Lawrence Banks

July 8, 2022

My oldest schoolfriend, Lawrence Banks, died in June. His funeral took place in the village church at Kington in Herefordshire, on the Welsh border; a packed church and more attending online as befits a man of strong character and wide influence. He was a major figure in gardening circles, as much for his extraordinary ability as a plantsman as for leadership of many horticultural bodies, among them as treasurer of the RHS for many years.

Memories merge when we remember our friends. Was the rather chaotic and inky schoolboy the same as the senior City banker and intellectual powerhouse of international bodies and charities? We proved it when we were together and quoted the same words from the schoolmasters we shared. Two masters at Rugby licked us into being competent writers; I’ll name them: Jim Willans and Tim Tosswill. We went to different universities but met up again in the context of gardening. I would go to stay at the Banks family’s estate, Hergest Croft, where I remember his father, Dick, inheritor of England’s finest private arboretum, as a tall, benign presence who won a schoolboy’s admiration. Times spent with him among his trees made a deep mark on me, and inspired me to start looking at and writing about trees. It was an honour I still treasure to pay a tribute at his funeral in the church where we just remembered his son.

The Bankses, father and son, and grandfathers before them, were passionate and practical plantsmen. Dirty fingernails run in the family. Edward, who inherits the collection, shares the unusual family trait. There are now some 5,000 species and varieties of trees and shrubs at Hergest Croft, many of them the biggest of their kind in the country – and they are widely propagated and generously shared.

We had to follow Lawrence’s funeral online, sadly. I was not surprised by the choices of my own favourite aria. Ombra mai fu, from Handel’s Serse, or the lesson read by his widow Elizabeth, who was the first woman and first landscape architect to be president of the RHS. Ecclesiastes 3 contains the words ‘A time to plant and a time to pluck up’. The service ended with the supreme hymn, Now thank we all our God.

Trad wrote about Hergest Croft on October 18, 2010, September 3, 2013 and May 9, 2019,
all available to read online at tradsdiary.com

France profonde

June 29, 2022

Back, after a three year gap, to our old place in the heart (perhaps depths is a better word) of France. It is thirty years since we bought the almost-derelict farm with its 190 acres and splendid old barn, and fifteen years since we sold it to the Anglo-French couple who are now family friends. In a rare moment of sound judgement we had, with the help of the Office National des Forêts, made a statutory management plan for the whole property, which our successors have painstakingly followed. To see one’s plans coming to fruition is one of life’s great and rare pleasures. The plantations of oak are just as I hoped: a generation of trees now four metres high, lusty, deep green and well able to take care of themselves.

Our pine plantations (Corsican and what we call Scots and the French pins sylvestres – or wild pines) have been more affected by the endemic drought on miserable soil. Some have died; others are shabby and thin. Old woodland that we thinned to encourage the more valuable trees seems to have changed remarkably little. It is almost always oak that does best, gradually outgrowing the hornbeam, the wild cherry and the wild service trees (Sorbus torminalis) that keep them company. Here and there in the woods we found rather pathetic traces of our over-ambitious landscaping: a lonely azalea or Japanese maple by the remains of a little pond, long since rewilded by deer, boar or escapee cattle.

The most spectacular and satisfying developments are round the farmhouse and barn, utterly bare and un-treed when we arrived. Willows, cypresses, horse chestnuts, planes and tulip trees look thoroughly at home; the cypresses in perfect pencil shape now twenty metres high, a tulip tree pushing its succulent greenery into the apertures on the barn. The box parterre we improvised in the awkward space of the old farmyard wears the air of long establishment, hydrangeas flourish in stone troughs and roses have grown too tall and bosomy for their spaces on the walls.

In Arcadia ego

June 29, 2022

What a wonderful life Lancelot Brown must have had, travelling all over England to assess the Capabilities of one privileged stretch of the countryside after another. It wasn’t comfortable. Humphry Repton later wrote about his own constant carriage journeys; the awful roads, the difficulty of reading, let alone writing, on the road. The spilt ink, the crumpled plans. But when his host led him on horseback to the view from where he was planning his new house: the exhilaration, the prospect of woods and fields, the streaming western light, the marshy ground where he would dig a lake …….

He had researched his host’s fortune and found it adequate. A commission for a temple was likely, too, although Chambers had already been employed to build the house. His contractors were ready with men and wheelbarrows, scores of them, to start reshaping the land. Did he ever pause, though, look at the senior oaks and the massed beeches, the pools of bluebells and the waving grasses, and say to himself England is already Arcadia; I can make this valley more impressive, but I can’t make anything more beautiful. Now, in June, with fleecy clouds shifting the shadows, or in October when beeches turn russet and the oaks here yellow, there a motley green, no scheme of mine can improve on England.

