A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow (Pimlico: London 2005)
Into April and the delicious newness and freshness so precisely described by Laurie Lee coincides predictably, for me, with a dip in spirits. Still, the garden is at its loveliest, sprinklings of buttery yellow cowslips and the first bluebells hurrying to join the party. Fine weather and school holidays mean that there are children everywhere. They’re better at being in the moment than us; they scamper, yell, chase, squeal, kick, leap, taunt, squabble, demand, chuckle, wail or complain without restraint or self-consciousness – a free rein of delight or dismay, whilst we gather the paraphernalia of our days, check our lists, sweat or shiver, loiter irresolute or hurry by. A toddler sits in a patch of stone chippings with a plastic cup, scoops in a handful of the stones and attempts to trickle them over her head. They spill down her arm and over her shoulder. She tries again, and again, never quite there. Her mother – I guess this is her mother – approaches with an invitation to lunch but the stones are more interesting. Now the woman fetches a morsel from her plate and slips it into her daughter’s mouth, and another. Eventually she picks up the child and puts her in a high chair. She places a plastic cup with an inch of water in the bottom within reach. At once the girl makes an arrowhead of her fingers and dips them into the water, up-ending the cup so that the water spills along her arm and onto the surface of the table. She pats a hand into the spilled water. Her mum replaces the water and watches for the sparrow mouth to open, popping in a crumb whenever there’s an opportunity; meanwhile, the pouring lesson proceeds.
The morning slides into lunch-time; young voices clamour & whine for baked potatoes or ice cream. The beds in front of me are a jostle of new green uprights punctuated with magenta and scarlet tulips. The espalier etches its way up Cory Lodge’s wall to the roof. Beyond, on the mound of the limestone garden, a girl in pink runs into view and out again, then a boy in a sea-green top, then a brick-red scuttle. Adults drift across the lawn beneath a froth of blossom. Two blondes with bare shoulders pause to criticise an absent friend. The grandparents at the next table grumble on about good behaviour. Pete Michna strides past, a fancy-dress angel in his bee-keeping gear, the mask set back in a halo. Five minutes later he reappears in shorts and boots, normal service resumed.
After lunch, I escape the café’s hubbub and scout the garden for the latest delights. Beneath the magnolias, petals lie like curls of paper on the soil. I dawdle by the brazen glow of Kerria japonica, named after William Kerr who introduced it in 1804, Jenny Uglow tells me. I interrupt a private moment between a pair of ladybirds and disturb a busy bumble bee. The pink buds of the Malus, the delicate white flowers of Rhodotypos scandens and the curious Parrotiopsis jaquemontii all detain me for a while. And the first of the paeonies are in flower – the stunning boudoir-pink Paeonia clusii from Crete.
What holds my attention, though, are the triffids of the garden, the Crown Imperials, Fritillaria imperialis. Towering, fleshy, with gaudy orange or yellow ruffs and spiked crowns, they are extraordinary; impressive, but also faintly ludicrous. Someone must love them for their gawky grandeur. Clare Leighton sounds affectionate when she mentions her ‘royal clump… flowering on their tall straight stalks’. Beth Chatto describes them as ‘fascinating’. They flourish in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Himalayan foothills. In the northern hemisphere, I read, they flower in late spring with a ‘foxy odour’ – how did I miss this? – which repels mice and moles. For me, they are the stuff of nightmares. It doesn’t take much imagining to see them shaking the earth off their roots and striding menacingly towards me. Like other members of the lily family (these are lilies?!) they are ‘susceptible to depredation by the scarlet lily beetle’. So says Wikipedia. I’ve had enough. En route to the exit, I pass Pete Michna in a reverse transformation – if it is Pete: shrouded in white and crouching over a hive, it could be anyone – and then there, in the long grass near the Brookside gate, the snakeshead fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, as enchanting as its cousin is charmless and ‘one of the most exquisite jewels in the treasure house of British wild flowers’ according to the RHS.
Then to Norfolk for a few days of heavenly weather, clear skies (’blown bubble-film of blue’ is Lee’s description) and warm sun, though the wind is chill. I enjoy an eye-streaming march along East Banks to Cley beach, the wind at my back as I walk the crash and scrape of the incoming tide, the shingle bank to my left reduced to an untidy crust, the bite of the winter’s stormy seas still visible in the stones. We loiter in front of the shelter for an impromptu competition to hit a lump of peat with thrown pebbles, then to the deli for ice cream and back along the Chosely road, looking for birds of course: the ring ouzel eludes a second glimpse and the lumbering hares of the drive out are no longer about. Over the coming days we see wheatear and blackcap, yellow wagtail and red kite, and hear wren and chiffchaff, willow warbler and skylark. I learn that the chaffinch finishes its song with a twirly flourish. And there are swallows, a promise of summer. I leave Andy to head off in search of spoonbills – I have seen spoonbills. ‘But these are breeding,’ Andy says.
Later, driving past Peter Melchett's cowslip fields, we chat about what it is that excites us in the natural world. Mike McCarthy, environmentalist, writer and all-round guru, apparently has a theory that our response to nature – should that be ‘Nature’? – is a four-part attraction, the fourth part being ‘rarity’. Andy says for him this is key: a rarity unseen is a challenge he’s driven to meet - it becomes a quest, in fact. He suggests this might be a male thing. I’m not sure – there have been female birders and plant hunters, I know, though perhaps not as many. Our morning had begun with a chat about stories and their characters. I found myself, as usual, defending my preference for the Harry Potter series against, for example, Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ sequence, generally regarded, it seems, as ‘better’. It’s really imaginative,’ Tom said. ‘There’s this parallel universe, and…’ Immediately I feel my attention drift into that glazed-over, half-awake state that usually signifies Jack’s football chatter: honestly (sorry, Jack!) I’m just not that interested. Give me a comfortable adventure through what quickly becomes familiar territory, any time.
As we drive home, I wonder if this impulse is what makes our taste in literature so different. For me, what matters most is some sense of ownership: somehow I need to feel this place or bird or flower – or story – is in some way mine before I can make that emotional engagement. This corner of Norfolk is – well, it’s Andy’s territory but it’s become as familiar to me as my own back yard – more so, in fact. The hedgerows bustling with the new green of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), bare fields gouged with a giant comb in the long shadows of the late afternoon: these are the beauties of home. Another guru, Auden said ‘We can only love what-/ever we possess’. I’m wondering if this is the spanner in the horticultural works for me: that the botanic garden will always be someone else’s ground.
Reading: 'April RIse' by Laurie Lee
A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow (Pimlico: London 2005)
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden