inspires the keen gardener: so too do the absence of lawns, the myriad of herbaceous perennials, the planting combinations.
On this occasion I shall let the photographs demonstrate the beauty of this peaceful garden. What they cannot convey is the soundtrack of birdsong and the clip clop of horses’ hooves along the village street just beyond the walls of the garden. As soon as I got home I ordered Margery Fish’s We Made a Garden to learn more about the genesis of a very special place.
National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!
My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.
Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.
The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.
Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.
Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.
Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.
Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!
In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.
Born two decades apart, Harry Walker and Graham Stuart Thomas shared a passion for the flowering plant voted in a 2017 poll as the nation’s favourite, the rose. My quest to find out a little more about these horticultural heroes began a few months ago, between lockdowns, when a friend invited me to tea to see a collection of material about her maternal grandfather.
Henry James Walker, known as Harry Walker, (1888 – 1960) was a professional rose grower whose business, Wiltshire Roses, was located in the Gloucestershire village of Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester. As well as a feature in The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard dating from April 1954, the documents I was shown included immaculately preserved nursery catalogues dating from the 1940s and 1950s as well as National Rose Society publications.
Born in Borneo, Harry Walker arrived in England in 1901 and at the age of 14 he went to work for a nursery in Cirencester, where he learnt the art of rose propagation. In 1931 he established his nursery on a two acre site known as The Rose Gardens. There Wiltshire Roses produced approximately 5000 roses a year, each one ‘budded’ by hand. This grafting process involves a bud from the variety to be propagated being inserted beneath the skin of the rootstock, usually Rosa canina, before being bound tightly to the parent with raffia. After a year’s growth, the resultant plants were ready for sale. In those pre-online days, many of the roses were posted to mail order customers, damp moss being wrapped around the roots before packing.
Mr Walker’s catalogues list rose varieties now sadly forgotten, their pre-decimal prices betraying their vintage, each succinct description conjuring an image of a gorgeous bloom. Who could fail to be tempted by Rosa ‘Grandmere Jermy’ (pale gold edged with rose: 5 shillings) or R. ‘Hector Dean’: (carmine and salmon pink, yellow at base of petal, fragrant: 4 shillings). But some, such as R. ‘Ophelia (flesh pink) and R. ‘Peace (yellow shaded pink at edge, a fine rose, large, vigorous) remain popular.
Interestingly, the climbing roses and ramblers seem less affected by the vagaries of fashion. Here I noted some of the classics, among them R. ‘Gloire de Dijon (buff yellow, rich scent), R. Mermaid’ (creamy yellow large single flowers, almost perpetual) and R. ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (clusters of beautiful pink flowers).
By the time the newspaper article I mentioned was published, Mr Walker had been cultivating roses for more than 51 years and naturally had some advice to impart. He recommended the replacement of the top layer of soil beneath roses affected by black spot, after careful removal of affected leaves. Whilst he favoured clay soil as the best for rose growing, because of its moisture retaining qualities, the soil at his nursery was light and gravelly to which he applied ‘plenty of manure’. As well as growing roses at The Rose Gardens, Mr Walker was in demand to prune other people’s roses, describing pruning as ‘the surgical art of gardening’.
At a time when the special relationship between the UK and US is as important as ever, and we avidly follow the news from across the Atlantic, I am reminded when studying the Wiltshire Roses catalogues that it was ever thus and the roses listed include several with American names and associations:
R. ‘New Yorker’: large velvety scarlet
R. ‘President Hoover’: coppery orange blended gold and red, tall
R. ‘General MacArthur’: crimson
R. American Pillar’: pink with white eye. This rambling rose remains popular today and is listed on David Austin’s website.
Flowers and gardening styles, like clothing and interior decor, are subject to shifting trends. Rose gardens were in their heyday in the mid C20. Most gardens, small and large, contained at least one or two beds devoted to roses, often with nothing planted beneath. Somewhat featureless from October to March, such beds would burst into colourful life in the summer. At Meadowsweet, my parents’ first home, roses grew in a bed beside the back door and later a similar display was created in the garden of the house where I grew up. The bed was beside the garage and was edged with Polyanthus. It was a feature of the garden I came to know intimately, especially a thorny single flowered apricot rose bush into which I toppled several times whilst learning to ride a bike. When they retired to Petersfield in 1986, my parents planted roses in the south facing raised beds at the front of the house.
