La France profonde

November 25, 2021

Much may be made of a derelict farmyard

We left our farm in the Bourbonnais, the centre of France, sixteen years ago, having sold it to a Anglo-French couple who have since become good friends. Which means they keep us up to date with local news, and sometimes send us photos. We haven’t been back to visit for three years, so the latest batch have come as a wonderful surprise. Autumn colour was one theme in our planting – though the main thrust was more oak woods (with generous grants from the French government). The Auvergnat flora (we were on the fringe of the Auvergne) had little to offer in autumn. You might be lucky with a spindle going red, or a field maple a cheerful yellow, but bocage, the landscape of field and hedge and copse familiar in Normandy, is generally sombre. No fireworks.

So here and there on the farm where the mean gritty soil held enough clay or humus to retain a little moisture, I seized the chance to plant trees I couldn’t grow in England. American trees, in the main, that need acid soil and hope for hot summers and cold winters. The first candidates were the sugar and red maples that give the blaze to New England in the fall. Maples and oaks came first, with some larch (seldom seen in the Bourbonnais) and a few cryptomerias for evergreen contrast.

Twenty-five years later the scheme is working – indeed some of the trees need thinning. There is one little valley on the farm where five tracks meet at what I called the cricket ground; a calm flat green space where a dozen chaps in white flannels would look perfectly in place. Five substantial sugar maples are blazing there as I write. It is a shrine to something unstated (Botany? Diversity? America?). Elsewhere among the copses, the hedges, the sudden ridges and unreliable seasonal streams and ponds you come across a swamp cypress, a tulip tree, a Japanese maple or a scatter of yellow azaleas in their red autumn rig, all remnants of my absurd over-reaching, trying to garden the whole landscape.

It was the deer that put paid to it. They are almost as much of a problem in France as in parts of England, where the population is quite out of control. French law limited us to a cull of one or two a year (by kind permission of the préfet of the département). Their species, age and sex were specified, with a nasty amende if you thought a girl was a boy, or mistook senescence for puberty, or just shot too soon. Even the wild boar that laid waste to anything you prized, had a hunting season – and woe betide you confusing the calendar.

The most remarkable of the trees I planted in the 1990s is an Italian cypress by the front door, planted within a metre of the house, hence in a spot without moisture. It has grown in this time to 60 feet or even more, over twice the height of the house, retaining a perfect rocket shape as though it has been clipped. You can see it in the photo. An adder lives under the doorstep; could this be its secret? At least the deer stay away.

It’s high time, I reckon, that McDonald’s offered Bambiburgers. We eat too much beef; we have too many deer. QED.

What shall we call it?

November 21, 2021

It’s turning out to be a yellow autumn – and a slow motion one. I wandered about in Kensington Gardens for an hour yesterday and photographed a dozen different trees in almost uniform yellow. No wind to speak of for three weeks has let them simmer slowly. An American pin oak was a mottled dark red but the unanimity of the rest was compelling: from Norway maples (bright and fine) to horse chestnuts (dingy, but definitely yellow). The lime trees in formal lines, with half their leaves on the ground, made delicate patterns of greeny-yellow like Tiffany glass. Oaks, as always, are undecided: green, brown and yellow leaves in a quiet motley. Most planes are dull brown; a few properly yellow. The only true bullion is the occasional ginkgo.

There is a new stream in the gardens, a tentative trickle that is gradually growing to become a new tributary to the Long Water, the upper half of the Serpentine. It starts a little north of Queen Caroline’s temple, The odd tripartite shelter, under three domes – certainly not a temple – built by William Kent when Kensington Gardens were the pleasure grounds of the palace. At first all you see is a just a deep puddle in the grass. Watch the puddle, though, and you can see movement: the water is moving: a spring. It organises itself in a few yards to form a tiny stream, gaining volume, width and speed and reflecting more of the sky until it is an unmistakable rivulet. It will soon need a name.

The time for change

November 16, 2021

As the November darkness closes in I look out at the little garden, now defined by its wall lights and the lights in the greenhouse, as my little compartment in life. Everything in it has emotion attached – not dramatic, operatic emotion, but the affection that comes with familiarity. And also involvement. Everything in it has been thought about, has had my attention and care, from the pots to the tendrils finding their way up the trellis, the plants in the wrong place, or struggling, to the roses out of control above the fence. Each has been mentally processed to the point of decision – in the roses’ case, to let them rip. So I am aware, and in a sense attached.

