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.

In the Night Garden

October 29, 2019

Deep down perhaps I’m a Teletubby. Certainly at this time of year, when the Day Garden is reduced to a few hours, the sun so low as to be confusing and teatime a fireside feast. I tend to draw the curtains and curl up with a book.

There is an alternative, though. A relatively small amount of well-aimed electricity can give you garden pictures quite different from daytime. In our tiny London garden our predecessors had had the idea, and done a good job. There is a valid garden picture day and night. Invite Maud 24/7. (Her tryst at the gate, remember, was a daybreak date; ‘the black bat night’ had flown.)

In our little patch four spotlights, high up on each of the side walls, unequally spaced, can be swivelled to point downwards or sideways. They light the steps (essential), a table, and whatever plants are eye-catching when picked out against blackness. Certain ferns, for example, a generously yellow-splotched ivy, a camellia (mainly for the shine of its leaves), the bleached flower-heads of a hydrangea, the trunk of our over-sized sycamore, a vase or a balustrade. And, of course, the greenhouse, which becomes a Crystal Palace on a black night. There is the gleam of paving in the rain, and very occasionally the magic of snow. Just outside the French windows on the covered verandah the lemon tree can be spotlit. It is always doing something; often in winter flowers and fruit intriguingly at the same time. The surroundings become invisible, cast into mysterious blackness.

Goodnight, Macca Pacca. Good night, Iggle Piggle. You go to sleep; I’ll watch the night garden.

The T word

October 13, 2019

Minds of their own?

Somehow hydrangeas always pop up in Trad at this time of year. It’s partly their duration; what flower is so much in evidence for so many weeks? Even spent and faded flowers keep their shape and remain a presence in the garden. But it’s also the conundrum of their colours. It’s all very well saying they will be blue in acid soil, pink in alkaline. You can control this, they say, with aluminium salts. Oh, yeah?

They have minds of their own. Our Welsh resort has ancient clumps that have settled down over the years to a marvellous medley of colours, by autumn principally maroon and dusky purple, but with individual flowers still at extremes of the blue/pink spectrum. And this is rain-soaked acid soil. So is the soil the answer? If it were grapes and wine we were talking about, we’d be discussing terroir.

The British shy away from this essentially French concept; both the word, which has no precise English translation, and the idea that certain soils in certain situations can affect the qualities of the fruit they produce. There’s a suspicion that terroir is just muck and magic with a French accent, designed to prove that only La Belle France has the conditions for great wines.

If soil can affect the colour of flowers, though, can it not affect the flavour of fruit? Plant a vine of, say, Chardonnay, on chalk or on slate and you will get two quite different wines. Plant it on the Jurassic limestone of Chablis, a pale, quite heavy, soil visibly made up of minuscule ancient seashells and you will get wine of a recognizable flavour that no other vineyard has ever, as far as I know, achieved.

Scientists have been keen to show that vine roots have no way of abstracting minerals directly from the soil they encounter. The only demonstrable difference between soils, as they affect the plant, comes from their permeability; how fast they drain, which in turn affects their temperature. Warmer soils equal riper grapes. If claret from St Estèphe has more acidity and ‘structure’ (or less perfume) than claret from Margaux it’s because St Estèphe is lower down the Gironde estuary; the river has deposited more stones in Margaux and carried more silt down to St Estèphe. Silt equals clay, equals slower drainage, equals cooler soil. How simplistic that is. How does it account for Château Calon-Ségur and Château Cos d’ Estournel consistently tasting different?

It’s not that simple. If there were an analogy between vines and hydrangeas our wines could all end up somewhere between maroon and purple.

Taking the long view

October 5, 2019

The long front view at Saling Hall

We’ve just been doing a spot of picture hanging. Rehanging, rather, to welcome a new painting. In the bedrooms, up the stairs. And suddenly I am seeing them afresh, the way we did six years ago when we moved here. Inertia saps the senses. Pass something several times a day and it ceases to register.

Gardens of course are not pictures; they are processes. The seasons take care of that – and so do the times of day. I have always tried to imprint something permanently satisfying on our main views: structure and proportion in harmony that always looks right summer and winter (and morning and evening.) The main plan is always to concentrate on the longest view available – right to the
boundary and preferably beyond. Our Saling Hall garden was long enough (though relatively narrow) to allow a 150-yard view in the front over the duck pond and along a poplar alley. More park, I admit, than garden. Toward the far end I put a Chilstone Pope’s Urn. Alexander Pope wrote the wittiest couplets in the language. He also commissioned William Kent to design the most perfect urn, with spiral grooves that give something lively to its surface in all lights.

Behind the house, where we planted a sort of landscape arboretum with watery distractions, the central, longest view was even longer, nearly 200 yards to the inevitable eye-catcher, a Haddonstone temple, which we dedicated to Bacchus. The pediment bears two gambolling carp and an inscription that perplexes everyone. Can you figure out “Innumerae Veniunt Artes“?

Now, with a garden a mere 55 feet long, the principles are the same: a central view to the boundary. Not quite central, in this case, because the greenhouse takes up half the width. Trees (or now shrubs) pace out the distance, one third of them evergreens. Their differences of height colour, density and bulk are the sub-plots that keep it interesting. At the same time, with the seasons and the times of day shadows keep shifting and emphasis changing. All this is the framework for a changing scene of leaves and flowers. Movable pots are the sideshows to attract attention to different corners. Two changes of level with stone steps certainly help; the far end is six feet higher, which somehow flatters the modest length of the garden. But the principle is the same, town or country: keep the centre open.

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

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

Friends of Trad

The International Dendrology Society (IDS)