I was pleased to see that one of the two named varieties I remember, R. ‘Ena Harkness’ (bright crimson scarlet, excellent habit and growth) was listed in the Wiltshire Roses catalogue. This was my mother’s favourite rose and she loved to pick one or two flowers late into the autumn, to display and admire in a glass vase. The other rose I remember was R. ‘Uncle Walter’, named for Walter Gabriel, a character in The Archers. I cannot imagine a rose being named after one of the current cast of characters in this everyday story of farming folk (or ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ as the Archers website now styles it!). Somehow theEddie Grundy rose doesn’t have the same nostalgic ring to it.
Whilst the idea of writing a blog post about my friend’s rose-growing grandfather was marinating in my mind, the name of the second plantsman in my introduction kept cropping up in my reading. In The Garden Notebook*, Beth Chatto refers to Graham Stuart Thomas (1909 – 2003) as a great friend and correspondent. In the October 2020 edition of The Garden I read that he helped revive the gardens at the Indian inspired stately home Sezincote after the Second World War. I also knew him as the donor to Mottisfont of his collection of pre-1900 ‘old roses’, now the National Collection, for which he designed the area within the walled garden, blending roses with herbaceous perennials. Reaching their peak in early summer, the roses had long finished flowering when I visited Mottisfont this July, but the structure of the garden was impressive and whilst the roses had gone over, the clematis were thriving.
To prepare for this article I bought a copy of Thomas’s ‘Shrub Roses of Today’, first published in 1962, one of a trilogy of classic books on roses, the others being ‘Old Shrub Roses’ and ‘Climbing Roses Old and New’. In his introduction, Graham Thomas notes how shrub roses and ramblers ‘act as a foil and complement in shape and form to the brilliant moderns’. So while Harry Taylor was propagating the ‘brilliant moderns’, Graham Thomas was engaged in collecting and documenting the species roses and their hybrids which have become known collectively as ‘old roses’. I was struck in the introduction by a reference to ‘the Hitler war’. In this week of remembrance for the members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty it is sobering to consider that like many of their contemporaries, Harry Walker and Graham Thomas lived through two world wars.
As well as collecting roses and writing about them, Graham Thomas was a gifted artist and the book is illustrated with his own colour and monochrome pictures. Having recently contributed copy for an article in the December edition of ‘Garden Answers‘ magazine about how to decorate with hips and haws (pp28-30) I was happy to see that one of the colour plates in his book features ‘Fruits of roses’. This includes the distinctive urn shaped hips (or ‘heps’ as he calls them) of R. moyesii ‘Geranium’.
Like Harry Walker, early in his career Graham Thomas was a nurseryman, culminating in his becoming a partner at Sunningdale Nurseries, where he remained a director until 1971. In 1955 he became the gardens advisor to the National Trust, having advised upon the gardens at Hidcote Manor when it passed to the Trust in 1948. He was the recipient of many honours and awards including an OBE for his work with the National Trust and in 1983 David Austin named ‘an unusually rich, pure yellow’ English shrub rose R. ‘Graham Thomas’.
Before this current lockdown I completed the renovation pruning of the very vigorous climbing rose R. Madame Alfred Carrière (creamy white blooms tinged with pink**) in a client’s garden. It was a major task involving three visits to tame and train it. What fun it would have been fun to have consulted with Messrs Walker and Thomas on the project. I hope that they would have approved of my work to give this beautiful rose a new lease of life.
The days are shortening and an autumnal chill descends when the sun goes down, but September remains a time of new beginnings, new opportunities. It’s the beginning of a new academic year, the first day of term. And in the garden it’s arguably the start of the gardening year when you plant bulbs and biennials in preparation for a well-stocked flower garden next year and salad leaves and herbs for a spring harvest. Both elements coincided for me on 7 September. I was staying in South Somerset with my niece and her young family. I usually drive home from these precious weekends on Sunday but this time I stayed until Monday to see my middle great nephew on his first day at school and, on the way home, to visit a very special market garden 12 mile away.
