I’ve got every reason to be happy and cheerful, even if the worsening world political situation causes me to despair – to such an extent that I can barely bring myself to listen to the news. So let’s concentrate on the here and now. My new hip allows me to move about freely and my prostate operation has brought me huge relief and more sleep at night. The garden is looking good, despite the drought, and people seem to be enjoying Paths to the Past. My next book is about to start its final editorial process and is due to be published next June (which experience has shown works much better than a pre-Christmas, autumn date).
It has been a busy summer of literary festivals and book-signings, which have been well-attended and I’ve really enjoyed the feedback I’ve had from my readers. To be honest, I really enjoy meeting readers of my books. There’s something so personal about one’s relationship with a reader. It’s as if they’ve spent time around my house and family – especially those readers who have read several books. Their comments can be very perceptive and personal. Often they can be affectionate – and occasionally, very occasionally, I’m privileged to be given a glimpse of events that have affected their lives too. That’s why I enjoy such events so much.
During the second week of July, I did three signing sessions in Salisbury, Buxton and Dartington Hall, near Totnes in Devon. Of course I’d read about Dartington Hall and how it was restored and became an important centre for the Arts, but I’d never actually visited. So I had a wonderful time when I gave a talk there on July 9th. The train journey down to Devon was a nightmare, with cancellations, delays and failed air-conditioning. I hope the audience didn’t spot the huge patch of sweat up the back of my shirt. But the talk went down very well and stimulated plenty of discussion. Afterwards I spent time relaxing in the wonderful Arts and Crafts gardens which still managed to look good, despite parched grass. Towards the end of that week I showed a group of tourists from Canada around Stonehenge. Again, there were horrendous, over-crowded and delayed train journeys there and back, but the charming, friendly group from Canada more than made up for them. It was great to be able to talk about Toronto and Ontario again. Why are Canadians so pleasant and quietly humorous? I suspect it may owe something to their Scottish and French connections. I certainly don’t regret the nearly ten years I spent at The Royal Ontario Museum – happy days!
After Salisbury I took another ghastly train ride (which ended with a cancellation and a hurried bus journey that only just got me to the venue – the Opera House, no less – in time for the sound check) to Buxton, in Derbyshire where I did a talk and book-signing with two friends from Time Team days, (Sir) Tony Robinson and Dr. John Gator – the leading geophysicist. Maisie knew I’d be exhausted after such a busy, hot week – which indeed I was – so she had booked us into a miniature French chateau, just outside the village of Gate Burton, overlooking the River Trent, in north Lincolnshire. This highly eccentric folly was built in 1747-8 as a weekend retreat by a successful lawyer based in nearby Gainsborough. From a distance it looks like a French Chateau and it’s not until you walk up to it that you realise it’s smaller than half-size. You have to walk down a short flight of steps in order to pass through the front door, without bending double. The large room is on the first floor and the bedroom off it can just accommodate a double bed, providing that one of the sleepers (not me!) doesn’t mind climbing across. I used the excuse of my recent prostate operation to claim the easier-access side…
The view from the front is of Gate Burton park which has some very fine old oaks and a flock of ewes and their lambs which were doing their best to eat the parched grass. Happily, they were being fed every morning by large teleporter. The back (north side) of the house faces an old wood, with a splendid walk down to a high cliff overlooking the Trent, but the best view of the river is from the west side of the Chateau, where the broad sweep of water curves towards a large power station in the middle distance. I’m not a purist about views: that one was excellent – if anything it was completed by the power station, which looked particularly magnificent after dark.
I won’t describe all the places we visited from our base at the Chateau, but two were very special. As readers of this blog will surely have gathered by now, Maisie and I are both very keen gardeners and we had long been interested in the high Victorian gardens at Brodsworth Hall, just west of Doncaster in what is now described as South Yorkshire. Incidentally, I don’t want to sound like an old bore, but the long-established and widely accepted Yorkshire Ridings were far better suited to Britain’s largest county than the characterless modern districts, that were introduced (or rather imposed) during the disastrous local governments reorganisation of the early 1970s. One day I might devote a blog post to these ‘reforms’ which were classic examples of political and bureaucratic changes that completely ignored history and local identities. But I digress. Back to Brodsworth Hall and its fabulous gardens.
The house and gardens were built and laid out in the 1860s by the Thellusson family who had owned the estate since 1791, but had not been able to do anything as their funds were caught up in a prolonged legal battle over a will. Such drawn out battles made many Victorian lawyers extremely rich and of course inspired Dickens to write Bleak House (1852-3). The house was somewhat updated in the decade before the Great War, thanks to an influx of money from coal mining, but it was never kept fully modernised and gradually slipped into slow decline, eventually passing to English Heritage in 1990. The new owners have done a very sympathetic restoration of the house which still manages to retain an air both of past opulence and more recent faded gentility. Gardens, however, can’t be given such treatment: plants are living things and when well looked after always seem vibrant. So the horticultural team have gone for a full restoration of what the gardens would have looked like in their prime, as first laid out in the early 1860s.
