It is an exercise, or pastime, or distraction for this sort of afternoon: dismal and damp, grey in the garden except where three or four flowers look like rubbish blown in by the penetrating wind. There is only one cloud, a blanket form horizon to horizon. Is it moving, or just prone, spread-eagled over us without the energy to move?
But I’ve escaped, vertically, right through it, to look down on the drifting wavelets of its dazzling white upper side, under the cerulean empyrean (nul points for choice of words).
My exercise, or pastime or (most importantly) distraction is a visit to the gardens stored in my mind. To bring them into focus I start with the red, white and blue bedding in front of Buckingham Palace. Looking closer, it’s not white but horticultural silver, a sort of sunlit grey. It doesn’t take long to take it in, so down the stone steps to the end of the lake, where water cascades out of a hole in the wall, under the road; where does that come from? Is it one of London’s lost and buried rivers, or an unheard pump? Follow a skittering coot from the bank, out between the willows, towards the distant Xanadu of Whitehall’s domes and towers.
I’ve leapt now, in one splash, to where the Pin Mill is reflected pin-sharp in the rectangle of pool at Bodnant, then down a steep slope dense with rhododendrons to the rippling water of the Hiraethlyn as it winds through tranquil lawns under spires and towers of trees.
Which garden is in your mind’s eye in this world tour without expense? I just saw the gardeners hosing down the thick trunks of the Judas trees in the Retiro Gardens, the bright pink flowers absurd on the sparkling black bark. I just sat on the tatami, encompassed by the rattle and gurgle of rain in the copper pipes while the rocks shone, the azaleas and maples cringed under the downpour and the bamboo bowed.
Is the silver serpentine rill still running in its pale stone gulley down to the circle of pool in the woods, and on, down, round bends into invisibility? Is anyone admiring the cold stone nymphs or remembering the names of national heroes? Are the green blades of the bulbs shining among the rocks at Wisley, or the catkins shaking out their yellow dust? And at Ninfa, I see the fat trout in the racing green streamers of weed in the gin-clear river and the roses lolling from the ruined chancel-arch.
I see my own old garden, the trees I planted, the little cascade, the mossy old apple trees and the flint church tower. And with a little more imagination (the future is harder to imagine than the past) the long Welsh stone we will set up as a sundial in the New Forest. Gardens live in the mind, and there is a switch to turn them on.