A Voyage in the West
The solstice has come and gone. The sundial’s shadow is a little black pool in the moss under the gnomon. It is hot and green – sweltering hot, and so green that the mind wanders nostalgically back to Hergest and a red rhododendron ‘Elizabeth’ in front of a cool white-barked betula jacqmontii ‘Jermyns’, with behind it the clear pink of a big Magnolia campbelli…
Someone is sneezing on the far side of the hedge. They are high, cross sneezes, so the sneezer is the Duchess. Her blood is deepest azure, splendidly reactive, so she is allergic to just about everything. The situation is aggravated by the fact that she has declared a state of economic siege, dismissed all garden help, and taken on her own bony shoulders the Hope’s grimmer chores. The dawn chorus segues seamlessly into the howl of her chainsaw. After a light breakfast of anchovies and gin, she careers wildly to and fro on the lawnmower, cursing all trees. This process naturally stirs her allergies to fever pitch, forcing her to spend the afternoon on a daybed in the Turkish kiosk, smashed comatose on Piriton and smoking Capstan Full Strength against the wasps. At dusk she zigzags forth to reminisce.
The other night she gazed upon our brilliant embothrium, flared her nostrils to a whiff of woodsmoke, and started talking about Lochinch Castle.
A friend of hers visited this pile in the time of the last Lord Stair but two, famous as a man who would shoot his own grandmother if he saw her rising from a root field. Returning to the castle one afternoon, the friend became aware of a delicious, incense-like smell. He asked what it was. ‘Embothrium,’ said Stair, waving at the castle’s forest of chimneys. ‘Never burn anything else.’ This seemed to impress even the Duchess. Your embothrium is generally considered a shrubby object of no great height or bulk, and the fireplaces of Lochinch were apparently on a scale that required the service of a full-time stoker. The Gulf Stream coast of Scotland is evidently pretty useful embothrium country. So why were we hanging around in the Welsh Marches?
During the week that followed, we painted the boat. Then we hauled up some sails and headed west into a more or less sneeze-free zone.
Many of the great gardens of the British Gulf Stream were made before roads and even railways, and are designed to be approached and supplied by sea. There exists a splendidly vituperative mid-19th century correspondence between the strong-minded Augustus Smith, founder of Tresco, and the equally firm-willed Hooker of Kew. The difficulty was Smith’s hijacking a consignment of mesembryanthemums from a Kew-bound ship. Their bellowings, expressed in the blackest of ink on foolscap folded quarto, produced a froideur that lasted some ten years.
The Foxes of Falmouth were more pacific, as befitted a gardening family with its roots sunk deep in Quakerdom. Astonished visitors to the garden of Robert Were Fox at Rosehill found themselves picking lemons from trees in the open ground. His descendants, seeking to spare their families the diseases brought to Falmouth by ships from all over the world, moved out of town to found the valley gardens of Trebah, Glendurgan and Penjerrick. We sailed from Falmouth on a hot morning, and thumped for a couple of hours across a sea that walloped brine into our eyeballs. At last, the shores of the Helford River drew together ahead, and the anchor rattled down under the dour grey buildings of Glendurgan village.
Ashore it was all sea-bleach and orange lichen. But as we walked into the valley, the air stilled and the world changed, becoming muffled and green. Trebah, westernmost of the Fox valley gardens, depends on the tourist trade for its prosperity. Its trees are splendid, and its paths wind charmingly around the stream. A Zen monk might find the gee-whizz factor a bit high, but children love it, for they can swing like apes from the ropes provided and act the maggot to their hearts’ content. Monks will be fine at Glendurgan, and so will older people; for it is run by the National Trust, and is as a result hushed, reverent and accessible to all. Foxes still inhabit the house, comfortable and un-grand at the head of the valley. From the terrace it is a joy to contemplate the maze writhing intestinally up the western slopes, and admire the placing of the trees. Charles, the Fox in possession and author of a useful book on Glendurgan, claims that during the planting of the trees, his ancestor patrolled the terrace with a megaphone, directing the operations of vast squads of labourers moving reeling towers of scaffolding simulating copper beeches and magnolias. There is probably nothing worse than finding you have planted a hundred-foot copper beech eighteen inches too far to the east, and this Fox was taking no chances.
But when the Cornish sun blazes out of a sky of brass, or the Cornish drizzle weeps out of a sky of wet felt, Penjerrick is the place to be. It may be a bit disorderly for monks, and a bit slippery for valetudinarians. The anchorage is dodgy in some breezes, and it is a slight hike from the beach. But once you are in, the trees meet overhead, and a whiff of fox tangles in the ferns as you shoulder your way down the narrow paths. Where the stream has made the ground swampy underfoot, there is a proper gunnera jungle. This is not the polite, rather voulu gunnera thicket of other Cornish gardens, charming in its way, but carefully sculpted by strong men with sharp spades. This is the honest-to-goodness forest primeval, in whose pathless wastes the intrepid traveller can sit undisturbed on a stump and while away the afternoon looking up at the shadow-play of insects wandering to and fro across leaves backlit lime-green between the cathedral tracery of their ribs.
