Wednesday, 25 September 2013


A very stretchy month, this, one foot lingering in summer, the other striding impatiently on towards autumn.  For the first few days (is it really only a few weeks ago?) we're blessed with fine weather and high temperatures, the sun so fierce even I have to look for shade, and the visitors keep on coming.  The air is heavy with mysterious lemony and peppery scents.  Near the Brookside gate, armies of Michaelmas daisies are still massing, looking a bit the worse for wear but they're not giving in yet.  Around them - camp followers or local colour? - tall nicotiana sylvestris loll insouciant: they're browning at the edges now but if they know they don't care.  And clumps of echinacea are hanging in there, the vivid pink of their petals fading to old linen, papery white.  As the colour drains out of the petals it seems to creep into the central cone which glows with a greenish intensity.

The season demands you look up.  Trees that one day sport a streak of red and gold turn overnight to flame.  The sweet buckeye, aesculus flava, and its neighbouring acers lead the way.  Once I do look up, though, I find I'm seduced by those that keep their colour and their leaves.  One morning I deviate from my usual route, setting off along the West Walk as far as the old main gates on Trumpington Road, where the steps are bright with pots of purple verbena bonariensis (thanks to all who helped with identification) mixed with the reds and oranges of dahlias bobbing about in the breeze, poking their noses in to everybody's business.  Here I turn left along the Main Walk as far as the crossing with Henslow Walk.  The conifers that line the avenue reach a sort of climax at this crossroads, with four colossal specimens, one on each of the four corners.  I have the place to myself, apart from a woodpecker and a bunch of magpies chattering somewhere, and I want to get to know these trees a bit better.  I step off the path onto the impacted earth under one of these giants, cedrus atlantica, Atlas cedar, expecting a hard surface.  Instead, it's as if a woolly blanket has been spread beneath my feet, the long straw-coloured curves of dead needles creating a soft, springy carpet.  What would it feel like in bare feet?  In Four Hedges, Clare Leighton takes us to task for 'lazily' looking at things, missing out on the 'vast range of emotion' available to us through our other senses, so I run my fingers over its ridged bark and then move on to the Crimean pine, whose bark is softer and scalier.   I continue the touch test on the cedrus libani  and then on the giant redwood, at just over 30 metres the tallest tree in the garden and one of the oldest, grown from the first seed brought into this country by Cornishman William Lobb in 1851.

There's plenty to catch the eye on the ground, of course.  By accident I come upon the new perennial meadow planting just to the east of Cory Lodge.  Designed by James Hitchmough, Professor of Horticultural Ecology at Sheffield University, it relies on drought-tolerant plants which will knit together to flower from April to October.  At present it's a surprisingly rich tapestry, predominantly purples and salmon pinks and yellows against the dark background of the yew hedge.  In the bee beds, the sherbet yellow of the snapdragons contrasts with the crushed raspberry of the sedums.  Springing
up everywhere in shady spots are tiny cyclamen, white, palest pink and every shade of purple, like stars or jewels in the dark ground.  And autumn crocus appear here and there, standing gamely, almost upright, on such slender stems.  They're easily floored by wind and rain, 'but how gently they lay their heads down flat on the grass to die, making of death a gracious thing': Clare Leighton again.