Posing with his big brother for photographs, this usually mischievous small person looked very smart in his school uniform and very happy to finally join his brother at school. Subsequent reports confirm he has taken this major life change entirely in his stride. Early that afternoon I headed for the village of Alhampton, near Castle Cary, and Homeacres, the garden where Charles Dowding grows vegetables by pursuing his famous No Dig method.
I joined four garden writers* and photographers for a tour of the garden and introduction to the No Dig system. We were warmly welcomed by Charles and his business partner Stephanie Hafferty, herself a gardener, a writer AND cook. The productive part of Homeacres is surprisingly compact- a quarter of an acre with every inch utilised, long beds stretching away from the house, closely planted with crops, red frisée leaves contrasting with another chicory, this a vivid green.
The overall effect is of order, tidiness and plenty. Charles explained that by removing the lower leaves of, for example, Kale he discourages slugs and neaten its appearance. The fiery coloured flowers edging the beds as companion planting to attract pollinators and deflect less welcome insects throw the subtler greens, dark reds and purples of the beds into sharp relief. I saw orange marigolds, magenta flowering flax (Linum grandiflora), bright pink zinnias and now finished, but still displaying its double decker seedheads, bergamot (Monarda didyma). Charles tells us that a lemon sunflower (Helianthus annua) is grown for picking for the house.
Underlying this vision of plenty are years of layers of mulch atop a long dissolved away layer of cardboard. When he established Homeacres in 2004, Charles suppressed perennial weeds like couch grass and bindweed with cardboard before applying a deep (7 to 15cm) of organic matter: well-rotted manure, garden compost and municipal compost. He then planted into the compost. Now 3 to 5 cm of mulch is added to every bed in early winter.
I heard Charles Dowding speak at a KMIS (Kew Mutual Improvement Society) lecture a few years ago and was struck then by his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He extols its simplicity: no effortful double digging when establishing a new vegetable plot and reduced weeding. But the principal benefit is its protection of the soil. Digging, whether manually or by rotavation, damages the mycorrhizal fungi so essential for establishing a healthy relationship between plant and soil. It is no coincidence that one of the chapters, or lessons, in Charles’s new book ‘No Dig Gardening: From Weeds to Vegetables quickly and easily’ is devoted to understanding soil and throughout the book he emphasises the importance of maintaining the integrity of the soil structure and encouraging its helpful micro-organisms to thrive.
The proof of the No Dig effect is demonstrated in two raised beds near the house, established 13 years ago. The right-hand bed was prepared and is maintained using traditional cultivation methods, that on the left is No Dig. Both beds are planted with the same crops in the same positions. In 11 years out of 13, the No Dig bed has produced a higher yield. The 1.5m x 5m beds in the garden produce 70kg of vegetables and Homeacres supplies salad leaves to shops and restaurants in the nearby town of Bruton.
The engine room for these abundant harvests is the long wooden roofed compost complex at the heart of the garden. Several compost bays fronted by removable slatted panels contain green waste from the garden (including the kale leaves mentioned above) as well as the municipal waste which is kept to ferment for a further 4 to 6 months before use). Compost thermometers can be seen inserted between the slats with the temperatures recorded and dates of turning carefully noted on the adjoining wooden pillars. On the day of my visit (cool and rainy) one bay registered a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit despite its contents of green waste and carbon materials having been deposited only the day before. That new bay will be full of a rich, fertile compost 6 to 12 months from now. Knowing that the compost will reach very high temperatures during the rotting down process, Charles has no qualms about including blighted tomatoes and bindweed in the green element of the compost content.
A polytunnel installed by First Tunnels contains ranks of expertly cordoned tomatoes, lower leaves removed to both improve appearance and encourage the plants to photosynthesise at their apexes. On 10 August each year, the tops of the tomatoes are pinched off and now watering is being reduced to encourage ripening. The tomato beds are underplanted with French marigolds (Tagetespatula) and the side beds of the polytunnel are full of various types of basil.
