Prospect Cottage

Derek Jarman's garden on the shingle beach. Dungerness. England.
Derek Jarman’s garden on the shingle beach. Dungerness. England.

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Derek Jarman’s shingle garden remains as one of the many unexpected delights on the beach at Dungerness.

And so faintly you came tapping

Geranium Johnson's Blue. Photograph by David Elliott
Geranium Johnson’s Blue. Photograph by David Elliott

In spite of summer warmth pressing against the edge of the house the air inside the cellar was cold.  I felt icy fingers down inside my dress as I walked up to my mother’s boxes and pulled out a book at random. The heavy tome fell upon open by itself when I laid it on my lap and my fingers trembled as they traced the words of the poem that had revealed itself.

And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you.

Here I opened wide the door;––

Darkness there, and nothing more.[1]

I pulled a flower, limp yet still holding its colour, from my pocket and laid it on the page. Then I tweaked the petals into shape until they bore a rough resemblance to their former selves. Finally I closed the book, wiping away the tear that had fallen onto the cover, placed it inside the box and, devoid of all breath, slipped back upstairs.

The Insistent Garden.

[1] Edgar Allan Poe -The Raven 1845.

 

“I prefer men to cauliflowers.”

Monk’s House, Rodmell, East Sussex. Mespilus germanica Common medlar
Monk’s House, Rodmell, East Sussex.
Mespilus germanica. Common medlar
Limnanthes douglasii Poached egg plant
Monk’s house, Rodmell, East Sussex.                                                                                                         Limnanthes douglasii.  Poached egg plant
The view from Virginia Woolf's bedroom doorway. Monk’s House, Rodmell, East Sussex. 29th September 2013
The view from Virginia Woolf’s bedroom doorway.
Monk’s House, Rodmell, East Sussex. 29th September 2013

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?

––Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf.

Spitted palms

Anthriscus sylvestris -Cow parsley. Photo by David Elliott
Anthriscus sylvestris -Cow parsley. Photo by David Elliott

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.

“Yes.” 

The Insistent Garden.

Vale of Venus

Vale of Venus. Rousham. Photo by Nat Chard.
Vale of Venus. Rousham. Photo by Nat Chard.

Venus de Medici stands alone in the vale that takes her name at Rousham.

Naked and exposed, she feels the breeze coming off the river, feels the sun on her back but ­– with her chin lifted just a fraction  – she looks away,  towards something in the distance.

Telling the story.

Book launch of 'The Insistent Garden'. Winnipeg Thursday 12th September 2013
Launch of ‘The Insistent Garden.’
Winnipeg, Manitoba. Thursday 12th September 2013. Photograph by Phoebe Chard.

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.

Thank you to everyone who came to listen.

Locus amoenus

Echinops retro-photograph by David Elliott
Echinops retro-photograph by David Elliott

 

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 as an 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.

The Insistent Garden.

 

A garden sweet enclosed with walles strong.

Snowshill garden
Snowshill garden
Snowshill garden
Snowshill vista

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.

“Like it, darling?” Dotty’s voice was close.

“It’s perfect.”  

The Insistent Garden.

Devices of deceit

Praeneste Terrace
Praeneste Terrace

 

The Dying Gladiator
The Dying Gladiator

 

You happen upon the Praeneste Terrace early on in the walk through Rousham. This fine stone edifice gives no hint of what is behind its heavy arches and it is not until much later, when you emerge from the woods and encounter the Dying Gladiator, ‘his drooped head sinking gradually low,’ that you find out. As you approach the balustrade to see the view you have a sense of having been there before. Yet only by studying the map will you be able to confirm that the suffering gladiator sits atop the same terrace that you paused to admire earlier.

Two places have become one

‘I knew the back of my father’s ankles intimately – especially that segment of skin between the top of his socks and the bottom of his trousers. A small forest of leg hair was exposed every time he stretched up the ladder to press mortar into a high part of the garden wall, and I often felt the desire to tuck the stray tufts back into his sock. His shoes were scuffed too, down the back seam, and I sometimes wondered what mythical creature rubbed that precise spot.

“Pass me up that cloth, he said, glancing down at the bucket beside my feet.

“Yes, I replied, too quickly.

The slime impregnating the cloth conjured up images of frogspawn, but I managed to wring it out without changing my expression. This was what I did. Bend down; wring out; pass up.’

The Insistent Garden.