The dogwood outside the window, with its white-variegated leaves now turned parchment white, the autumn cherry, now bright yellow as its tiny flower-buds begin to open, the dark bulk of a sarcococca and the last blue flowers of a sprawling geranium are a picture I have painted, in brushstrokes separated sometimes by years. Now I can’t imagine changing it, or swapping plants in their places, any more than I would redistribute the features of my children.

I am an unregenerate conservative. I love what’s there, or rather here, and the longer it has been here the more I love it. The changes of the seasons bring joy, but part of me is like the notoriously conservative Duke of Cambridge, who said ‘There is a time for everything, and the time for change is when you can no longer help it.” Now, where can I plant this new clematis?

Fanny Wilkinson

November 13, 2021

Where Fanny first gardened


The blue plaque department of English Heritage could be confused. It has two applications to deal with for the same person: Fanny Wilkinson. One is for a house in Bloomsbury, the other for Middlethorpe Hall at York. Few people today know who Fanny was, but her story is worth telling, even repeating. She was the first professional landscape gardener of her sex.

Middlethorpe is where she learnt to garden; her father’s very handsome Yorkshire house, which is now a hotel owned by and run for the benefit of the National Trust, along with two others of equal beauty: Hartwell House near Aylesbury and Bodysgallen at Llandudno. The garden at Middlethorpe is still exceptional, intimate, productive and beautifully kept. Middlethorpe is also remembered as the one-time home of the prototype feminist, the diarist who introduced vaccination for smallpox, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Fanny’s London address in Shaftesbury Avenue is gardenless, but her plaque celebrates her employment to design and make no less than 75 public gardens in London, principally in areas that sadly needed the blessing of greenery. Her principal employer was the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, founded in 1882 by Lord Brabazon (later Lord Meath) in the general movement to improve the lives of the poor whose patron saint, or one of them, was Octavia Hill. The National Trust was another of Hill’s pioneering projects.

Fanny Wilkinson was no paper designer. She did more than the office work, surveying sites, persuading sponsors, finding materials, employing contractors and spending days on site supervising navvies as well as gardeners, a conspicuous role for a young woman in those days.

Many of her creations still exist. Myatt’s Fields in Camberwell is one of the biggest, at 14 acres. Vauxhall Gardens is another. Many were in the East End, and many former burial grounds. Economy and easy maintenance were priorities, so paths were often asphalt, and Fanny must have planted hundreds of plane trees. It was only thirty years or so since the revolutionary Birkenhead Park was designed by Joseph Paxton (and inspired Olmsted in making Central Park, New York). Who could be more deserving of a plaque – or two – than a woman who motivated and created so many urban oases?

Kew celebrates Japan

October 8, 2021

à la japonaise

A bright sunny day yesterday brought out the crowds at Kew. The cafes always seem to be the main attraction; the grand central borders drew a desultory crowd, but you are never jostled in the arboretum, the rock garden, or in the newly-ordered plant family beds. On each visit I struggle to get my head round its gloss on DNA, with limited success. Admittedly, until leaves start to turn, it is a quiet gardening moment. Drifts of cyclamen are the brightest spots, and the yellow of rudbeckia and mauve of asters dominate the main borders.

The Temperate House was celebrating Japan, with a jolly installation of paper and streamers, high in its domes, with haikus and bonsai and massed white, yellow and red chrysanthemums that represent sunrise, though rather modestly by Japanese standards. The Japanese celebrate the imperial flower with extravagance of artifice that has no equivalent in the West.

Tresco, Glamis, Alnwick

October 3, 2021

Home from a salty fortnight that managed to embrace three great gardens. Tresco (easy, it’s on the sea), Glamis, and Alnwick. Transport by the luxurious Island Sky, Noble Caledonia’s Expedition ship carrying a hundred passengers and equipped with Zodiacs for landing on islands.

Tresco is colour, Glamis history and Alnwick water – but much more than its famous fountains and grand cascade. Our previous visit, twenty years ago, saw it just constructed and newly planted. Today in maturity its hydraulic spectacles draw thousands – too many for quiet enjoyment – but its planting shows signs of genius.