Rose recital

June 26, 2022

On the way to the abbey

Is it a record year for roses? It certainly seemed that way on our drive through northern France last month. One of our stops was at Fontevraud, the Benedictine abbey where our King Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (and their son Richard Coeur de Lion) are buried. Fontevraud lies just south of the Loire near Chinon, and is still one of the biggest religious precincts in Europe; 36 acres within the walls. You arrive at the main gates along a straight street, lined with cottages, every one of which was hidden by its climbing roses. Reciting the names – of the ones we knew – made the walk through their sweet aura into a poetry recital. From then, on roses, climbing or sprawling or standing to attention, were the theme of our journey. At the Cotswold-perfect village of Apremont on the river Allier they festoon every house. At our old farmhouse, the great grey-leaved single white rose from La Mortola, that famous Mediterranean garden, is overwhelming the ancient barn and Ghislaine de Féligonde is smothering the little farmhouse.

At home it’s the same story. ‘Mad Alf’ cascades from the sycamore. Iceberg climbs one wall, Bantry Bay another, and our neighbours’ red and white roses soar high above our mutual wall, far out of reach. The patient little ‘monthly’ rose (never out of flower, even in winter, at least in folklore) modestly proffers its handful of blooms. There is nothing modest about the rampant Alister Stella Gray and his crop of custard-coloured flowers. I’m almost sorry the hydrangeas start up at the same time, in a competition they’ll never win. But there is still clematis to look forward to, agapanthus are in bud, our potato tree, Solanum laciniatum from Tasmania, scatters its purple flowers on the greenhouse roof and the giant scarlet fuchsia from Brazil is making up its mind whether to flower this year or not.

Bowled over

June 16, 2022

True, Rhodoland (in my mind a portmanteau term for rhododendrons, azaleas and all the spring things we associate with them, and the gardens they grow in) has never really admitted me as a member. I’ve never had the soil or the climate (you could say the terroir) they need to flourish. But last month at Exbury I got the full eyeful. I’ve known Exbury Garden for years, and loved it, but last month was the jackpot. You wander, bedazzled, down corridors of colour, Bond Streets of jewels, your nose embalmed with sweetness, green-locked from the real world.

You pass a pond swirling with carp in orange and gold. You’ve caught a distant glimpse of white yachts on a magic river, when the curtains draw back and you are in The Bowl, a sequestered little valley brimming with azaleas. Not just azaleas in all their shades of pink and purple and many interpretations of red, but a supporting cast of lacy maples and quietly assertive dogwoods, framed under a wide window of sky by the powerful presence of oaks.

This is gardening’s Sistine chapel. Along with the white garden at Sissinghurst it stands apart, the apotheosis of its race, the parson’s nose of horticulture.

A walk in the woods

April 29, 2022

Trees may be slow, but forests are fast. That’s how it seemed to me in our Welsh woods last week. We were honoured with a visit from the Royal Forestry Society (or at least its North Wales Division), and it reminded me how much things have changed in the 28 years we have been in charge.

What is still recognisable are the contours; slopes of five hundred feet or so from the valley to a ridge, commanding a huge view across the sea towards the Wicklow Hills, and south to the rocky north face of Cader Idris (a mountain more noted for its bulk than its height). That is the airy mountain component. The rushy glen is the course of the Afon Dwynant, from a few springs high on the hill to a burbling, occasionally rushing stream as wide as a country road that eventually tips into the estuary of the River Mawdach.
The estuary is lined with what is termed ‘Atlantic Oak Woodland’, a precious zone where contorted oaks thrust up from a bed of boulders with only moss and ferns for company.

There had been no rain for three weeks. The hillside springs were dry, with a surprising effect: without moisture they appeared as brown, even scorched, patches in the grass and heather. The rotation of a commercial forest (as much of ours is) is about sixty years. The tallest remaining trees are spruces almost a hundred feet high and larches, perhaps eighty feet but incomparably beautiful, their delicate canopies soaring on ramrod trunks to form airy colonnades.

Foresters talk about ‘yield-class’, a figure denoting the number of cubic metres of timber produced in a year per hectare – depending, of course, on many factors. Inevitably, sadly, the star performers are always the aggressive Sitka spruce, black in the landscape, spiky to touch. They don’t seem to care if it’s bog or rock; you don’t even have to plant them; their self-sown seedlings sprout everywhere. Foresters call it ‘re-gen’, often so dense that it needs ‘re-spacing’.

Our policy is to leaven our money-making plantings of Sitka with admixtures of other conifers,; pines. firs, thuja, usually larch, and a scattering of broadleaves, which could be beech, birch (which comes up anyway), alder, wild cherry or even Norway maple. Oak is very slow in getting started. The lovely Western hemlock, with drooping sprays of bright apple green, is prolific, and can be vigorous enough to hold its own. Then there is rowan, the sweet-smelling gorse, and of course bracken and brambles. To me it is like a garden on a giant scale, its pleasures magnified, too.

