It’s a simple question, but not easy to answer: why am I so drawn to old gardens, old houses… anywhere palpably old? What is the appeal of history? What does it matter that (let’s say) a garden has been growing, in more or less recognizable form, for a century, or centuries?
To people who think or feel as I do age gives a sense of validity. I am easily seduced by the word ‘authentic’ – although who is to say that what’s left of the past is more authentic than what has just been created? It’s hard to argue rationally that Dickens’s London is more authentic than, let’s say, Canada Square.
Surely what speaks of today, made and inhabited by living people, is more real than anything remembered – let alone reproduced. Yet I hanker for traces of the past, for scraps of grey brickwork or stone that have, as we say, ‘seen a lot of history’. Somehow they offer reassurance. I see new buildings, or new planting, as something provisional, as though it were waiting for some sort of authentication that comes only with passing time. Patina adds a vital dimension to the actual. It lets imagination get to work, ‘authentic’ or not.
Do you remember Stanley Holloway in the Tower of London? ‘It’s ‘ad a new ‘andle, and per’aps a new ‘ead, but it’s still the original axe’. It’s what you might call an existential question.