Hush

January 14, 2020

Cabin cruises on Grasmere, 4 x 4s in Tilberthwaite…. The Lakes are in an uproar about inclusiveness. Nobody goes there, apparently, who isn’t white, middle-class, and probably male as well. What the Lake District needs is visitors of all ages, races, genders, socio-economic classes, religious affiliations, blah, blah, blah. Not just people who have read about them, looked at maps, and have a taste for scenery and silence.

Silence. Is it elitist, racist, or anything more than just noisist to want to get away from intrusive sounds? Irrelevant sounds; that’s the point. Wind, birdsong, sheep, even a tractor across the valley are the natural sounds of the countryside. Transistors and revving engines are intrusions.

Forestry is admittedly noisy – occasionally. Chainsaws and bulldozers are no friends of quiet enjoyment. But they only break the silence in working hours during felling and thinning operations. Not at weekends, and for limited and predictable times.

On our hillsides in Snowdonia we have narrow gates with stones to frustrate off-roaders. We have signs that say Dim Modurs, and don’t often see or hear intruders. But we are far off the beaten track and our terrain would seem tame to serious petrolheads. In the lakes, where millions go to breathe deep of mountain air and cock their ears at country sounds, can anyone argue that the general good is enhanced by revving motors?

An iris with claws?

January 1, 2020

The first flower appeared on Christmas Eve, just before we left for the country: a mauve miracle, pale and light-reflecting, with the gold details of a brooch. A wide-open, laid-right- back IrIs. I tweeted (one has to do something to express joy) “A just-in-time Christmas present from God”.

When we got home three days later the little bed in the front garden was thronged with them, a dozen pale lavender brooches looking up at me, and another dozen tiny pouting buds. Flowers are expressionless. They weren’t smiling, just being. Being what the infinitely strange process of evolution has made them – just for now.

Nothing stops evolving. In millenia to come Iris unguicularis will need a new name. It had an old one, Iris stylosa, but taxonomic wisdom saw through that, back to the first time it was described and named, in 1789. Its godfather, Jean-Marie Poiret, was a French priest fascinated by what was then called Numibia, now Algeria, its barbaric culture and its plants unknown in France. His account was published in the year the French Revolution reached its savage climax.

Poiret, with a botanist’s eye for a plant’s distinguishing features, used a Greek word that means ‘sharp-clawed’ – an improbable name for such a soft and delicate flower. He was looking at the petals, which with a lot of imagination do end in a point – though hardly a sharp-clawed one. By the rules of botany, though, his momentary analogy of petal and claw is fixed for ever. He got there first. Where I wonder will evolution take it next? Will it evolve in its arid habitat some new distinctive trait? That will be a problem for a taxonomist a million years hence. And why does it flower unpredictably in bursts in mid-winter? EA Bowles, who looked deep into his favourite flowers, dissected a flower with a razor and discovered that the style, the vital female organ that carries the pollen to the ovary, runs all the way up the flower’s long stem. The ovary is right down at ground level, protected among the long leaves. Hence ‘stylosa’. Perhaps Poiret didn’t know this.

Stand them a round

December 17, 2019

It wasn’t easy to buy Daphne bholua of the approved cultivar, Jacqueline Postill, and I wasn’t sure growing it would be any easier. Why was I so keen – and clearly not alone? It flowers when you need it most, in mid-winter like Sarcococca, its scent is delicious, and year round its shiny dark upright shape is a serious presence in the garden. Besides, all the best gardens have one; at Exbury there is a whole grove of lusty suckers you can smell a furlong off.

Anyway, growing it in this shady London garden has not been a problem. Until the slugs found it. Would slugs like its quite leathery leaves? They haven’t eaten anything else in this bed, but they’ve shredded the daphne while my back was turned. Where on earth do they live, these little critters? Now I’ve played the genial host to them with a jam-jar of Stella Artois, fifteen or twenty are afloat in the beer. I shall keep on buying rounds until poor Jacqueline has recovered, though I don’t expect many flowers this winter.

The daphne that makes up for it is Daphne odora Aureomarginata. It seems odd that a variegated form of an evergreen should be a better doer than the plain version, but it’s true in this case. Our five year old plant is now over four feet high and is just coming into flower, which it will keep up for months. I’m afraid I killed its cousin, Eternal Fragrance, by planting in a dry bed in full sun. And what happened, I wonder, to the deciduous daphne that was once all the rage in gardens of the Verey era, D. x burkwoodii ‘Somerset’? I haven’t seen it for ages. Perhaps it’s one of those plants that are propagated so often that they somehow become reluctant to grow. But then I’ve heard that my favourite summer clematis, Perle d’Azur, is getting sulky, when apparently nurseries simply find that its nodes are too far apart to get an economical number of cuttings from a stock plant.

