Gardening never features on the Sports pages, yet there is a competitive element in most of us, and looking back on my most active garden-making years I realize I was often really gardening against one friend or another.
Mostly it was John Hedgecoe, an alarmingly creative photographer who in due course became the first Professor of Photography at the Royal College of Art, and sadly died late last year. His last and most ambitious gardening enterprise was at Oxnead Hall in Norfolk, but 30 years ago we were neighbours in Essex and battling it out, tit for tat.
John planted an avenue; I responded with a grove of trees. I built a ‘Japanese’ cascade; back came a fountain. Roses:
John used to tip on neat pig manure for bigger flowers. John introduced us to the architect Sir Freddy Gibberd, who was creating his wonderfully theatrical garden at Marsh Lane on the outskirts of Harlow New Town (for which I fear he must take a great part of the responsibility). Freddy was miles ahead, in time and in resources. (The Corinthian columns from Coutts Bank in the Strand ended up in his garden, and huge rocks from a Welsh reservoir became available to line his little river).
Gibberd’s wife Patricia had a brilliant eye for sculpture, which led in turn to more and more garden incidents – made, incidentally, with the quickest materials to hand: a poplar avenue takes a fraction of the time of a lime one. Ideas came so thick and fast that Freddy would take up the stones of a path he had just laid to make a different one.
It was the right atmosphere for pressing on with one’s own ideas, however half-baked. (I’m sure my garden would be much duller without the lurking spirit of competition. And now I’m just home from another garden that started my fingers itching to do something foolish – if that’s the definition of a folly.