A juggle of experts

January 17, 2021

Country Life is a magazine like no other. It comes out every week, beautifully printed, with a truly catholic range of contents that supposedly interest upper-class country dwellers. It would take a page to list the richly varied contents of the copy I have in front of me. They range from cars to pugs to moonlight, the restoration of a London mansion to the fate of a Victorian cavalryman, from the art market to artichokes. Its contributors always seem well-qualified, most write well and a number are leading authorities in their fields. Having edited a magazine that tried to do the same sort of thing, but in the context of fashion, I know that juggling so many experts is a tough job. And Queen was only a fortnightly – and eventually monthly.

Country Life earns its primary living as the estate agents’ window; indeed the first pages of each issue have been described as ‘property porn’ with some reason. Choosing or gloating over houses is a harmless pastime. I habitually look at their gardens, or what I can see of them, and often, I confess, wonder how the owners of such desirable houses can have so little idea of what to do with their surroundings.

The number of fine houses with rooms in keeping that merit articles of their own these days always surprises me. Many years ago, in the 1960s, I set out to write a book on English manor houses, a category below stately homes that seemed neglected. I worked with a photographer, John Hedgecoe, whom I admired for his startlingly romantic pictures. ‘How did you manage to catch the mist on the moat like that?’ I once asked him. “A smoke bomb’ was his answer.

I never wrote the book. For one reason, it was pointed out to me that it would be a handy burglars’ guide. For another, when I was invited into many of the houses their interiors were an anticlimax. Their seemed to be a beige three-piece suite in every lovely room, oak-panelled or plastered by a fine Italian hand. Such houses still exist, as do dreary or ugly or inappropriate gardens. But my impression is that furnishing has come on faster than landscaping.

Infra dig

January 4, 2021

The Saling Hall cedar on the move

I came across an old photograph, taken in 1987 in November mist, of moving what is now the substantial cedar of Lebanon at Saling Hall. I had been rather sniffy about moving big trees. Buying trees ready-grown, I sniffily thought, was was almost as infra dig as buying your own furniture. I know noblemen used to shift the trees around their park with massive contraptions involving teams of horses. There was a famous transfer of trees in the 1760s from the Duke of Argyll’s collection at Whitton in Hounslow to Kew, then under development by the Earl of Bute. (It’s funny how many Scotsmen are involved in these matters).

Our cedar came from Easton Neston, courtesy of Lord Hesketh. The mover, no horses required, was Chris Newman, who operated the first Tree Spade in the country, an ingenious sort of mighty scoop to lift a big rootball and shunt it to a new home. Today his business is called Civic Trees. In exchange for the cedar he took a good twenty foot walnut to plant in Henry Moore’s garden at Much Hadham.

For our incipient arboretum at Saling I almost always looked for ‘maidens’, young trees with all their branches from the base up, as opposed to standards or half-standards that had had their branches cut off. My hunch was that they would quickly establish and in a few years overtake bigger specimens. They almost always did, so long as I followed my own 3-year rule. 3 years, that is, of unrelenting TLC, of which watering was by far the most important part.

In those days there was virtually no need to go further than one nursey to find almost any tree or shrub you had ever seen or read about. The Hillier family had ‘previous’, as they say, but Harold Hillier was an obsessive. By happy chance Hilliers Manual of Trees and Shrubs was published in the same year as my World Atlas of Wine, 1971, and in the same year we moved to a house with space to plant. When I bought my first Manual I had little notion of what a unique and precious document it is. It was the work of Harold (since Sir Harold) Hillier and his assistant Roy Lancaster. Not only did it list and describe what seemed to be the entire repertory of trees that anyone could plant in Britain. It actually offered them for sale. Yes, you could order the complete Quercetum or Sorbetum or Cupressetum (if there is such a word). It would be delivered to your door, and bingo, you would be a celebrated Collector. Not instantly, mind you. The trees were not all lined up in pots at Romsey waiting for takers. Sometimes you had to wait for the propagator. And there is the apocalyptic story of the customer who telegrammed H.H. ‘Trees arrived. Presume roots follow.’

He was unlucky. Most of the scores of trees I eventually ordered turned up in due course, roots intact, were planted, and, after their three years, thrived. Most of them, I am happy to say, still do. And this is really the point of this story: the happy ending. We were the curators of the growing collection for forty years. Now, eight years after leaving, I am in regular contact with the new owner, who sends me bulletins, photos confirming identities and answers my questions about progress. In all there are something like a thousand woody plants on the list. How lucky am I still to be enjoying what I planted fifty years ago?