Viewpoint

December 7, 2019

The ugly word ‘overtourism’ made it into the O.E.D in 2018. The uglier fact has been with us for longer. London taxi drivers have been complaining about visitors who ‘bring their sandwiches’ (and spend nothing) for years. Because the crowds usually gather in very specific places (other than ones used as film sets) they can be seen as local problems. Is St Mark’s Square, the Spanish steps, the Charles Bridge in Prague, or, nearer to home, Kings Parade in Cambridge just a nightmare for the locals? The coffee shops are unlikely to complain. Local residents feel powerless. Nor are the obvious suggestions – ‘go somewhere else?’, ‘discover your own beauty spot’ likely to gain much headway. By the time you start ticketed time-limited visits the spontaneity and magic have long gone. But the traffic has come to stay.

I was invited to talk the other night to The Friends of Queens’ Green in Cambridge. (The plural ‘queens’ is correct, by the way: two Tudor queens founded the college.) My subject was the trees on the Backs – the parklike space so-called because the river Cam flows past the backs of seven colleges. Historically the riverside was taken up with kitchen gardens, orchards, workshops and washing greens, while the river was a busy commercial route crowded with barges. Just behind Queens’ was a little port with warehouses on common land – the one part of the Backs not owned and controlled by a college. The city owns Queens’ Green and apparently has designs on it. A bus station has been mentioned. It is a very sensitive area; hence the Friends.

Whatever the plans for Queens’ Green, Queens Road is the only road west of the river, across from the colleges, and thus an integral part of the Backs. Inevitably it serves as part of the only sort of Ring Road Cambridge has. The traffic along it is constant. Furthermore at one point it has what everyone calls the ‘iconic’ view, the view that serves as a symbol for Cambridge, for King’s, sometimes even for universities in general: across the meadow known as Scholars’ Piece, and the river itself, King’s chapel, a great gothic vertical, flanked by the handsome horizontals of Clare College and the classical Gibbs building of King’s.

The trouble with a view is that it works both ways; the traffic sees the chapel and the inhabitants of the colleges see the traffic. The traffic lights by King’s Back Gate aggravate the problem; much of the time, and all night, from the colleges the brake lights of cars and lorries are all you see. Double-decker buses, it has been suggested, would give an even better view. Thus the Backs are being degraded from a private and tranquil green garden to a public spectacle.

One partial answer, and one I have been proposing for years, is more tree-planting. Weeping willows to frame views at certain points along the road and the river would alleviate the problem. As parkland, Scholars’ Piece needs two or three big specimen trees. Categorically no, say the advocates of tourism. The view is public property. It brings in money. Not to the college, the university or its scholars, though, looking for tranquillity. The problem won’t go away.

More leaves

November 26, 2019

....tentative ponds....

I’ve been totally absorbed all morning in the childish pleasure of playing with water. Its most joyous form, for me, is encouraging a trickle to become a stream. In Wales it’s easy; on the hills there is always a head of water to be released by shifting a rock, some earth, even a few leaves. The most satisfying result is when a single leaf is blocking a potential leak. Once let a trickle feel the force of gravity and it soon swells. ‘Freshet’ is the word for a sudden tide of overflowing water; miniature it may be, but the sense of inevitability, of unlocking a predictable process, is deeply satisfying. The first leaf moves, two more follow it, six more stir on the surface and the water gathers speed. A clump of fallen leaves dams the tiny stream until I poke it with my stick. The streamlet gushes on, the flow accumulates, I nudge more leaves aside; now the flow has the momentum to push an obstruction away. It reaches a tiny cliff edge, breaks over it and charges on, feeling the contours, hesitates when they flatten out, finds the lowest way and soaks the surface while it gathers weight to push on again. I look back; there is a little silver line where my stick and I have been.

It’s harder in Hampshire. The dry spring and summer dried up such little springs as we have in ‘our’ garden in the New Forest. There are half a dozen little stream beds in a steepish bank, leading to three rather tentative ponds. They become little streams again after a sustained deluge; most of the time they are dry – and now chock-full of brown leaves.

Not to be discouraged, I delved around at the top with my stick until I found damp leaves, then the gleam of water. Hurrah, the water is moving – just. I clear its way; it finds the direction downhill. A minute or two later it gathers enough momentum to follow my stick as it pokes leaves out of the way. Yes, I could bring a fork and shovel them out wholesale. But the fun is in gentle nudging to see what the water will do unaided.

Raking leaves

November 10, 2019

not bad for a sycamore Not bad for a sycamore

What are the words for these rejects, these fragments of plant-flesh, designed, precision-cut, palmate or pinnate, extruded into air by a mysterious subterranean pump? Sun coloured them, rain polished them, wind rattled them, time tired them.

Some let go, some hung till frost forced abscission. Was that hard, breaking the cord of life to float some seconds
free, the ground coming up, choosing to land on the hedge, in the currant bush, tangled in ivy or safe on the path?

I scratch you out with my rake, wherever you land, admire your yolk-yellow, your dappled apple in a glance and drag you into my soggy pile.