The reward of climbing the grand staircase beside the repeated eruptions of water is the entrance to the walled garden. Water is also important here, but in the pastoral mode of quiet pools and rills. among broad beds brimming with plants to force a gardener’s attention. Fifteen-foot walls and pergolas twice the height of the common kind give scope for shrubs and climbers we usually see tamed to ‘manageable’ sizes to show their full potential. Plants conventionally doled out in threes and fives form king-size drifts. I have not seen such a clump of my favourite, Kirengeshoma palmata, with its sleepy yellow buds lolling among grey-green maple leaves, outside its native Japan. A mass of spires unknown to me, palest pink exclamation from a foam of grey-purple leaves turned out to be Cimicifuga ‘Brunette’. Hydrangea paniculata in platoons and lace-caps in legions brim over hornbeam hedges. Roses on the whole were late-season piano; it was early autumn in berries and leaves, but the scope, generosity and originality of the planting was almost overwhelming. And it was followed by a challenge: a maze entirely of bamboo, tall plants arching overhead to make a Stygian tunnel with enough twists and bifurcations to give the nervous worrying moments.

The garden at Glamis (a coach-trip from the port of Montrose) matches the towering castle in size. The park is regal and the trees in the pinetum beside the quiet Dean Water majestic. Its most memorable scene was an inspirational deployment of Verbena bonariensis, usually seen as a sneaky interloper here and there, but at Glamis, full beds a cricket-pitch long and broad, a purple mass to make you pause. Sadly someone had tricked up the edges with yellow and red dahlias, a chromatic howler it was hard to forgive.

Rhaeadr Ddu

September 4, 2021

Falling, crashing, roaring, spraying water will always have a public. I read somewhere that cascades, fountains, breaking waves and anywhere water is violently fragmented create negative ions (don’t ask me more) that feel good and stimulate your brain. Case – as far as I’m concerned – proved. I assume it also applies to the bubbles in champagne.

Travelling for Pleasure is a book by Tony Newbery about the exploration of Snowdonia by artists and miscellaneous Romantics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries There were poets and painters on the lookout for the perfectly Picturesque view, as defined by William Gilpin. ‘Just a few yards to your right, to include that mossy stump’. A fair number of preachers took to these tracks too, rain or, occasionally, shine. Roads were rudimentary and inns appalling, but it was worth it for the scenery (variously described as ‘sublime’ or ‘awful’) of mountain, moor, forest and particularly, waterfalls. The early tourists made competitive comparisons, scoring them for setting, height, volume of water (and noise), accessibility and general air of romance.

There is a different competition these days: kayak potential. If you can paddle to the edge and drop twenty feet into a deep pool you have an alpha fall. Thirty feet is pretty sensational.

One of my favourites (not for kayaking) is the Black Falls (Rhaeader Ddu in Welsh) near Ganllwyd on the edge of the huge forest of Coed y Brenin. It is not huge; it just plunges in beautiful oak and beech and birch woodland over and through a great granite jumble. It has had its admirers since some anonymous Romantic installed a stone slab overlooking it engraved with a Latin verse and its translation by Thomas Gray (of the Elegy in a Country Churchyard). Could it have been Gray? I have sat in wonder watching the local lads take the plunge in their kayaks, steering to the edge of an upper pool , then disappearing in white water before bobbing up from the depths of the black pool below.

There are bigger and noisier falls in the forest around but none so aesthetically as well as athletically pleasing. To drink sparkling wine in the cocoon of its sound is one of the high romantic pleasures.

TripAdvisor of the time: If ever you go to Dolgellau, Don’t say at the Lion Hotel. There is nothing to put in your bellau, and no one to answer the bell.

An upgrade

August 31, 2021

I have just had two cataract ops (or ‘procedures’, to use the proper medical term), and I’m dazzled. Literally, if I rashly go out in full sunlight, but metaphorically most of the time. I realise that for years I’ve been lit by a mere 40 watt bulb. Now it’s a hundred. The procedures were four months apart, and I could scarcely believe that such a radical improvement could be so quickly and painlessly achieved. The first made me realise how there had been a yellow cast in that eye. It disappeared like a coat of old varnish from a painting. By shutting one eye I could admire the contrast. Now, with two eyes refreshed, I see the world unvarnished, and realise what I’d been missing.

The whiteness of white was the first surprise, and is still the biggest difference between the old vision and the new. All colours are brighter – or more distinct. A single clematis flower emerging from a tangle on the wall shocked me with its piquant, singing purple – a colour I don’t remember ever seeing in the garden before. A white-variegated dogwood is now as uplifting a sight as a ballooning spinnaker. The light green ovals of new leaves on the resurging magnolia in the street are eye-catchers, every one of them.

Perhaps it’s just as well that August has been oppressed with one of our unbudging zones of high pressure, a grey lid that brings a cold north wind sneaking under its edges for weeks on end. It clears at night, I don’t know why, but as the moon rides up the sky the lid of cloud often dissipates, and the garden seems brighter than in the grey-lidded day.

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