I was nervous about going back to Saling Hall. Our successor there is a man of action, and I knew he would waste no time before tackling his new project. But what I saw when I went back last week astonished me – and made me realise how long I had let things drift.
Judy and I had often talked about felling the long file of Lombardy poplars that flanked the front of the house, memorable trees (they were planted in the 1930s) that contained the front courtyard, separating it visually from the churchyard next door.
Last week they had gone. A loader was shifting their immense logs onto a pile bigger than a bus. The sense of light and air around the pink brick façade of the house was extraordinary. The rather gloomy presence of the towering trees was replaced by the broad green dome of a wild service tree I planted in the churchyard in 1973, looking in perfect harmony with the grey flint and gothic windows of the church. It was our predecessor, Lady Carlyle, who wanted to hide the churchyard from the bedroom window (so we were told). Her poplars had gradually become the main feature – and to see them gone gave me a gush of relief, delight…. feelings I could have experienced years ago if I had been more resolute.
‘The axe is my pencil’ said Humfry Repton. Knowing when to fell trees is as vital as knowing which ones to plant.
Not only the poplars are gone. Boring Lawson cypresses I should have condemned twenty years ago (but didn’t, on the pretext that there were shelter from the cold east wind) are there no more. Old pollard bat willows have gone from the moat (I’m not so convinced about these); a dozen old friends – or at least acquaintances – are piles of firewood. There is less muddle, and less mystery too. Over the years our gardens create their own untouchable auras. Nostalgia feeds on inertia and vice versa. Seeing radical change, and knowing it was necessary, is exciting, surprisingly emotional but hugely positive.