A long day’s sail further west, the Mount was doing its stuff. We went alongside in the harbour and crashed across an enormous meadow of red-hot pokers and started scaling the cliff-faces above. This is a garden weeded by abseilers and comprehensively replanted between 1976 and 2004 by my redoubtable aunt Helen Dorrien Smith, herself a daughter of Tresco Abbey. The rockery and the final approach to the Mount’s Victorian wing are now pretty much Tresco in style. The lower lawns, narrow and merely sloping, gaze out at a vast expanse of sea and sky over margins planted with (among other things) scented pelargoniums, pure-white deeply un-hardy dimorpothecas, and black aeoniums. The rock steepens as it rises, the terraces hacked out of the living rock now, walled on their seaward sides with an eighteenth-century cunning that directs the wind straight upwards; so that on a day when the breeze has scoured away every atom of haze, you can stand on the terrace and watch gulls fighting for a grip on the racing air, while the leaves of the Sparmannia africana on the wall behind you are moved to no more than a slight, non-committal rustle.
Out there on the horizon, Scilly is a series of blue crayon-lines hull-down in bright Atlantic.
‘Tresco?’ said the Duchess.
Tresco is a hard place to sail to, because the wind is always in the wrong direction. Besides, the cabin was filling up with plastic bags of cuttings. And the sun had been shining for so long that the weather had really got to break, and the trees would thrash around like inside-out umbrellas, and this extremely small boat would start behaving as if it was stuck in a washing machine.
‘Home,’ I said.
So it was away across Mount’s Bay, and round Land’s End into the Bristol Channel. By the time we got into the Severn we had had about enough of salt wind and Newlyn-School visibility. We were ready for some green in the air, and less of the fiery rum, and more of the golden light percolating through the lime tree and the glass of Chateau de Sours deep, bright pink on the table under it.
And here we are. The smelly geraniums have rooted, and the luma apiculata probably never will, but we are not amazed, by this or anything else. For there is a tower of swallows over the pond, and the click of ball on ball means that lawn sports, slow but ferocious, are on the go. And someone has lit the barbecue, and someone else is tuning a guitar by the bonfire we use instead of a patio heater. The smoke smells good tonight. Not of embothrium, for the Hope specimen is a mere bush. We are burning leylandii scavenged from someone’s mangled hedge. It makes fine aromatic firewood, showing that however grim a thing may seem it is probably useful for something. And here come the stars. The weather in the far southwest has gone bloody awful, but we don’t care. Out with the corks, and onward to moonrise.
from my Hortus column, Summer 2009
and another, from the Spring of 3013
Full Steam Ahead!
A long and landlocked winter has slabbered to an end. The covers are off the kitchen garden, where the worms have selflessly transported tons of muck into the depths. In the polytunnels the rows of intensely fashionable microgreens are about to turn into the less fashionable but infinitely more edible lettuces. Some of the larger puddles are receding, and a smell of deep green promise wells from the air.
Not that this makes any difference to the Duchess. For some months now she has been locked in to her turret, and we toilers in the garden have become suspicious to the point where we have taken to making up excuses to pass under her windows. It is on the way between (for instance) the herbaceous border and the fig trees; so there are sudden pauses in the middle of weeding to go and break off the frosted proto-figs. During these transigions shoelaces frequently need to be tied at the tower’s foot, and an ear bent for the clank of gin bottle on glass, and an eye cast hither and yon for fresh Capstan Full Strength butts on the ground. Though if there were any butts, they would long ago have been used as the foundation of anti-greenfly potions. (Did you know, by the way, that some Australian birds have taken to making their nests out of filter tip fag ends? One of the banes of small-bird life is their attractiveness to mites and other insects, and the nicotine in the fag ends apparently ensures a lack of crawlers in the home environment. When I told the Duchess this she told me not to be disgusting and boring at the same time. She is really not in a healthy frame of mind, interested in the changing seasons and the passing scene. A psychiatrist would describe her as up herself. Though the general view of the household is that she has got post traumatic stress disorder based actually being nice to someone at a drinks party some time around Christmas. Whether or not this is true, she tends to wake up in the middle of the night screaming ‘Canapés! Damn all canapés’ and need soothing with massive draughts of chloral hydrate, of which we discovered a cask in the cellar the other week.)