There's so much to read and so much fine writing I'd love to emulate, without simply repeating what's been done so well by others.  Hence my woeful vagueness when I'm asked - as I am more and more often now that I'm becoming a more familiar face around the Garden - 'So what exactly is it you're doing?'  'Um...' is usually the best I can come up with.  I suppose I'm interested first to explore what the garden - and this Garden - means to each of us, and how it fits into our experience of the natural world; and secondly, how best we might record our experiences.  In theory my focus is the journal, the kind of record that writers and gardeners over the ages have chosen to keep.  So I'm reading everything I can get my hands on, from Dorothy Wordsworth to Derek Jarman, Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, Alice Oswald, Katherine Swift, Mrs Loudon...  Tomorrow it's Beth Chatto and Emily Lawless.  Also now on my list are the opening of Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black (thanks, Paul) and, courtesy of friend and poet Clare Crossman, Jean Sprackland's Strands; also from my friend Tim a sequence of articles on Linnaeus and Tim's copy of Linnaeus's Lapland Journal, which I'm hoping he'll let me borrow.  In the last couple of days I've encountered three pieces which are so impressive that I've been tempted to put down the pen for good.  Sarah Hall's 'Mrs Fox' was the first of five stories short-listed for the BBC National Short Story Award broadcast on Radio 4 this week.  A fellow-Cumbrian, I've been following her career with interest and some envy.  She's really prolific and, as far as originality goes - well, you could listen on iPlayer.  Second was the opening page of Tim Dee's Four Fields - wonderful.  And then, yesterday evening, a Twitter feed sent me to Helen Mort's new poem 'Passing Places' - wow!

I'm not giving up, though, not yet.  I still have a headful of impressions that haven't made it onto paper - the smell of cut grass, the dead bird (head missing) that Laura found this afternoon, the high-tech world of the experimental glasshouses with their automated shade and temperature control and the mist machine, cafe mums, the sound of a penny whistle across the big lawn... This morning there's a nip in the air and - yes, definitely mist as I cycle across Parker's Piece, autumn 'showing the marks of its fingers' in the dew on the grass is how Clare Leighton puts it.  The sun, when it comes, has lost the ferocity of the start of the month - more like a warm caress than a hammer blow.  And I think the
echinacea may have had its day for this year: two gardeners are digging just behind it in the bed on the Lynch Walk.  Perhaps it's this sense of endings which makes this such a famously melancholy time of year?  It seems easy to slide into nostalgia: memories of meetings and re-meetings, and a kind of amorphous longing for woodland walks and tea and toast and log fires...

Monday, 2 September 2013

Answers on a postcard

Well I've been away but I haven't been idle - at least not all the time.  A curious effect of my new identity is that suddenly I'm expected to be much more knowledgeable about plants than I am - 'I wonder if you know what this is, Kate?' Usually the answer is no, although I think I'm learning.  One delicious favourite that seemed to be flourishing everywhere on my trip to Brittany and which we struggled to identify is out in force in Cambridge now I'm back and I'm still none the wiser.  Help, someone, please!

This was my first visit this year to Nick and Di's lovely Landroannec home and it was great to see how their garden is coming on.  The wonderfully blowsy blue hydrangeas so popular in northern France rub shoulders with fuchsia and camellia and wisteria (building up to a second flowering, as here) and walnut trees that seem to grow like weeds. The air is scented with roses and the last of the stocks, and Nick sent me up the drive to soak up the smell of the pines in the heat of the day - gorgeous.  I managed a tiny bit of weeding on my last day.  Mostly, though, I had the tough job of deciding between sun or shade, the grassy knoll under the apple tree or at the table just outside the house where we dawdled over breakfasts (wild blackberries and whitecurrants and windfall plums) that slid into coffee and, on the hottest, laziest days into lunch.  On other days our pre-breakfast swim was augmented by a bike ride along the track into Mur for coffee and croissants in the local 'Rockwell' bar, and maybe a glass of wine before we wobbled home.  The house martins nesting in the garage seem pretty comfortable there too, although Nick's bald head became a target of some rather frenzied ducking and diving if he strayed too close - why didn't Di and I suffer the same treatment?  The babies were busy with flying lessons - we came upon our first, a velvety rabbit's paw of stripes and fluff on the path at our feet as we walked down to the lake early one morning. And oh that lake..!