Groundhog

January 1, 2021

I have to eke out the few jobs there are to do in this little garden at this time of year. Plant one plant, pot on one pot, prune one bush. Because each time I go out and feel the clammy air and a spot of rain on my pate I tingle with the pleasure of being among plants – and I don’t want to squander tingles.

So today it was cutting the leaves off a soon-to flower hellebore, tying in the daphne odora that is leaning forward and blocking the view, washing a pot and saucer for a plant I’ll be bringing indoors tomorrow. Tomorrow I shall pick some remaining dead leaves out of the border, clean some grubby clay saucers and discourage the ivy shoots springing from high on the wall. Fiddly stuff, I admit, but hands-on, out in the cold, and in direct contact with nature.

Covid confinement has enforced routine to a degree I have not encountered since ….., school, I suppose. True, when I’ve been in the throes of writing a book all lesser things are pushed aside and life can settle into just sitting to scribble. The present daily routine, though, is not focussed like this, nor does it bring a sense of progress towards a goal.

It’s not quite groundhog day but the same little movements have a way of becoming mechanical, from reaching out of bed for my specs and my ipad to read The Times, to shaving (left cheek, then right, then chin, upper lip…) to breakfast (yoghurt, blueberries, granola, put teabag in cup, take pills with orange juice, finally, lick the marmalade spoon.) Then out to the greenhouse, check the rain gauge, read the overnight temperatures, pick off fading flowers and droopy leaves, fill the watering can from the cistern, feel the compost in the pots, open the greenhouse light one notch….. A wilting shoot can give me something to worry about, and a new flower bud is an event.

Charles I the Digger King

December 9, 2020

Swallows on a wire

I wasn’t at all sure where to find Bushy Park. We went there when I was small; I just remember enormous chestnut trees! And why ‘Bushy’? Was that what it looked like? Then the other day we set out for Hampton Court and I discovered that it comes to the same thing. It is the northern park of Hampton Court, separated by an imaginary line across its unpromising flat terrain.

Christopher Wren, whose house overlooks it, perhaps thought the same. To him wide spaces suggested avenues. Did he plant the horse chestnuts? They were only quite recently introduced here from Greece. They make a magnificent northern approach to the palace, interrupted by the famous Diana Fountain (no, not that Diana), which Wren must have seen being installed there in 1713. It stands at the crossing of the chestnut avenue with the even more ambitious lime avenue, a mile long and maybe a hundred yards wide, with a triple row of trees each side.

The real interest of Bushy for gardeners, though, is in the ‘Plantations’ in the middle of the park. Every garden is a plantation of sorts, I suppose, but here and in Richmond Park it signifies a fenced area where the (newly planted) oaks are protected from the deer. The Waterhouse Plantation is blessed with a wandering stream that, I was surprised to learn, was dug by Charles I – with, one imagines a little help from brawny subjects. The Longford River, as it is called, was I imagine just to improve the plumbing at Hampton Court, an aqueduct from the river Colne twelve miles to the north.

Whoever diverted it into its present lively rivulets and shining pools created an ideal setting for a woodland garden. The usual suspects are all here; the weeping willow, the rhodies, camellias, dogwoods. swamp cypresses lining the stream with hundreds of their bizarre ‘knees’. The last autumn brightness was provided by ginkgos like showers of gold coins. What was truly bizarre, though, was the sight of picnickers sitting on fallen trees at two-metre intervals like swallows on a wire.

Striptease

December 3, 2020

Befote and after

Yesterday we stripped the sycamore: stripped it, that is, of all its annual vegetation, every yellowing leaf, every little twig, down to its bare skeleton. It’s the annual maintenance of a big urban tree. It has to be sanctioned by the local authority, and the entire harvest of last year’s growth has to be carried through the house, up the garden stairs, into the narrow hallway, round two corners, out of the front door and the front gate to a trailer in the street. It doesn’t come cheap, but it’s a great spectator sport.

Fergus is the team captain. His main striker is Blondie, the climber, a six-foot broad-shouldered athlete. He spent four hours up to fifty feet from the ground reaching out into the entire canopy with his (admittedly small) electric chain saw. You could mistake its sound for a hair-dryer. If he had left a single twig of this year’s growth up there it would have started to take over as a new leader of the whole tree.

Fergus has two henchmen to collect the immense quantity of wood raining down from Blondie’s operations. The vigour of an annually frustrated tree is astonishing: the longest ‘twig’, if you can use that word, measured fifteen feet by two inches in diameter. Blondie had to aim it, thick end first, through a gap in the lower branches onto a diminutive piece of paving, where it was immediately seized and dismembered with Fergus’s knife-sharp billhook.

