There were reputedly nine hours of daylight today, the shortest day of the year. It didn’t feel like it. We opened the curtains on a pale-looking night lit by streetlamps and closed them again a good hour before tea. I was out, or at my desk, for the admittedly bright and breezy middle of the day; not, in other words, able or in the frame of mind to contemplate the garden. I did spend a happy half-hour absorbed in the greenhouse, swept leaves and tied up a climbing rose. The thrill of the day was finding a remarkably precocious camellia, just one pale pink, complex and rose-like flower, on the old bush we inherited with the garden. A sasanqua, I wondered, flowering before Christmas? No, I think, just an impatient japonica – rewarded for its haste by pride of place on the kitchen table.
But I love contemplating; spending quiet quarter-hours with only my eyes engaged. Last thing at night (especially after good wine) I can gaze into the fire for an hour on end – even at the repetitive flames of
our faux-coal gas fire. In our country garden it was a family joke how father dawdled away the dusk until on a dark night he had to grope his way indoors.
The garden is a different place at night, and with nights as long as they are in mid-winter it is a place to explore. There are certainly lights to be seen: the yellow rectangles of neighbours’ windows, the bright pricking of a plane (or is it a satellite?), the moon intermittent through gauzy clouds, the reflection of a street light off a wall, the red light on the tip of a towering crane three streets away in Holland Park. They make a picture of sorts, eye-catchers in the black landscape of bare branches and gables against the sky, the backdrop to the dark foreground of plants and structures I know so well but can’t see.
I switch on the garden lights and the deliberate theatricality comes as a shock. We inherited the lights, too, from our American predecessors in the house. They shine downwards from higher or lower on the walls, a dozen of them, throwing little pools of light, some of them half-obscured by evergreens, on the paths and steps. I have moved one to spotlight the monumental (or so it appears at night) trunk of our centenarian sycamore. They could be better planned, be changed to LED, and no doubt in expert hands make the garden look almost glamorous. But I think I’d rather have something more mysterious to contemplate.