A couple of kilometres along the road towards St Brieuc we found the delightful Jardins du Botrain, tucked away down a tiny back road.  It's one of those gardens that's full of surprises - a modest little Japanese garden leads into mixed beds of mallows and daisies, roses and cosmos and loads of those fabulous purple things, hydrangeas of course, wonderful old trees and shady grassy bits, a pergola, a roseraie (a shame we don't have such a pretty English term for a rose garden), a wood and, just when you think you must have reached the boundary, a lake, bordered by gunnera, a tree fern, even a banana tree. It's rather overgrown in places, and full of quirks.   Walking round felt more akin to sharing a private pleasure than sampling a public space.  My favourite flight of fancy? - A woven willow frame for a view, at eye level in a thick hedge, a perfect circle, looking out from the darkness of the wood over open fields and farmland.  We didn't investigate the history of the garden although it seems to be the product of a husband-and-wife team, who were very excited by the comment in the visitors' book from their latest English visitors, that Botrain was 'better than Sissinghurst'.  And guess what we bought to take home to Landroannec? - an ajuga reptans.  Sorry, Nancy.

On one of the sunniest days we drove to Etel, a small town on the south coast: coffee at the bar, a picnic lunch on the beach, many swims in the silky sea, a cold beer on the harbour.  Then we joined 500 or so other customers at the long rows of trestle tables in the huge hangar of the criée, the fish market, to sample the grilled sardines that this area is famous for.  It's an annual charity event, apparently, a week-long celebration, where the fishermen grill the fish outside in racks of about 100 I guess and their wives (!) serve at table.  Very traditional, very noisy, very Breton - and very tasty.  I cleared my plate, tails and all, unlike my neighbour who had more bones than fish by the end of her meal.  There was far - a heavy Breton custard-type cake, sweetened with prunes - for pudding.  I emerged, of course, with my new frock covered in grease spots.  Thanks to Nick's internet research, a thick layer of cornflour left on for a few hours before washing did the trick.

This was my fifth visit, we reckon, though the details of the various stays proved impossible to recall clearly.  We agonised at length over dates and times and possibilities.   I'm not sure quite why it seemed so important to get the record straight, except that an absolutely crystal clear memory I have of an earlier visit to La Trinité-sur-Mer simply could not have happened.  So I'm left wondering: did I dream this?  Or are we capable of believing elaborate inventions of our own making?  It's relevant partly because Di and I, as artist and writer, are engaged in what is, to us, a fascinating exploration of our own overlapping memories and how we might represent these.  Does it matter if what we 'remember' simply isn't true..?

Whilst I was away I also spent a bit of time most days in Argentina - not literally, of course, not this time. But I'd gone away determined to finish editing a novel I began over four years ago and have been fiddling with off and on ever since.  It's set entirely in Argentina, and deals with the 'Dirty War' of the 1970s and those who were 'disappeared' by the authorities.  It hinges on memory, on the importance for a healthy society of being open about what is past.  It was inspired I suppose by the various groups in Argentina today who are working to reclaim the memory of those terrible times in the search for truth and justice.  When I was in Córdoba three years ago, I visited one of the secret detention centres which had recently been turned into a memorial.  At the entrance, a huge thumbprint, a proof of identity, is made up of hundreds of names of the disappeared.  So in Brittany, each morning before the rest of the house was awake, I returned to the other side of the world, in the hope that the novel will eventually be able to make some sort of contribution to restoring what was lost.

In any case, of course it isn't possible, or even desirable, to escape completely.  I'm not sure how much any of us can do to change things in Syria or the Congo, but I've promised myself that at least I'll keep myself better informed now that I'm back.  I'm feeling energised by progress with the novel, and full of that back-to-school verve that typifies September.  I plan to eat lots of vegetables, work regular hours, make space for rest.  Now that I've cleared a bit of space (and have new bookshelves!) I'm excited rather than daunted by the prospect of the garden residency and keen to explore the possibilities of the journal. And I'll be swimming regularly, of course, though sadly there's no lake here to cross before breakfast.  Thank you Landroannec - already looking forward to next time.