The coulter rusts

April 26, 2022

‘Rewilding’ makes it sound positive and trendy. ‘Glamping’ is the next thing that springs to mind. On our farm in deepest France it was simply logical; the inevitable outcome of poor land, low prices, and dearth of labour. Indeed, scarcity of inhabitants. The French term for abandoned land, or fringe hand never brough into cultivation, is ‘friche’. We had lots, once either grazed or even ploughed, since then just neglected as scrub invaded. Parts were rocky, other parts inclined to bog. There were open spaces where purple orchids made an appearance and impenetrable tangles of blackthorn and bramble and incipient hornbeam and oak. ‘Bramble nurses oak’ was almost a local saying.

My antique Massey Ferguson could, noisily, clear paths – backwards. I would raise the ‘girobroyeur’ , the hydraulic shredder, to about waist height, set the heavy spinning blade going, and back into the tangle with a crash, juddering and sending torn branches flying. Then I would do it again, with the contraption a fraction lower. A few ear-shattering passes like this and a rough track, full of snags, appeared. The midges appeared with it, or, worse, clouds of the tiny insects called aoutats (relating them, I suppose, to August; they appear after harvest). Aoutats are the larvae of a spider, but whereas the spider does no harm, its larvae get under your skin – in every sense. Once a cloud of them bit me all over, most maddening when they invaded the palms of my hands. Thunder bugs, thrips, ticks; I’m no entomologist or arachnologist. I simply say don’t stint on the geranium oil.

My tracks enabled me to explore parts of the farm that no one had bothered with for decades. You could tell how long by the height of the trees – on their way to becoming the eventual forest. Birch is always one of the pioneer trees, but some of our land was so dry and acid that even birches stalled and died. Here and there a juniper struggled through the undergrowth. Hornbeam and oak were the first species to become seriously established, along with wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, which grew even in the driest and darkest conditions, regardless, it seems, of soil acidity off the chart.

Foresters showed me their patient way of converting friche to woodland; a question of watching the canopy, at whatever height, year after year,and cutting out anything that competed for the light with something more desirable. Most often it was hornbeam, at twenty or even thirty feet, blocking the light from a slender oak. They felled the hornbeams (whose coppice would probably survive to grow several new stems, unless the ubiquitous deer munched it first.). The oak, released, would go on for another century or so to become a valuable tree and parent of many more.

The coulter? The Duke of Burgundy in Shakespeare’s Henry V laments his war-torn land. ‘Nothing teems but hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burrs….while that the coulter rusts that should deracinate such savagery.’ Reluctant rewilding.

Water knows

March 7, 2022

Highly rated as Poohsticks is, or are, as a non-violent water-sport, I can recommend one even better. You need a steepish slope, well-carpeted with leaves, preferably under substantial oak or beech trees. For equipment a stick will do, although a light border fork has the advantage. And you need a water supply; the teeniest stream will do. The game is to design a river. The power of gravity is both your collaborator and competitor. This is how I got on this afternoon.

I was climbing the slope, which falls to our very minor stream, when near the top I spotted a patch where leaves were afloat on a puddle. It took one poke with my fork to breach the rim and let a dribble out, a dozen beech leaves stirring, then lining up to spill over the edge. The dribble disappeared under the leaves, then a moment later came up, gleaming, and pushed more leaves aside to head down the slope a few feet, before it lost momentum on a tiny plateau.

Which way next? I watched it spreading, speculating which was the low point where it would make a breach. A moment later it chose the spot, pushed a few brown leaves aside and gathered speed downhill. I looked back; already a silver thread had formed, water organizing into a rivulet and picking up speed, gravity calling. Where next? I nudged it one way; it decided on another. My survey was a millimetre out. Water knows.

A few feet lower it met a dam, a stout twig barricaded with leaves. A little pool started to form, soon a few crystalline inches deep. Impatient, I put the boot in, trod on the twig and the weight of the puddle surged out, no hesitating about its direction. I stood, surveying, where would it stop, regroup and choose its next route? It headed for a grey beech trunk, met a young holly that deflected its flow, was balked by a patch of moss, gathered its force and sped on. The slope got steeper here; through bracken stems I could see the glitter of water lower down the slope. Walking backwards, balancing with my fork, I used my decisive weapon, my heel, to show it the way, a little trench in shiny clay. Leaves danced through, jostling, hiding the incipient stream until they reached the drop. It was a cascade now, pulling the silver thread down the hill to splash into the swelling stream below. How long would it take – perhaps another day – to meet the sandy estuary tide and join the sea?

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