In one corner of the polytunnel Charles showed us a fine watermelon vine and we were invited to taste a slice of ripe white-fleshed melon which was both fragrant and very juicy. We had already sampled a sweetly sharp baby plum tomato, a variety called Rosada, which because it is no longer available from seed merchants, Charles propagates from cuttings. We also experienced a couple of other unfamiliar flavours. As we progressed around the garden, we tasted a raw Edamame bean and the shield shaped leaf of buckler or French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). One of our party commented that this tasted like salt and vinegar crisps. And the tasting didn’t end there, as we were sent home with a generous bag of No Dig salad leaves- crunchy frisée and tender oak-leaved lettuce included.
Charles’s latest book (see above) is based on the first of his two online courses and explains the time-saving simplicity of the No Dig system. There is a quiz at the end of each chapter with answers at the back of the book. The book covers planning the layout of a vegetable plot, creating and maintaining paths and making compost. There is also a chapter devoted to identifying weeds with excellent photographs.
I drove away from Homeacres wishing that I was higher up the waiting list for a local allotment (I’m 3 years into a 5 year wait!) but determined that when the time comes I shall employ the No Dig method. In the meantime my keen gardener niece is keen to start a new vegetable plot to add to the existing two plots in her garden and I have already tasked her with saving cardboard to start it off.
I’ve heard people say that during this lockdown time seems to have been passing unusually quickly. I didn’t work for the first three weeks. Every morning the day stretched ahead with limitless opportunities: to learn a language, watch a play, visit a museum. Every night I went to bed feeling I’d achieved very little. Despite that each week sped by and before I knew it I was in the queue for the supermarket again, bracing myself for the weekly shop. Since mid April I’ve been able to work in clients’s gardens (thanks to side entrances and social distancing). Far from time weighing heavily upon me, the past three months have flashed by in a blur of news bulletins, Zoom calls, weeding and watering. Perhaps anxiety contributes to the sensation of time passing faster than normal?
It seems appropriate that while time, like everything else, has developed a new normality, I read a book one of the central themes of which is the nature of time itself. The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift is a beautifully written account of the creation since 1988 of a garden in Shropshire.
But it is far from just the story of the making of a very special garden. It can also be read as a meditation on time itself. The book is structured around the monastic Hours of the Divine Office: Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Before settling in Morville, the author worked as a rare book librarian, latterly at Trinity College in Dublin. Even the book’s cover design, depicting a symmetrically designed canal garden under a clear blue sky, emulates the richly illuminated Books of Hours containing the prayers and psalms to be recited in each of the eight ‘Hours’. In the vivid pages of one of the most famous Books of Hours, ‘Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry’, the months of the year are represented by images of a magnificent chateau whose noble inhabitants hunt and party, whilst in the surrounding gardens and fields serfs plough, prune, sow, mow and harvest.
Similarly, Katherine Swift charts the progression of the garden and the surrounding countryside through the seasons. She describes winter nights when a fox leaves dainty paw prints in virgin snow in a yew hedged area of the garden, spring days when may blossom breaks over the hedgerows resembling ‘long rolling waves peaking and cresting like the foam of Atlantic breakers’. In one memorable scene she works into the night in sub-zero temperatures, frost fringing her coat, to plant hundreds of tulip bulbs.
In hearing the story of the garden, we also learn something of the author’s life story and that of her parents. How, in finding Morville, she finally put down roots, her childhood having been punctuated by moves from one end of the country to the other. The families who once lived in Morville House (now a National Trust property) and in Katherine Swift’s Dower House also weave through the pages of the book. Here too is a larger history: the formation of the landscape, the geology of nearby Wenlock Edge, the early inhabitants of the county of Shropshire.
When I examined the map of Shropshire at the beginning of the book I noticed that Morville lies about ten miles north of the tiny hamlet of Neen Sollars to which my paternal grandparents moved in the late 1950s from a suburb south of Birmingham, via a brief spell in Essex. Old Forge Cottage was two stone cottages joined together and had two staircases, one at either end of the house. As a child I was fascinated by the quirky layout, the brass warming pans on the walls, the high feather mattressed beds. Between Neen Sollars and Morville lie the Clee Hills, which are mentioned frequently in the book.