As I discover when I’m filling the council’s canvas bags with prunings, you can fit very little in unless you chop it fine. Bob and Alberto, the two assistants, were kept constantly busy for four hours chopping and carrying and packing the trailer solid. When Blondie finally swung himself down on his harness the tree was denuded: a great black sky spider.

Advertisement

November 23, 2020

It’s not considered cricket, and certainly not gardening, for an author to review his own book. But he has to please his publisher, and she is prodding him to tell his readers that Trad doesn’t only write about garden matters; he (or rather I. This is confusing, as well as embarrassing) has done a bit of writing about wine too.

This plug is for The Story of Wine, from Noah to Now. It’s not new, but over its thirty-odd years it has come to be regarded as a ‘classic text’, unique, timeless, blah, blah – and a new edition was overdue. There are critics who agree. Andrew Roberts, biographer of Napoleon and Churchill, has written a new Foreword. He evidently concurs. Jancisrobinson.com, an authoritative website, calls it ‘a romp of a read’. What pleases the author is that a rather stiff and weighty tome has miraculously become much lighter and more supple, not a paperback but one of a new breed of bed-worthy books. People actually stroke it – though its actual purpose is to be read. It makes a good present, too, for people who like wine. And who doesn’t?

NB This is the first ad in many years of Trad, and hopefully the last.

Covid time

November 17, 2020

In spring we want time to slow down. There is never the leisure to follow in detail all the beautiful revelations of nature. This year Lockdown in March and April gave us more and slower time than ever before, and more welcome quiet, to observe and enjoy. This winter we will want time to speed up, to get through the bare months as quickly as possible.

Time has all sorts of speeds, not subject unfortunately to our braking or acceleration. Covid has introduced a new one, a strange plodding repetitive rhythm indifferent to our hopes, plans and emotions. My reaction is to take a microscope to everyday life, to see (or rather try to see) like William Blake, a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Or any flower.

A duel fought with parks

November 10, 2020

Home from a short break in the Norfolk of wide skies and huge houses, specifically to visit Houghton Hall, its Bannerman garden and the collection of creations (sculptures is hardly the word) by Anish Kapoor. Houghton and its vast park is not the place to exhibit fiddly little things: Kapoor takes the firmament with his vision, and the firmament plays along.

When the Hall turns its massive front (or is it back?) north towards the sea, an appropriately massive avenue stretches to the horizon. The French allée says it better than avenue: this is more Versailles than the park of an English squire. Plumb in the centre Kapoor has plonked a vast gleaming dish of a mirror, bringing the empyrean (a word I long to use without sounding trite) down into your reach. You can always, of course, throw your head back, scan the sky and follow the wandering clouds. It feels different, though, brilliantly focussed, when the sky is brought close to you in your natural field of vision. The intense blue, the clouds in their infinity shapes, textures, colours, flowing or shifting, are transformed into a solid object.

Most of Kapoor’s works here are shapes he has found hidden in stone. When someone asked Michelangelo how he carved his David he replied (or so someone told me) ‘I just cut off the bits that don’t look like a young man.’

Kapoor has no models for the shapes he liberates from great slabs of rock, some smooth, swelling and seemingly organic, some like brutal gashes made in anger, others like deliberate designs with a purpose (which is not revealed). The formality of Houghton’s park, spaces defined by trees, full-grown or tightly trained, forms the rooms in a vast open- air gallery. I was wondering what Sir Robert Walpole in his pomp, our first Prime Minister, glorying in his power and wealth, would make of his great showpiece reflecting a world he could not imagine. But then, of course, nor can we without Kapoor.

Awesome as the scale of Houghton is, its neighbour and rival Holkham Hall puts it firmly in its place. Coke challenged Walpole to a duel, with parks as the weapons. Is there an avenue, or indeed allée, anywhere as ambitious as the north drive at Holkham? It marches three miles dead straight over hill (admittedly modest hill) and dale (also modest) from a triumphal entrance area to the great frowning front of the Palladian mansion, punctuated by an obelisk which is scarcely a lesson in modesty.

The units of this grandiose approach are not mere single trees but clumps of a dozen evergreen oaks at a time, spaced to allow vistas of Coke’s famously fertile farmland as you pass. The house (‘palace’ fits it better) does not exactly smile a welcome. As a dozen other Norfolk rural mansions of the 18th century testify, a Norfolk squire can do haughty as well as any prince.

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