Bubbly in the Garden of England

November 6, 2019

Hush Heath Manor; a Kentish wine chateau

Did you ever expect to see the neat green corrugation of vineyards tilting down the South Downs? The North ones? Or in the Chilterns or along the South Coast? Last week, in their yellow autumn suits, they looked quite at home, even beautiful in their leafy English context.

I was in Kent, visiting three wine estates already making wonderful wines. Wonder is the relevant word: ten years ago I was still a sceptic. The best, and most, of what they make is sparkling. At last Champagne really has a run for its money. No other region anywhere has been able to challenge it as England now does.

How has this suddenly happened? Climate change has a lot to do with it. The average temperature of the South of England has climbed one and a half degrees in a generation. Ripening grapes outdoors here used to be a chancy business; now, in a reasonable summer, it is a given.

Just as important is the adoption, by most English wine-growers, of what you might call ‘serious’ grape varieties. In the experimental years of the ‘70s and 80s it was thought prudent to plant crosses bred in Germany specifically for early ripening. Their wines, unfortunately, were unconvincing. It was the analogy of Champagne that made all the difference.

Two hundred miles away over the Channel they make the world’s best bubbly on the same chalk formation as our Downs. Their grapes are often on the margin of ripeness – and high in acid. But it’s their acidity that makes them so drinkable in their sparkling form. Once that penny dropped, and English farmers had the confidence to plant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, and their flavours emerged in the wine they produced, the word spread. (Pinot Meunier, incidentally, has a synonym; Wrotham Pinot. And Wrotham is in Kent.) The Champagne method is not cheap; it needed investment in plant, training, and time – at least a year more than still wine to be ready to drink, and preferably very much longer.

But now there is nothing left to prove. Even famous Champagne houses are convinced. Tattinger and Pommery have already bought and planted land in England. The next question is where will our best terroir turn out to be – there is no English substitute for their quintessentially French word. And the apparent answers are full of surprises. There are good English sparkling wines from Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Bucks, Essex…. and not all of them, by any means, are grown on our Champagne-like chalk. Some of our best examples are grown on greensand, often on unpromising-looking clay, or on flinty ground where you wouldn’t want to garden. Wine-growing, in fact, is gardening on an industrial scale.

Which is why a vineyard is beautiful.

More than natural grace

November 5, 2019

Just home from a week in New York, at its October best. My lodging is as near Central Park as you can get, and I spent all my spare hours walking in this extraordinary playground landscape. Thirty years ago it was a crime-ridden wasteland. To walk there after dark (or even before) was not advised. Then in 1980 mayor Ed Koch initiated The Park Conservatory and put Betsy Barlow Rogers in charge as its first administrator.

I first met Betsy in the late 1960s at a radio station when we were both promoting our respective first books. Hers was on The Wetlands of New York; mine was on wine. Last week we had lunch on a golden autumn afternoon at The Boathouse overlooking one of the lakes and recalled how the park, covering 843 acres, was created in the heart of Manhattan, pretty much with shovel and barrow. Frederick Law Olmsted and the English architect Calvert Vaux, its creators, were inspired by the new park at Birkenhead on Merseyside, designed by Joseph Paxton, one of the first to be created to be open for the public to enjoy.

Birkenhead was finished in 1847. Olmsted arrived in Liverpool in 1850. He wrote ‘I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as has evidently been employed. I will only tell you, that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constantly varying surface, where on all sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of greenest, closest turf, and all kept with exemplary neatness! In democratic America there is nothing to be thought of as comparable to this people’s garden.’

Olmsted’s Manhattan site was more problematic; marshy, among huge up-rearing grey rocks, partly built over in the voracious development of the city, almost desolate of vegetation. His vision was a pleasure ground on an unprecedented scale, shaded with the glorious variety of America’s trees, embracing the pastoral (the sheep meadow), the romantic (a castle overlooking a lake), the monumental, the frivolous, the untamed, the useful, the whimsical….. every genre and mood of gardening. Among the early visitors was the essayist Oliver Wendel Holmes, who wrote: “The Central Park is an expanse of wild country well crumpled so as to form ridges which will give views, and hollows that will hold water. The hips and elbows and other bones of nature stick out here and there in the shape of rocks which give character to the scenery, and an unchangeable, unpurchasable look to a landscape that without them would have been in danger of being fattened by art and money out of all its native features. The roads were fine, the sheets of water beautiful, the bridges handsome, the swans elegant in their deportment, the grass green and as short as a fast horse’s winter coat….”

It was a stupendous task to construct and is even more of a challenge to maintain. So its current state, a bustling resort where every visitor feels at home, safe, stimulated, active, absorbed, pop-eyed with discoveries, is an extraordinary achievement – for which Betsy deserves much of the credit.

Hugh’s Gardening Books

Trees

Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

Hugh’s Wine Books

World Atlas of Wine 8th edition

I started work on The World Atlas of Wine almost 50 years ago, in 1970. After four editions, at six-year…

Friends of Trad

The Garden Museum