Katherine Swift gently educates the reader about numerous subjects, but is never didactic. Here are enough ‘ologies’ to please Beattie in those old BT adverts: archaeology, meteorology, ornithology, mythology. As well as horticulture and agriculture we are introduced to apiculture. Botany rubs shoulders with poetry. This is a book rich in details and imagery. How better to describe an early spring dawn than: ‘Slowly the garden begins to emerge, like a photograph lifted dripping from the developing tray’. Rich too is the vocabulary. We are introduced to ‘azimuth’ and ‘myrobalan’ , an arc of the horizon and a kind of plum respectively.
In one of his classes, Hector, the inspirational teacher of Alan Bennett’s ‘History Boys’, comments that ‘the best moments in reading are when you come across something- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met….And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours’. I experienced this sensation several times when reading this book, particularly when the author muses upon gardening: ‘That’s the other thing I really like about gardening: the silence. Not that silence out of doors is ever really silence. But absence of words, space for the thoughts to come. A silence that enables you to listen’.
In the final chapter, the author modestly sums up the book as a ‘jumble of fragments tossed together like the made-up ground of the garden, this blackbird’s nest of cobwebs and sheep’s wool, this day in a life, this life in a day’. But I would argue that this book is far more than that. Faced as we all are by doubt and uncertainty, never has it seemed so important to cherish the small things, to appreciate our surroundings, to be mindful. The Morville Hours reminds us to look, to live in the moment. The chapter called ‘Sext’ concerns the garden at Morville in June, when the wealth of roses are at their height, including Blush Noisette which I grow in my garden. I have never read so detailed or perceptive a description of the structure of a flower (here a rose) culminating in the wise observation that ‘no one can be a gardener without really looking’.
I was under not one but two deadlines when I finished this wonderful book which is as much about time as it is gardening. We were due to discuss the Morville Hours in book club that week and I also had to finish sewing a couple of pairs of scrubs for delivery to the local scrub hub. So I listened to, rather than read, the second half of the book. It was a mercifully unabridged version, read by the author herself . The book was literally read in the first person! I had to pause and rewind frequently to replay those passages where, to paraphrase Hector, a hand came out and took mine. This is definitely a book to which I shall return. And I’m already investigating whether a visit to Shropshire and the garden and landscape which inspired this book might be possible once we are able to plan trips further afield than the local garden centre.
In the spirit of stepping outside my comfort zone to do something I have not done before, I joined other volunteer gardeners at National Trust Osterley this summer to deliver guided tours of the gardens. Once, sometimes twice a week, two of us led a group of up to 15 visitors through gardens which reflect the history of the house, from its origins in Tudor times, through its elegant Robert Adam makeover in the eighteenth century to today’s innovations, pausing on the way to mention the garden’s role in the Second World War.
As the season changes and we plan to alter our itinerary to take in parts of the garden designed to look at their best in the winter and early spring, I invite you to join me in this post on a virtual early autumn walk through Osterley’s gardens. You start your tour at the rear of the house, at the top of the elegantly curving double staircase facing the park beyond the garden, which Henry James (a weekend guest at the house in the late nineteenth century) describes in the opening passages of his novella, ‘The Lesson of the Master’. The hero Paul Overt, a writer, stands in the same position and observes that the steps ‘descended from a great height in two arms, with a circular sweep of the most charming effect’. He also commented on ‘the expanse of beautiful brickwork that showed for pink rather than red and that had been kept clear of messy creepers by the law under which a woman with a rare complexion disdains a veil’. From this vantage point you can see a classic feature of an eighteenth century landscape garden: bucolic pastureland framed by specimen trees, the pasture grazed by the neighbouring tenant farmer’s Charollais cattle. Before the scene we see today was created, John Roque’s immensely detailed map of London of 1741 showed three avenues of trees radiating from both the front and back of the house. This device is known as a ‘patte d’oie’ or goosefoot. The avenues have long gone save for two oak trees which once formed part of one such avenue.
