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
The words of the auctioneer’s warning have dogged my footsteps in recent weeks, and not just with the sense of the season’s winding up for this year. I’ve never been to an auction, apart from the annual post-harvest festival sale of produce in the village church in Cumbria, a good-natured if amateurish affair where local farmers vied with parish wives to take home gifts which they’d contributed in the first place. Willingham Auctions is a beast of a different nature as I discovered when my mum’s furniture went under the hammer a couple of weekends ago. Not in person: but I discovered that, via the internet, you can follow an auction pretty much anywhere in the world – no cameras, but with a live feed of bids and sales, a bit like tuning in to a live match commentary, but with an option to switch on the sound from the saleroom, so that you hear the fate of each item. I only intended to catch our first ‘lot’ – it didn’t take long to learn the lingo – but found it a riveting process which kept me glued to the computer for much of the day. Fortunately perhaps, Mum was unaware that this was going on; so for us this shedding of a lifetime’s accumulation of worldly goods had an added poignancy. For years she was a keen collector of antiques, silverware, fine china, believing that it enriched our lives and would be something of value for us to inherit. In the end, despite the sensitive handling of all at Willingham, it became just so much stuff to dispose of.
The process of getting rid of the old is of course reflected everywhere you look in the natural world just now. I’m not sure if it’s a rationalisation of my own ageing or simply a tendency to the maudlin, but there is something endlessly fascinating, I feel, in things when they are past their ‘best’. I like the sense of stripping down to the essentials: rather than being dazzled by colour or distracted by scent, you are left with the thing itself. I find myself stopping at every second step as I wander through the garden, marvelling at the form and texture of branch and twig, snapping away at bare stems and browning seedheads and dead stuff. I recall in the early days of the residency being enchanted with the way the phrase ‘gone over’ has slid into botanical terminology. Now, when a plant has ‘gone over’, I see a chance to appreciate the shape of the thing or, even more captivating, the architecture of the whole. Whilst I appreciate the artifice of garden design, though, it is the sense of what nature can do for itself which is the real magic for me. Hence, I suppose, my affection for prairie plantings and wild gardens, for the valerian still going strong in the wall at the bottom of my street rather than the most perfectly cultivated exotic.
The sense of an ending was echoed for me in the Matisse exhibition, the cut-outs a way for the artist to combine art and gardens in his final years. It’s also on my mind as I ration myself to a few pages a day of Dear Friend and Gardener, anxious not to reach the year’s end before the correspondents, Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd. Determined to visit Lloyd’s garden in Northiam before it closes for the winter, I book a couple of nights in a B&B in Rye, a bus ride away. And it’s not just Great Dixter that beckons: I’ve worked out that I can also travel by bus from Rye to New Romney and from there, on the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, remembered from childhood, to Dungeness. It’s almost four years since I first saw Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect House, mid-way through what proved to be Mum’s last ‘Music at Leisure’ event at the Imperial Hotel in Hythe. A rather dismal weekend, I remember, the skies as grey as the concrete sea defences and the sea itself, so that the deep brown walls and yellow paintwork of the cottage, and the more muted tones of garden and shingle banks took on a technicolour brilliance. Since then, and now 20 years since his death, Jarman has accompanied my own faltering steps into the world of gardens, a repeated reminder to be bold and outward-looking, and to keep to the discipline of writing – even at his most poorly, Jarman wrote in his journal almost every day. After all, as Ali Smith says, it is the writing which sustains us; and love, of course.
What’s left of us, according to Christopher Woodward, Director of the Garden Museum is not, as Larkin would have it, only ‘love’ but also dust (‘just under 3 kilogrammes if you are cremated’, he says) and ‘the paper and electronic trail of an archive’. The Garden Museum’s project to set up the country’s first archive of garden design is in some ways a paradox in itself: ‘no one wishes the tangling, hopeful thing that is a garden to be frozen for ever in the unchanging light of a vitrine’, Woodward says. Still, the projected future of the Museum is a far cry from this Sleeping Beauty effect: restoration and refurbishment of the lovely little church of St-Mary-at-Lambeth creating five new galleries, a building extension comprising two new education pavilions and a café, and an archive study room with a three-storey tower housing over 100,000 items, a ‘collective memory of British gardens’, in particular the making of the modern garden. Digital access means that the museum’s treasures will have an unlimited audience. It’s a massively ambitious project and fund-raising is currently underway to match the Heritage Lottery Fund’s £3 million grant. Love and dust aside, Woodward himself raised almost £40,000 last month in an 8-day 125 mile swim of the Thames from Oxford to London, designed to highlight the museum’s intention to reclaim John Tradescant’s Ark, a plant hunter’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’, from the Ashmolean Museum.
Going but thankfully not gone, then. Which is more than can be said for the world’s wild life, 50 % of which has been lost in the last 40 years according to the World Wildlife Fund, as habitats are destroyed and ‘unsustainable numbers’ of animals are killed for food. Knowing that this loss is driven by human consumption, this is clearly a ‘call to arms’ says Mike Barratt, director of science and policy at WWF. A loss felt more keenly perhaps, or at least more immediately by the country’s poorest, is the £3 billion a year which will disappear from Britain’s budget if a Tory government is re-elected, under chancellor George Osborne’s proposed two-year freeze on benefits and tax credits. The fight against what seems unacceptable, globally or nationally, has increasingly become the province of the petition rather than the streets (although what about recent climate change marches – and Hong Kong demonstrations? Perhaps a change is in the air.) Some of the footage of protestors taking to the streets in the film ‘Pride’ which I saw recently recalled for me the emotional impact of being part of a mass protest, not at all the same feeling involved in signing an on-line petition. In a way it felt like watching the sad passing of the whole Labour movement, as well as a grim reminder of those early days of AIDS and the prejudices and ignorance with which it was greeted. Some things have definitely gone for the better.
And what has this to do with gardens? Of course the past is essential: the brown seed-heads I’ve been enjoying in the last few days rely on their past to secure our future. Even so, the ‘gardener’s natural – and healthy – tendency is to look forward’: Christopher Woodward again. Whilst there are things worth fighting for, and fighting against, there are also aspects of the past that we have to let go if we are not to become stifled by what Christopher Lloyd called ‘the dead hand of tradition’. A garden may still be, as Francis Bacon put it 400 years ago, the ‘purest of human pleasures’, affording an escape or at least a space for contemplation, and for many of us this is an essential aspect of our health and well-being. ‘Hearts starve as well as bodies,’ the old anthem goes. ‘Give us bread but give us roses.’ Jenny Uglow puts it neatly: ‘We may think we are tending our garden, but of course, in many different ways, it is the garden and the plants that are nurturing us.'
Increasingly, though, the garden seems to have its roots in the impurities of ordinary life. Whether you’re a guerrilla gardener, engaged in the war against neglect and scarcity of public space to grow things, or an individual committed to peat-free soils or drought-tolerant plants which need little watering, gardening is increasingly a political act. Ostrich time is definitely on the way out. And in the same way that gardening demands a new attitude, perhaps writing about gardens similarly demands a new language or form, something ‘urgent, vital and alert to the defining particulars of our times’. Definitely a timely reminder that, as far as the residency goes, my time is running out.
Jenny Uglow wrote A Little History of British Gardening (Chatto & Windus 2005)
The quotation about language in the last paragraph is taken from Jason Cowley's 'Editor's Letter', the introduction to The New Nature Writing (Granta 2008)
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden