‘How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and solemn and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she was ) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, :at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?–– was that it? –– “I prefer men to cauliflowers” –– was that it?‘
The garden at night is often a forgotten place – a world of cats brushing against the bushes, and trembling mice, and hedgehogs longing for a saucer of milk. And plants, spilling their scent quietly into the grass.
Archie stepped back and disappeared inside the shawl of darkness draped across the wall. I could not see him cross over but I heard him: a belt rattled as his trousers were shaken into position, spitted palms were rubbed together and a word sounding like ‘geyerselfover’ punctured the dark. He landed in a square of light beaming from the kitchen window.
“It’s something important isn’t it?’ he said, moving towards me.
Awaiting the launch of a novel is a time of quiet reflection: checking the excerpt, practicing the highs and lows of intonation, memorizing where stress is to be placed on crucial words, recalling the power of a pause and all the time wondering if you will be able to tell the story how you meant it to be told.
The novel The Insistent Garden began with thoughts of a garden. My two decades working as a landscape architect–and I hardly knew it at the start–fed the writing of it. The original aim of the book was to explore themes of human territoriality, repression and boundaries but the narrative took on a life of its own and although these themes remain it eventually focused on the power and meaning of garden-making. The garden has been viewed in many ways throughout history, in Eden the setting for original sin, at Vaux-de-Vicomtes as a display of power, and at Sissinghurst, as an exquisite essay in colour, but I was most interested in the notion of locus amoenus- the garden asan idealized place of safety and comfort. But a garden is never static and I was intrigued with how I might also draw on its dynamic qualities. The garden could be a character in a story. The growing garden could drive a plot.
I lay low, merging into the background as tempers frayed, only entering the kitchen when it was empty. Only then could I sit at the table and listen to nothing but the ticking of the clock, moving time forward. For me.
Finally, in the last week of the month, a translucent quality to the air suggested that the earth was tilting onto a new axis. Fresh aromas began to seep up from the soil, clinging to the clothes flapping helplessly on the washing line, carried into the house in the bottom of the laundry basket and rising up from my pillow as I laid my head down at night. Light levels shifted imperceptibly and one day in early February the sun came out. I stood at the kitchen window marveling at how I could see right to the back of the garden. But the garden was different. Something lay on the ground. Something purple.
Snowshill – hidden inside a fold in the English Cotswolds – is a sixteenth century manor house, which was inhabited from the 1920s onwards by Charles Paget Wade, an architect, artist-craftsman and poet. ‘Let Nothing Perish, was the motto of this passionate collector who filled the house with objects that illustrated the pleasure of both the extraordinary and the ordinary.
Yet it is the garden that finds its way beneath your skin; a delicately balanced arrangement of outdoor rooms designed by Wade in collaboration with Arts and Crafts architect M.H.Baille.
To go here is to experience something you might never forget.
Further down the valley pieces of garden had broken loose from the hill and fallen into a depression at the base of the slope. I could see fragments of it, an ancient tree hugging a younger sibling, a troupe of dusty pink valerian poking out from beneath a collapsed peony. A path eked away into blue distance.
I moved though the doorway; then stopped.
Someone had made an elysium. Someone had gathered up the loveliest plants in the land, sifted through them, and laid them out as a garden of unimaginable beauty. I suspected I saw an invisible hand arranging the simmering brew of colour that drifted across the ground. From our new vantage point we looked down upon a cluster of little garden rooms at the bottom of the hill, exposed to the weather and connected like the remains of a ruined house. Grass carpeted the floor, rain-bleached benches sat empty at the base of buttresses wallpapered with ivy and columns of yew held up the sky. A mockorange flower nudged my arm, begging to be sniffed. Breathing in a large lungful of garden air, I set off down the slope. Dotty followed; neither of us spoke.
Intimacy arrived fast. Leaves rubbed the undersides of my hands as I hurried down the path, the steps seemed to fit my feet and chickweed seeds clung to my sleeves like sticky crumbs. Walking more slowly, I squeezed down a narrow corridor of delphiniums and admired a distant church that had jumped into view. Finally I stroked my hand across the back of a clipped yew ball, feeling an earthy happiness.