Trees feature throughout our tour. Let’s descend the steps and head to the shade of the Oriental Plane tree which was planted in 1755. One of my fellow guides describes this huge tree as a grand old lady resting on her elbows, a reference to the gnarled limbs which swoop down to the ground to shade the path to one side. Look up into the leaf canopy and spare a thought for we volunteer gardeners when over the next couple of months we shall sweep up and gather the leaves to deposit in the leaf pile on the boundary of the garden. In a couple of years time we shall use the ensuing leaf mould as a winter mulch to the beds and borders in the garden so as to maintain moisture and improve the texture of the soil.
Come with me now to ‘Dickie’s Border’, the symmetrically arranged three layered shrub border named after Dickie Denton, the last Head Gardener before the property was gifted to the National Trust in 1949. His nickname was ‘TickTock’ because he was tasked with winding the clock in the Stable Block each morning. In the middle layer of planting compare the red dimpled globular fruits of the Strawberry Trees (Arbutus unedo) with the developing catkins of the Silk Tassel Bushes (Garrya elliptica). A variegated form of Rhamnus alaternus is the third shrub at this level. Alternating Magnolia grandiflora and Loquat trees (Eriobotrya japonica) provide a dark evergreen backdrop, whilst at waist height you can see shrub roses, rosemary and the gold margined leaves of Daphne Odorata aureomarginata.
Our next stop is Mrs Child’s Flower Garden where you have a perfect view of Robert Adam’s recently restored white stucco decorated Garden House which stands at the heart of the ranks of curved flowerbeds planted for spring and summer interest. Here tall Verbascum tower candelabra-like over Salvia sclarea, Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), Centaurea Montana to name only a few of the intriguing plants to be found in these beds. The grounds here were used at the beginning of the Second World War for training the forerunners of the British Home Guard in guerrilla tactics and house to house fighting. Led by a left-wing writer, Tom Wintringham, they were described by MI5 as ‘the bunch of socialist revolutionaries at the end of the Piccadilly Line’ and soon afterwards the operation was closed down and the park used for food production as part of the war effort.
As we walk towards our next stop please take a look at the four beautiful and unusual trees near the brick wall: Foxglove trees, Pawlonia tomentosa, and do mind your head on their low-hanging seed cases which develop from the spires of bluish mauve bell-shaped flowers which the trees bear in April. Other trees to note here include weeping limes and a Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and nearest the path take a look at the unusually lobed leaves of the Sassafras albidum, whose roots flavour Root Beer, and which this week is glowing with a rainbow of autumn shades.
Let’s proceed to the Picking Garden, where the flowers are grown for the 65 floral arrangements which decorate the house each week. As well as several members of the Daisy family: Heleniums, Shasta daisies and Cosmos, you can also see a row of Pot Marigolds (Calendula). These are the symbol of Childs Bank, associated with the family which owned Osterley. The variety chosen this year is Calendula ‘Radio’. You can tell from its name that this is a modern cultivar. Whilst the species of plants in this part of the garden are era authentic and would have been available to an eighteenth century gardener, their cultivars tend to be more modern and are chosen for reliability and resilience to pests and diseases.
Now we move to the main section of the Tudor Walled Garden which is laid out into four large central beds. In the bed devoted to brassicas you can see the latest member of the garden team, Harry the Hawk, whose job it is to scare pigeons from the cabbages. The next two beds are planted potager style with both ornamental and edible plants and are designed to look at their best in late summer and early autumn. Dahlias feature strongly as do Cleome (the Spider Flower), gladioli and nicotiana. Chard and amaranthus provide the edible element of these beds and at the corners of the beds you can see pyramid shaped supports to which cling the deep purple morning glory, Ipomaea ‘Grandpa Ott’. In the centre of the beds look out for the tall Castor Oil plants, Ricinus communis, with their spiky pink flowers and large hand-shaped leaves. This plant played a key role in a tale of international espionage from 1978 when the Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov was murdered in London with an umbrella the tip of which contained a pellet of the deadly poison Ricin which is derived from this plant. The fourth bed is planted almost exclusively with vegetables and salads. At this late stage in the season the various beans have been harvested and their supports removed, but turnips and beetroot (both red and golden) abound as do aubergines and salad leaves.
