Have you ever had a dream where it turned out that a place which had seemed exotic and alien to your normal environment was actually not very far away, as you once thought, but extremely close, or geographically connected in some secret unexpected way to where you were? California, contrary to what you had been told, did not necessitate an eleven hour plane ride, but was easily accessible via a small door in the floor of your outside toilet. If you went to Eileen’s, and she gave you a key to her little bridge out back, she could get you to Calais in no more than five minutes and save you bothering with the Eurotunnel or ferry. I wonder if the revelation my cat Roscoe experienced about the locations of the front and back gardens of our new house, about a month after we moved here, was similar. Until that point, front and back had been very different universes to Roscoe. The front, you only went to on special occasions, when you shouted loud enough at your secretary to open the door and, though there wasn’t much to do in it, beyond it you could hear the sound of a rushing stream, and there appeared to be all sorts of possibilities, once you built up the courage to go a little further. The back was accessible through a swinging door of your very own and a bit more exotic, especially when you rummaged through the foliage right at the far end of it where, a couple of weeks ago, you found your first mouse for ages, clinically cut off its blood supply and ate it in such a rush of excitement that five minutes later you threw it up, almost totally intact, at the foot of your secretary’s bed. But the problem with the back was that there was no easy route to anywhere else: the walls were very high and, though there was an old rotten wooden gate with a hole in it, waiting just beyond that, what appeared to be nearly all the time, was next door’s labrador, who barked every time she saw you. But one day when you were feeling brave, and she wasn’t around, you went through the hole. What you found in front of you was amazing: acres of ground, wildflowers. Ivy-clad walls with secret doors and archways. A monkey puzzle tree, loftier than anything you had ever seen. Loftier than the sky. You walked on, curving around to the west, past old sheds (you made a mental note to go back for a good long sniff in these later), and a rhododendron-lined driveaway. In a big white building beyond, you thought you saw a slender feline silhouette in a window, observing your journey. But there would be time to investigate that later. There was too much to see here right now, and you prowled on, down the driveaway, so far from home now, bolder and bolder, then took a right turn through some ferns. But there was something familiar about the patch of grass you saw here, and the lump of metal at the end of it, which was quite a bit like the one that your secretary sometimes got inside and mysteriously made move. It looked a lot like your own front garden. OMG, it was your own front garden, and you could get into it all on your own, every day, by this same route, via nextdoor, without having to go into the house and shout at your secretary.
I happened to be in the kitchen at the time so witnessed Roscoe’s arrival in the front garden and, though I am far from innocent of the habit of projecting thoughts and emotions onto my cats, I am sure I did not invent her look of wide-eyed wonder. The final scene in The Planet Of The Apes, where Charlton Heston finds The Statue Of Liberty, and realises where he truly is, flashed across my mind. I could also see exactly why she’d react like this: the front and back garden are such separate worlds here, it feels as if travelling to them on foot over land, in a matter of minutes, should be impossible. It’s a little frustrating – especially in terms of dirt, when you’re a keen gardener – that the only way to get to the back from the front is through the house, but in a way the house is a necessary portal to divide the two outdoor spaces. An alley would kill the mystery a bit. I worried before I moved in that the back might be cold, because it faces north east, but that worry soon became laughable: the high walls trap the heat, making it feel like a whole different ecosystem to the front, which is walled on only one of its four sides. The house itself is extremely cool, even on the hottest day, owing partly to the depth of the granite walls, and partly to the fact that it once belonged to horses. When horses live indoors, you rarely find them hanging out in big garden rooms with bi-folding doors and glassy open plan designs echoing the modernist movement. They like cool, shady places. Actually, I am merely assuming, when I say that multiple horses lived here. I just know it was definitely at least one horse. It could have been just one extremely big horse, who liked his space. What did the horse do with the garden? I do not yet have that information to hand. The garden, and its big walls, would still have been here but perhaps it then belonged to the horse’s owners, at the big house next door. Presumably, at one point the garden’s potential to trap sunlight would have been harnessed to grow fruit and veg, and right now I am trying to do the same thing, having planted kale, red cabbage, cauliflower, squashes, strawberries, artichokes, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, sweetcorn and a small fig tree. As I wait for them to flourish I too live not totally unlike a horse, tiring myself out doing energetic stuff in the heat, getting the occasional insect stuck in my increasingly sweaty mane, then retreating at the end of the day to a cool shady place with minimal wi-fi coverage.
Here are a few – but not even close to all – of the things I’ve done to the garden in the last month, since the last update I posted here:
Removed the old, dead roses in the bed near the back door, weeded, and remade it as a veg bed.
Removed the enormous shrub on the other side and dug out two more veg beds.
Taken a lot of the ivy off the top of the back wall, to let more light in, but not all of it.
Laid a small Griselinia Litt Variegata hedge at the front, where the border to nextdoor’s driveaway is open.
Burned the gigantic pile of clippings beside the rear wall – and the ivy – and restructured it as a compost area, with an adjacent wildlife area.
Put three birdfeeders up.
Planted fleabane in three places on or close to the wall, in the hope it will self seed in the cracks and fissures.