I’ve visited Brodsworth several times, first during the 1990s when I was on an advisory committee to English Heritage, and then later, as a tourist, in 2010 and 2013, but none of these compared with the guided tour we were given by the Head Gardener, Daniel Hale, and his able assistant Georgina (or George), in mid-July. These tours are advertised on Brodsworth’s website. I’ve given a few hundred (thousand?) site tours in my life – so I do know what I’m talking about – but this was one of the very best: informed, informal and highly entertaining. It also took place on a perfect sunny summer’s day.
I think there’s a historical tendency to see Victorian gardens in terms of very brightly coloured summer bedding, often crammed into quite restricted urban, or more usually suburban, spaces. This style of gardening came into fashion with the simultaneous introduction of greenhouses and the arrival of new heat-loving plants from the expanding British Empire. We tend to think of the two great London museums, The British Museum and The Victoria and Albert Museum as being the guardians of that imperial heritage, but we should not forget Kew Gardens, whose flower beds, buildings and plant collections are just as important – if not more so. In the later 19th and early 20th century the likes of William Robinson (1838-1935) and Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) promoted more naturalistic styles of planting that were more appropriate to the British climate. They were both excellent writers and their long lives proclaimed the health benefits of gardening. But my point is that Victorian gardens were not just about bedding. In a great garden, such as Brodsworth, the bright summer bedding provides a focus and contrast to the more subtle shrubberies, rockeries and woodland walks that surround it. Its impact has to be experienced to be appreciated. Photos and videos simply cannot capture the moment when you stroll out of a laburnum tunnel and suddenly you are in another, brighter, more exciting world. Even though I now know what to expect, the first sight of that central planting at Brodsworth is transporting. I can’t think of another word to describe it. Too often modern gardens at country houses run by great national institutions are very neat, well-tended, but essentially rather dull and uninspired. But not at Brodsworth. Oh, no.
The other very memorable place we visited from The Chateau was also run by English Heritage, but it was very different. This was to be my first visit, after 73 years on this planet. Having been there, I can’t understand why it isn’t better known. Yorkshire is, of course, famous for its Cistercian abbeys. The order was founded in France in 1098 and were known as White Monks. They came to Britain in 1128. Most people have heard of Fountains, Rievaulx and Kirkstall Abbeys, but few have come across their more southerly neighbour at Roche, just east of Rotherham and Sheffield. You enter the Abbey through a wonderful little cottage ornée that formed part of Capability Brown’s landscaping of the Abbey’s romantic ruins on behalf of its then owner, the Fourth Earl of Scarborough. He began work in 1775 and while it is known that he lowered walls and built mounds of soil and submerged large areas of the ruins in a romantic lake, he did create something of lasting value that has led to the survival of the monument. I strongly suspect that excavation in some of the lower, waterlogged areas around the Maltby Beck, which flows through part of of the site, will one day reveal wonderful information about monastic life in the 13th and 14th centuries. The site is surrounded by trees and even though it was a gloriously sunny summer’s day, there were not many visitors. So we were able to relax, eat a small picnic (nothing elaborate, just a few quails in aspic, the odd lobster claw and a bottle or two of Bolly) and enjoy our surroundings. I shall certainly go there again.
On our return home we did our best to get stuck into the garden, but sadly the weather was so stifling hot that we could only manage to work half a day at a time. Then in early August, the strong ridge of high pressure that had been anchored over Scandinavia in June and July at last weakened and Atlantic weather returned, bringing with it much-needed rain, even if sometimes it was too heavy to be altogether beneficial (we had 27mm on Monday August 13th!). One of my small summer projects has been tying-in the wisteria, which now covers the wooden pergola, or Poop, at the back of the house. This is where visitors can sit and relax with a cup of tea when we open the garden to the National Gardens Scheme, which this year will be on the weekend of September 15th-16th. Last year we had 7mm or rain on the Sunday and next year I hope the wisteria should be thick enough to absorb a light shower. This year it just looks like a delicate William Morris wallpaper. Who says you can’t be creative with plants?
A quick final note. BBC Radio 3 broadcasts discussions during the interval of Promenade Concerts. I did one of these programmes at Imperial College, just across the road from the Albert Hall on Friday 27th July. It was about the British landscape to accompany the music (by Holst, Vaughan Williams etc), which was excellent. Here’s a link to the podcast (of the talk, not the music).