Our virtual tour is almost over. I shall leave you at the far side of the walled garden, beside the Long Border and point out to you the enormous specimen of the climbing rose Rosa banksiae and ask you to imagine a curtain of pale yellow blooms in April: it is one of the earliest roses to flower. It is named for Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour, and on his return advised George III on the creation of a botanic garden at Kew. There is a local connection too, as Banks lived at Spring Grove House about half a mile to the south of Osterley. What remains of his house now forms part of West Thames College. Before we part, consider this: the Osterley site was once slated as a possible site for a national exhibition centre. Thankfully a site near Birmingham was chosen for the NEC enabling us to enjoy the gardens as they exist today. Thank you for joining me today and do come back on another occasion to see the American Border and the Winter Garden.
Volunteering in the gardens at Osterley House, the National Trust property a few miles from Heathrow Airport, is a special experience. Today was a day of autumn sun, long shadows and little wind. To see my Friday team colleagues clustered under a tree in the further reaches of Mrs Child’s flower garden, preparing an area for re-turfing, evoked a timeless scene. As I approached them from the work yard with a replenished barrow of soil, I might have been seeing Osterley gardeners from several centuries earlier. Silhouetted against the autumn sunshine, working with tools little changed over time, mattocks, shovels and landscape rakes, I had a strong sense of time suspended.
Today was devoted to lawn repair, with the morning occupied with removing ivy from a bed previously occupied by rhododendrons, where the stumps have recently been ground down. Having ripped the ivy stems from the soil, we raked level the area to be seeded, using wide wooden landscape rakes. We broadcast the grass seed generously across the plot and marked off the sowing area with rope, slung between shepherd’s crooks.
In the afternoon we moved into the sunny area mentioned above and created a neat rectangular plot where again roots and stumps had been ground out. We dug out the spent soil and sawdust to a depth of three or four inches and introduced more soil which we levelled in preparation for the turves. These had been dug from elsewhere in the garden some weeks ago and were stacked in the area occupied by the glasshouse, cold frames and nursery beds. After placing them carefully in a long low barrow, grass facing grass, we trundled the precious cargo around the Tudor Walled Garden to the denuded patch, where we placed the turves in a neat patchwork within the rectangle. The yellowing blades of grass in some of the turf pieces should green up satisfactorily, once exposed to the sunlight from which they have been shielded whilst in their temporary location.
At home in Kew the two pots of Ceratostigma willmottianum plunged into the blue glazed pots in the front garden, have transformed in the last several weeks from their intense blue flowered prime, into bonfire hued red and gold. I knew the species epithet ‘willmottianum‘ to refer to a horticultural personality whose name features in some species and common names, Ellen Willmott. Earlier this week, when reading about Miss Willmott’s early life, I discovered that she was brought up near Osterley in the area of north west Isleworth known as Spring Grove, and attended Gumley House School. So after leaving Osterley, I took a detour by bike to see the area where she lived before her wealthy solicitor father moved the family to Warley Place near Brentwood, Essex. Spring Grove is an area of substantial Victorian properties and the Willmott family home at 52 Spring Grove is described as a three storey double fronted suburban villa with its own coach house and private three quarter acre formal garden.
Wouldn’t it be intriguing to know if the protagonist of the ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’* legend visited the garden at Osterley House as a child and whether it contributed to her lifelong passion for plants and horticulture? What is likely is that she would have been taken to Kew Gardens given the proximity of what was once known as Spring Grove & Isleworth railway station (now Isleworth Station) on the Barnes to Feltham railway loop line, three stations from Kew Bridge Station.
*’Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ is Eryngium giganteum, a short lived perennial up to one metre tall with spiny silvery grey bracts, the seeds of which Miss Willmott is said to have surreptitiously scattered in gardens she visited.