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.


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.


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., 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.

The seasons

October 13, 2020

Spring is a sequence of more or less predictable events – buds swelling, shoots emerging, flowers appearing, from primroses to snowdrops and crocuses to tulips and daffodils. Meanwhile the canopy is unfolding, until the beeches cast the bluebells into shade. You can’t quite pace the autumn like this. While spring can be accelerated or delayed by a matter of days, its rhythm is driven underground. What tells the crocus to push its little nose in the air? Who can tell?

Autumn is driven by all-too-palpable forces. Leaves have lost their freshness and strength: their withered frames are vulnerable. Wind and rain tear at them, a frost starts to change their chemistry, their sugars retract into the shelter of the soil, or their woody structure of twigs and branches. The metabolism that grew their roots closes down and either sleeps or dies. They have formed their seed and sown it, fat apples, or grains almost too small to see, have been launched to start a new generation

The seasons are the theme of an exhibition (open till January 9) at the St Barbe Gallery in Lymington that is worth travelling a long way to see. Indeed all their exhibitions, and the little gallery itself, are worth visiting. There is a school, or tradition, of English painters of the 20th century that really lacks a label, but is perfectly recognisable. You could call it Romantic Realism, perhaps. It lives outdoors, obsessed with nature and the activities of country life. Some of its best artists dwelt on the hard labour of farming, jobs that have now disappeared but whose machinery is still vaguely familiar from the hulks of wagons, harvesters or threshing machines that hang around old farms. There are works here by Nash, Ravilious, Badmin, Sutherland, Leighton, Dunbar, Tunnicliffe, Tanner, Laura Knight, Grant, Cedric Morris, Reynolds, Minton, Hitchens and several more.

Clare Leighton’s, woodcuts of farming in the 1930s tell the story with an extraordinary muscular simplicity. Great artists internalize their subjects, then remake them in a kind of reverie, guided by their medium, whether chisel or pen or brush and dense oil or the transparency of watercolour. A poet waits for words to fall into place, then manoeuvres them; a composer, sounds. The artists in this exhibition have absorbed the sights of the seasons and processed then through their souls. The result is an almost spiritual record of the English year as it once was. I could sob at the sights we have lost.

Déja vu

September 30, 2020

There are worse ways of garden visiting than virtually, online. There are better, too, and the best (short of IRL) is memory – supposing, that is, you’ve been there before. Memory needs booting, though. It operates best, I find, if I fix my thoughts on a particular spot I remember clearly and walk myself round from there. It can be surprising how the details come back. “What happens if I turn left here?’ is a subconscious thought, but the subconscious can do what it’s told, turn over a page of memory and reveal the plants, the steps, the bend in the path that are stored there. Or maybe not. Then try turning right, or return your steps to where you spoke to someone, or put your money in the box.

This presupposes, of course, that you were paying attention. I admit mine switches on and off. It switches on when it recognises a plant from my own garden, but most strongly when it doesn’t.

Can anyone keep their attention at full alert all the way round? The problem with written descriptions of gardens is the danger of being too inclusive and banging on regardless. The writer doesn’t want you to miss anything. They glance from left to right, turn this way or that, enumerate the plants and feel a duty to explain the layout at the same time. What is the answer? To subdivide the garden and take one bed, or compartment, or feature at a time? The danger is losing the full wrap-around experience. Analysis, if it has a place, should come after submersion. On the second visit, as it were; not on first acquaintance.

And first acquaintance, ideally, should come as a surprise. Read too much about a garden in advance, or look at too many pictures, and the risk is of seeing it with other people’s eyes rather than your own. Of course this can apply to any of the arts, any place – indeed any experience. Should you prime yourself by hearing an expert view, or submerse yourself in all innocence?

It depends, in reality, on how much time you’ve got. Most organised garden tours, in my experience, try to pack in far too much. Three gardens in a day is not uncommon. In cases like these it is often your camera, rather than your eyes and your brain, that records the experience. Can you really look at and appreciate a garden through a camera lens? It will be frozen in two dimensions; that will be the image you take away, bereft of the scents and sounds, the chill of the wind or the warmth of the sun; a mere token, indeed, of the work of creativity and hard work that you came to see.

You can’t listen to a symphony or an opera in the few moments you have to spare. It dictates its pace. A well-designed garden has its allegros and andantes, its rallentandos and even fortissimos too. Like all worthwhile experiences appreciating a garden takes time.

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

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