August 24, 2019
When did the tide turn on ivy? Early photographs of country houses and churches prove that it was generally accepted as a natural, and presumably desirable, ‘mantle’ for old buildings. The engravings in William Robinson’s English Flower Garden show it blurring the outlines of great houses, clothing the ground and shinning up trees. In Gray’s elegaic country churchyard the owl-haunted tower is ‘ivy-mantl’d’.
There have often been arguments about whether or not ivy harms trees, by strangulation, or as a parasite, or by making sails in the upper branches that catch the wind. Officialdom seems, if anything, anti-ivy. The Ministry of Works, when it owned what is now English Heritage (unless I’ve missed another change of name) laboriously cut and scraped it off its hallowed walls. I remember visiting a freshly-stripped Bury St Edmunds Abbey, where every craggy ruined wall was in the nude with a little pebble border at the base. It had lost all its dignity and all its romance.
The conservation argument is clear: ivy degrades walls. It roots in mortar, blurs profiles and hides details. I have just spent a morning finger-nailing it off the rubble-stone walls of our Welsh goldmine building. I had recently re-named it Myrtle Mansions; in honour of the big myrtle tree by the door, but on second thoughts now call it the Banqueting House after its function, as the Tudors did their garden buildings. I dare say most of their ‘banquets’ were picnics too, if a little more stately than ours.
Stripping the ivy is a satisfying pastime. The trick is to look for a loose stem, detached from the wall (or tree) in a loop large enough to take your finger or your hand (a tool is also permitted). You grasp the loop and pull, not outwards but down. Ivy seems to resist an outwards pull but succumb to a tug on the plane on which it is growing. A longer or shorter length comes away in your hand, usually leaving a loose end for another tug. By the end of the morning much of the stonework was bare. I was standing in a green heap, covered in crumbled mortar and teasing it out of my eyes and ears and hair. Dignity the building never had; its romance survives.