But this is by the by, which is of course the reason it appears in brackets. We have, as it happens, been engaged in some largish operations during the closing days of winter. These have featured the construction of a couple of arbours, close inspection of the woods and various standard fraxinus ornus for signs of dieback, and the replacement of a enormous plywood egg with the plywood silhouette of a nude, loosely based on the statuettes awarded at the Oscars. I am further preoccupied with modifying a small yacht into a floating library-cum-coldframe, for a trip I am in the middle of making up the coast of Scotland. This is an interesting project, but the Duchess finds it, like the other stuff, tedious. And as all the world knows, a Duchess bored is a Duchess teetering on the brink of a vast lagoon of gin.
Then just as the daffodils were going over the telephone rang, and there on the other end was Nick Walker. Nick is the Captain of VIC 32, the only Clyde puffer still steaming up and down the west coast of Scotland. Once, the puffers carried coal, red herrings, passengers and any other cargoes they could find between the towns of this wild and beauteous area, separated by hundreds of miles of road but short distances by sea. Their adventures are chronicled in Neil Munro’s very funny Para Handy stories – indeed, Vic 32 played Para Handy’s ship, the Vital Spark, in a recent TV adaptation. Nick and a corps of volunteers have turned Vic 32 into a comfortable, if not actually luxurious, midget cruise ship. It is not generally known that steamships are almost silent. So passengers on Vic 32 sit in the breeze and even the sun, hearing the panicky cries of the oystercatchers along the shore and the bubbling yodel of Great Northern Divers in season…
Any minute now someone is going to say, wait a minute, Hortus is a gardening journal, not a rendezvous for seagoing steam freaks. Patience. There is horticulture in store. Here it comes.
The horticultural note is first struck by the tomato plants growing in Vic 32’s wheelhouse, warmed by the heat rising from the engine and brightened by the sun streaming in through the big plate-glass windows. It continues with the general flora of this part of Scotland, which is a kind of motorway pileup of the seasons – primroses flowering at the same time as bluebells flowering at the same time as orchids flowering at the same time as foxgloves.
But the highest type of horticulture is visible in Vic 32’s itinerary, which in the late spring takes in some of that fine family of gardens, warmed by the Gulf Stream, in which plants more closely associated with Australia than Caledonia survive and thrive. The first time I ever saw Ardmaddy was after a cold, wet and frightening voyage south in a very small sailing boat from the waters north of Ardnamurchan, where trees are a rarity and the mountains slink through the clouds like enormous surly animals. Ardmaddy sits behind the shore warm and elegant, with a tower, which owes more to the round towers of Ireland than the Franco-Germanic fantasies of the Scots baronial. The round towers were built, it was said, to protect the culture of Irish Christianity from the Vikings. The tower at Ardmaddy seems to exercise a similarly protective effect on the botanical treasures at its foot.
Here and at Arduaine, a few miles away by water, it is a help to like rhododendrons - particularly in June, when Vic 32 makes her most horticultural voyages. But these are not sheets of grimly kaleidoscopic Home Counties hybrids. Species abound, and so do scented versions unknown outdoors by the shores of Virginia Water. The effect is more Bhutan than Basingstoke, but a Bhutan at the foot of whose glens the Sea of the Hebrides gleams dully, rolling, if you are lucky, with dolphins and whales.
A tedious distance away by road, but a hop and a skip by puffer, is An Cala, somewhat tamer than the two above, but kept temperate by the same Gulf Stream waters as its neighbours. Here, the echiums are as tall as (if slightly later than) the ones on Tresco, and there is a sort of post-Arts-and-Crafts matiness that can make you forget you are in Scotland at all.
This is the only worry I have about taking the Duchess on Vic 32. She does not really do matey, and her vision of Scotland has been largely formed in Accident and Emergency clinics following adventures at Caledonian Balls and grouse drives. In those days her idea of breakfast north of the border was to stump up and down the dining room with a bowl of porridge in one hand and a large gin in the other, Capstan Full Strength clipped between her fingers, which nicotine had tanned to the colour of the bark of an acer griseum. But that was then, and this is now. Perhaps she will behave.
So I have pushed a bit of paper bearing the magic words www.savethepuffer.co.uk under her door. She will no doubt wish to travel on the Hebridean Princess, and so would we all, including the Queen, who uses the ship as a Royal Yacht since that unpleasant Mr Blair spitefully confiscated Britannia. But the puffer, being smaller, gets closer to the action.
Talking about which, the year is rolling on. It is time to mark the daffodils for moving, plant some more potatoes, cut back the buddleias, and perhaps put a couple of chairs within range of the big stone table. Scotland will not be fit for habitation for a month or two yet. Meanwhile spring is rolling like a green tide up the hills of the Marches, and we will have to work like demons to keep our heads above it, and if the Duchess wishes to sulk, that his her business, not ours.
But here she comes, out of the tower door, dressed in an orange Tarmac boiler suit and some of her second-best diamonds. She pulls a hoe from the toolshed and makes a couple of dummy swings, like a golfer at the tee. Clearly she means business. Thank goodness for that.