A rainy Monday, the gloom lifted by visitors to the Garden: lovely Rose from Ely and her friend Anthea. I first met Rose on the Flowering Plant Families course shortly after I took up residence at the Botanics, and we have managed to stay in touch. Their easy expertise with botanical terms and all things horticultural reminds me how little learning I’ve retained, turning me to all thumbs and no fingers when it comes to something as basic as managing a hand lens to adore the baby cyclamen in the alpine house – even the leaves are beautiful. Still, Rose and friend come up with lots of useful titbits – the ‘keel’ on a legume, the fact that all orchids flower ‘upside down’, the reminder that orchids are named after testicles – and, more important perhaps, a reminder of the joys of close observation, sending me home intending to return to the text books I bought before the course, though I haven’t yet. Even more significant, I’d found a direction for the next piece in my garden journal: the contrast in size between plants on a huge scale, the enormous banana palms and coconuts and huge flowers of the tropical houses, and the world in miniature that opens up amongst the alpines next door. The following day I spend half an hour with a camera on the microcosmic side of things. The macro beasts have to wait for me to return from my own garden visits to Kent and Sussex.
‘This train is non-stop to London Kings Cross’ – the repeated announcements remind us we’re headed one way only, no chance of a detour or a change of heart, let alone a reversal. And my fellow travellers face the same certainties as I do: you can see it in their absorption in the distractions of newspaper or mobile, or their studiedly optimistic contemplation of the passing fields and rooftops – for we are moving now, just creeping alongside Shelford, now picking up speed through the Hertfordshire countryside. Kings Cross to St Pancras, changing at Ashford International then twenty minutes on the Brighton line before low wooded hills peppered with houses rise unexpectedly out of the flat land, and we arrive in Rye. This small town (only four and a half thousand residents, I hear its one tour guide tell some visitors) has plenty of charm despite its many charity shops, and oozes history. One of the Cinque Ports (as in ‘sink’, surprising me with notions of sinkholes and sink schools whenever I hear it spoken) it sits on a steep slope, so that its tiny cobbles become treacherous after rain. Its narrow streets evidently make life difficult for traffic – the normal procedure for unloading seems to be to stop in the middle of the road until done, so that there are constant tail-backs and frayed tempers. I witness a fight, an actual fight between two drivers which begins with a bit of head-butting and erupts into a desperate struggle in and out of one of the vehicles, until the police arrive. But I am staying in Wish House, as delightful as it sounds, windfalls and chickens and late roses, safe in its own walled garden.
Late in the afternoon I walk out along a wide grassy path, fat rabbits scampering ahead, towards Rye Harbour. As the path narrows through woodland there’s water on either side of me. Does the new metallic tang in the air come before the warning notices not to eat anything – blackberries are specified on one sign – as the land may be ‘contaminated’? All at once the general greenness is invaded with livid orange fencing, and the path bends round to the road: decrepit containers, a derelict shed the size of a hangar with a settee and a couple of chairs making a fireside group in an empty yard. I pass an Industrial Park (‘Racing Here Today!’) and into Rye Harbour itself. Nothing like its name suggests; there’s another industrial site and a steepled church and a pub, the Inkerman Arms. 5 30 must be opening time: there’s a man waiting by the front door, gazing up at the first floor windows, and a trail of folk, all men I note until I’m passed by two women, heading there also. I am enjoying the irresistible sensation of walking to the edge of the land. It’s difficult to stop but I turn in the bus-turning circle by the Martello tower and the holiday park and the start of the track out across the marshes and retrace my steps past a few rather sad cottages and the pub and head back inland, as ragged strings of geese squabble their systematic way overhead, for a fish supper, then a bath and bed.
The following day, Dungeness. Because the small coastal railway has gone into winter mode I am forced to approach crabwise, by bus, first tacking inland from Lydd to New Romney, then a second bus to The Pilot at Lydd-on-Sea. The near-gales that have been building through the night have dug in for the day, but the sun is up as I trudge through the shingle to the water’s edge. I relish this landscape, its emptiness, its extraordinary light, the nuclear power station squatting shadowy on the horizon, its exposure to the elements. It feels precarious, but there is a sense that those whose lives have washed up here enjoy its provisional quality. I skirt The Pilot with a view to returning there for lunch after a brief homage to Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. I approach slowly, anxious always that things may have changed, but no: still the yellow paintwork, Donne’s ‘Busie old foole, unruly sunne…’ on the side wall, the garden still a delight
Now that urge to reach the edge keeps me walking towards the old lighthouse, though it’s slow-going in the buffet and bluster, and in the end I stop short at The Britannia for beer and fish and chips, then a near-trot back through this strange landscape with the wind at my heels, just in time for the first of the buses and a retracing of the journey out – except that the waits are longer, the corners windier, the winds colder. Pilgrimages are not supposed to be easy, it’s true. Still it’s a relief to climb onto the final bus and then land at The Apothecary (again) for nettle & fennel tea, & cake. I had hoped I might find sufficient courage to knock on the door of Prospect Cottage in response to HB’s general invitation to tea, but I’d arrived without the intended gift and a business card seemed a poor substitute. Perhaps next time.
My second garden of the trip, Great Dixter, is a twenty-minute bus journey from Rye up and down through Kent’s wooded countryside. I had imagined that the garden might be past its dramatic best given the time of year, but every second step it seemed had me gasping or laughing aloud at some unexpected conjunction of unlikely bedfellows, surprise after surprise in terms of colour and shape and effect. The opposite of decorous or restrained, this garden celebrates life, colour, experimentation, boldness, risk, luxuriance – delight after delight, surprise after surprise. I almost missed the ‘rose garden’, Lloyd famously dismantling Lutyens’ creation & replacing it with an explosion of exotics, huge banana palms and tropical extravagances that towe.r overhead as you squeeze a pathway through. Setting me up nicely for the giants of the tropics back in Cambridge
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden