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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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