Ahead of me stretched an enormous green lawn, filled with funny brown lumps. A giant stood looking down on me. He had smiley blue eyes that glittered like sapphires and a gentle voice.
“What are those?” I asked, pointing.
“Those are made by moles,” the giant explained. “They dig their way up from underneath us to see the sky above.”
I was three years old. It was 1942. I was living as an evacuee in Leighton Buzzard, waiting for the Second World War to stutter to its perilous end.
I turned away, content with my gardener’s answer. I had been worried he would tell me the lawn had been peppered with bombs in the night. I preferred the diggers to the sprayers. I looked up at the Leighton Buzzard sky, grateful for the quiet white clouds floating in their blueness, glad that I would have time to open a book or two. Only that morning I had learned to read. The teacher at my nursery school had written HEN on the board and drawn a picture of the bird. I put two and two together and made four.
A passionate interest in gardens and garden design is one of the threads that has held my life together over the past eighty years. As a child in Edgware I remember throwing my arms around the small silver birch in our back garden, only to hear the disdainful chuckle of the boy next door.
“She’s off her rocker,” I heard him muttering.
I continued to hug my tree.
After owning a series of back-yard spaces only large enough for a sand-pit and a bucket, a washing line and a dustbin – although one afternoon a swarm of bees hung onto my garden wall for several hours before deciding to move on – in 1987 I bought a cottage in Wolvercote, north Oxford, close to Port Meadow.
The builders had spent two years renovating the inside. The garden stretched into the distance, completely neglected for more than forty years. At its end crouched an enormous ancient shed.
The day I moved in, I struggled to unpack a pile of boxes. Hot and tired, I decided to take a break. I opened the kitchen door and fought my way through the brambles and long grass to what I calculated might be the centre of my overgrown inheritance.
“Afternoon, young missus,” said a voice from two gardens away.
I jumped a mile into the air. I was forty-eight years old and had assumed nobody could see me for love or money.
“This here veg has been specially grown for you.” An object zoomed into the sky, spun around several times and landed on a clump of wild grass near my elbow. It was a perfect cream and green cauliflower. “Name’s George. Howdee doo. Hope you’ll be happy as a sandboy.”
I was more than happy, I was ecstatic. I had been welcomed to Wolvercote. I ate the cauliflower raw, crunching my way through the heavenly fresh stem and flower. Then, miraculously, I found the kettle and teabags. Stronger and braver, I faced the tidal wave of unforgiving cardboard.
A demanding teaching post at what is now Oxford Brookes University took me out of the cottage from Monday to Friday. But my weekends became totally dedicated to gardening, with a wonderful gardener and his equally wonderful son. Like all good stories, we began at the beginning and went on until we reached the end. We uncovered an air-raid shelter and demolished it, brick by brick. We dug up one bone, then two, then the entire skeleton of a dog. My gardeners were convinced it had once been a spaniel. I dissolved into tears. I sat forlornly in the kitchen for the entire afternoon wondering what its name had been and how it had died.
We cut, trimmed, pruned and raked. We baked beneath the sun and soaked in the rain. We hired a massive rotator from Wytham. We bought fresh turf and laid it piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle. When we reached the bottom of the garden we discovered a cache of several hundred bottles, deep green and clove red, carelessly discarded during the war. They lay covered in mud like soldiers in the trenches, dead and long-forgotten. We clanked all weekend. My neighbours complained bitterly about the noise but we continued to clank, clink and stink. The mud smelled of stale alcohol and urine. Heaven only knows what the bottles had originally contained.
Then we demolished the ancient shed, holding our noses and shielding our eyes against a ton of asbestos sheeting. In its place we erected a pine gazebo with windows and shelves. I sat on its polished wooden floor. I looked back on the entire garden from a new perspective. Project completed. Backbreaking but so worth while. A modern garden for Wolvercote.
The following weekend I spent alone for the first time in many months. I took a cranky deckchair out into the middle of the newly laid lawn. Nothing had yet been planted, although a few desolate elderly trees sprang from the flat green turf.
And then suddenly I saw him: a fox standing outside my gazebo. He stared at me for several minutes, sizing me up. He looked confident and brazen, as if he were daring me to shriek or run, or to stand clutching my skirts on top of my deckchair as if he were a mouse. He was probably wondering what I’d taste like when eaten sliced with tomato ketchup on granary toast. Then he swished his tail to and fro, to and fro. Swiftly, snake-like and utterly beautiful, he turned away. In a flash he slid through the six-inch gap beneath the gazebo as if he were flat as a shadow.