Found a home for two bellflowers, taken from offcuts from my late nan’s tiny yard in Nottinghamshire, over a decade ago, and watched them flower overnight.
Found some old, partially broken slate slabs, when digging out a bed, and reused them as a path, leading to my tomato plant.
Removed a decade’s worth of weeds, old pots, tiny frayed plastic fragments and other mossed-over junk from the large sunken patio behind the house, but also been careful to leave the hart’s tongue fern and wild strawberries intact.
Carefully pollarded the mulberry on the west side to give the veg beds more sunlight.
Made new beds on the east side, beneath the wall, and planted various shrubs and alpines.
Created a herb garden near the front door.
Laid slabs and made a new seating area in front of the bedroom window, with some semi-tropical planting.
Removed all the diverse and curious remnants of a huge old fire from the front patio, scrubbed it, and turned it into an area for pots.
You excavate here, and you feel like you’re burrowing through decades, peeling back strips of loamy history: disintegrated early 2000s bin bags, 1990s pots beneath them, and, beneath that, 1950s rust on objects whose original purpose often remains arcane. If you kept going deep enough, it does not seem totally unlikely that you might find a hat belonging to Oliver Cromwell. What you do learn, as you go further in, is that however much this place was neglected prior to me moving here, it was once much loved, and for me that’s another reason to keep my touch gentle, and reuse as much as possible. I have been a little more brutal than I first imagined with the old shrubs, but that’s mainly because these old walls are very very beautiful – solar systems of lichen, spleenwort, herb Robert and rustyback fern where every age-weathered stone forms an entire planet – and it would be a shame not to see them properly. At the same time, I am keeping plenty of foliage intact for the birds who have made their nests here for years, unobserved by humans. I’ve found various rusty metal rods and jammed them into the cracks in the walls, hanging feeders and baskets on them. There’s another old rusty object I discovered: a tiny, two pronged fork, industrial-looking, missing a nut, clearly once part of a much bigger piece of machinery. Fuck knows what it was originally for, but it’s come in brilliantly useful for getting the weeds out of the front path, in the tight bits I can’t get at with the shovel or paint scraper. Seven hours into my clearing of the old clippings pile at the back, I uncovered an ancient ladder, dark brown with rust. It’s staying, as is a rake broken to a quarter of its original length, which I use for “small raking”. I regret, in retrospect, taking the one-handled, no-wheeled rusty wheelbarrow to the recycling centre. It could have made a nice planter. I will make more mistakes. Plenty, I’m sure. My gardening in the past has been about maintenance, not creativity, so there’s so much to learn. It’s mostly – for a long time – going to be a matter of trying again, failing again, but failing a little bit better.
I can see that I’ve been labouring under an illusion, on some of these late light nights of early summer, when I have started on a little project out the back, and it has led to another project, and then – before I know it – darkness has set in and I can barely see the trowel and quarter rake in front of my eyes. “If I can just get everything sorted, I can get on with some other stuff,” is the thought that goes through my head. But I’m wrong: it’s never going to be sorted, not even when I have failed in far superior ways. There’s always going to be something new to do, something I’m unsatisfied with. That’s the nature of attending to a garden, in any committed way. I can see, looking at the difference between my photos from my arrival here, in mid-April, and the way it looks now, that the transformation has been huge, and there’s pride to be taken in that, but so much of what I’ve done – the foxgloves I’ve planted – won’t even be evident until next year, and I can also see so many flaws: the shape I’ve created is too rectangular and dull, there’s too much lawn, the ground elder is still a bastard and needs to be tamed, the clearance of the clippings pile has left the one small fenced bit to the rear looking plain and drab, an insult to the wall beside it, borders need to be sharper.
I wish, ultimately, the fence was not fence at all, but more wall. I wish I could build the wall that it deserves to be, all on my own. Maybe one day I will. I’d like that, if it was permitted by my landlords. But you can’t just get hold of bits of astonishing old wall by setting an alert on Gumtree or popping to the big garden centre at Ivybridge. Some friends a few villages away have got some wonderful new wall, to go with the old one that surrounds their garden, beside their house, where more horses, or another extremely big horse, also used to live, but they had to negotiate for weeks in confusing ways and meet an elderly man from a quarry in a layby on Dartmoor under the cover of moonlight to achieve that, and even then, the wall still doesn’t look truly old. You can’t buy the magic of age. I am eternally envious of the people who had the privilege of hearing the psychedelic and soul-drenched music I love most upon its initial release, but I am aware, also, there is something that has been added to music, solely by time, that makes it better than it was in 1966, or 1967, or 1968, or even 1969 and 1970, the best two music years of all. Loving craftsmanship plus quality material plus time is an unbeatable equation and one that can’t be faked. This is where the wall’s magic comes from too. I don’t own it, and it might be argued that doing so much work to enhance a place where you’re merely a tenant makes no sense, but I don’t see it that way, especially when I look at the wall. I feel privileged to live within its shelter, like the humans and cats and dogs and horses who have gone before me, and am glad to be able to add a tiny new chapter to its story. I look into its crevices and grooves and clefts and observe its changing hues and I know where I am, who I am, and what I am doing: I am just passing through.
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