I never saw him again, although I am sure he and his family waltzed around my newly made paradise when I was safely away teaching, or asleep in my bedroom which overlooked the road.
Two weeks later I gave a supper party to celebrate the fact that I could stay awake on a Saturday night after six o’clock. Sir David Piper was among my guests. He and his wife, Anne, lived in the adjoining village of Wytham. David told me he had recently counted how many people he still had to support.
“I have twenty-eight mouths to feed,” he told me sadly. “That includes the goldfish.” He put down his glass. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask… Do you know of any good local gardeners? Overford Farm is getting to be far too much for us to manage on our own.”
I recommended mine – and, like the fox, I never saw my gardeners again either. They took over the whole of Wytham and were much too busy to look back, forward or anywhere but down.
In May 2016 I moved into an eighteenth-century cottage in Woodstock, close to Blenheim Palace. Once again, the inside had been carefully renovated but the small courtyard had not, although Yorkshire stone now replaced old slabs. In front of the cottage lay some neglected cobblestones, a broken path, and a hideous plastic window-box full of rubbish.
I had hoped for a glorious spring and summer. Instead, it rained every day from early May to the middle of July. The trees and pots from my previous garden mouldered and dripped. My new garden furniture threatened to turn green in sympathy. Every morning I slithered out, muffled in a damp raincoat, and immediately waded back indoors again. I continued to wear thermal vests and leggings. My summer clothes hung sulking in the cellar.
The day of Blenheim’s Battle Prom concert arrived. I prayed solidly all morning for sunshine. It finally broke through the gloom at 4.00pm. Everybody gasped, smiled, cheered and began to sing Jerusalem in keen anticipation.
Eagerly I started work. With the help of a new gardener and his friend – and caught in the middle of another thunderous downpour – we cleared the courtyard of everything but its earthy beds. Five hours later, my companions lurched away in a van that almost sank beneath its weight. Our clearance revealed the fascinating brickwork of a bread oven, doors and windows in the two stone walls. My courtyard now became an elegant retreat.
The front garden, however, proved to be a major problem. Trees and plants sitting out there in 2017 turned brown under the afternoon sun. A gang of thieves stole some of them. I made the enormous mistake of planting rose trees among the cobbles. They looked pretty enough, but standing on cobblestones to tend rose trees is a hazardous and foolish occupation, particularly if you are seventy-seven years old and one of your hips is made of titanium.
Tourists who admired the roses began to sit on my window sill to have their photographs taken. A child riding his bike on the pavement crashed into a rose bush. His mother banged her protestations on my window and almost broke the glass. Autumn leaves got trapped in their thousands among the roots. When I watered the roses, weeds started to grow among the cobblestones, laughing loudly at me as I pleaded with them to go sprout somewhere else.
By August 2018 I had had enough already. Faced with the prospect of spending my last years on this earth scrabbling on my hands and knees among the cobbles, I found the brilliant garden designer Michael Davidson, known to his family as Captain Slow because of the way he drives, not the way he works. Michael’s company, Botanicare, operate in London and Oxfordshire, transforming the lives of well-meaning fanatics like me who insist on implementing thoroughly bad ideas.
In an instant Michael uprooted the filthy old cobbles and replaced them with small Cotswold stones. He surrounded the edges of the garden with handmade wooden boxes holding a glorious hedge known as Baggins Gold. He has prevented me from falling flat on my face among a thousand thorns, and halted the waves of autumn leaves threatening to drown my soul.
Thus has he literally and for always saved my gardening life.
To celebrate a life spent digging for victory, here is my poem for the much loved and much missed children’s author, Rosemary Sutcliffe. Although we never met, she was a kindred spirit and one of the most brilliant writers of her generation.
I violin in starlight
When frost appears at noon
I catch the midnight apple
When the crust fills up my spoon
I whirligig the clarity
Of sky and sea and air
I violin in starlight
You are fair.
I piano for the roses
When lost without their bloom
I snip the falling cartwheel
Of the leaf without its tune
I harpsichord the memory
Of cloud and rain – and dare
To piano for the roses
In your hair.
I triangle the cobweb
Which clings against the moon
I feed the dancing Robin
When he comes to clean my broom
I purify the bonfire
And in its shoot of flame
I celebrate our garden
In Your Name.