Life is full of surprises. On Wednesday I had a visit from Anne Wareham and her husband Charles Hawes. I have known Anne virtually for a while. I follow her on Twitter, read her website thinkingardens, and she reads my blog from time to time and occasionally comments. I met her and Charles briefly at the Malvern show last year and I keep an eye out for her journalism. We had a couple of email exchanges after I blogged about a recent visit to Beth Chatto's garden and she suggested that she would like to come up and see the garden. So that was the first surprise.
My immediate reaction was to wonder if she was serious - Veddw is a great garden, my garden is hardly yet even a work in progress. I am not a trained gardener. I am not an artist. I used to be an adviser on international tax and now I am a garden obsessive, partly I think to use up the energy which used to go into my work. My second reaction was to be intrigued. I wasn't sure why she was interested but I couldn't really see what I had to lose. Anne has a reputation for straight talking. It's hard to get feedback on what you are doing if you are trying to create a garden. Most people are not that interested in gardening and even those who are tend to respond to being shown around someone's garden by commenting on what is in flower and making gently admiring noises. I am not criticising that. I do it myself. Gardening is hard work and deeply personal. Unless someone positively encourages you to pass judgement on something, the kind and courteous thing to do is to wander around looking for something nice to say. I have a couple of friends whose judgement I seek and value and we know each other well enough for me to be able to express my dislike of restios and for them to be able to tell me that a part of my garden isn't working, but that is rare.
But Anne, I knew, would really look and would tell me what she thought. As long as I could cope with hearing that, I had the chance to see things through her eyes. I knew she could be caustic but she had sent me a couple of very kind emails after my brother had a huge stroke last year so I was pretty sure she could be trenchant without being unkind. It was an opportunity I couldn't possibly turn down and whatever else it would be, it would be interesting. And if I couldn't guarantee to give them an interesting time in return, I could give them good food and copious amounts of wine and a comfortable bed for the night.
I decided I would not look in any detail at the photos of Veddw on the website or read too much about it. If I did I might lose my nerve. Finding out more about the garden they had made could come afterwards. So I wasn't sure how to get ready for such a visit. There didn't seem much point in weeding. There were various reasons I could imagine for her suggesting that she came, including that she might think the garden was more interesting than it is, but a desire to see if I could weed was unlikely to be among them. In the end Ian cut the grass.
I have done quite a lot of meeting people in the flesh who I have got to know virtually and indeed some of my very good friends have come into my life this way. It's always odd the first time. In some ways you know quite a lot about them and in other ways they are strangers. At its best it short circuits the process of getting to know people and gets you to the interesting conversation quickly. People are very rarely different when you meet them from the impression you have gained from their virtual presence as long as you ignore the physical. They might be taller or shorter, older or younger and have different coloured hair but their real physical presence very swiftly overrides the mental picture you might have had and I have never met anyone whose character or personality was a surprise and so it was this time. Charles was warm and outgoing. Anne was friendly but more reserved.
We started right in front of the house with the view and the bank. Immediately it was clear that Anne sees shapes: the curving shape of the cultivated bit of the bank stops short of where it could. We have lived here for six years and only recently started to say to each other that the bank should be extended. It was practically the first thing she said. Here we have the difference between the professional and the amateur. It is a big job. Will we do it in some fashion? Probably. This happened a lot. She offered immediately and with clarity something that I have been feeling my way towards and which is beginning to form as an idea. I am not sure whether to be pleased at this as an indication that I am learning how to think about land and shapes or faintly despairing at how long it will all take at my pace. I wish we had started this garden in our thirties and not our fifties.
The side garden was the first place where the planting and the ground to plant it in are all mine. This is the easiest bit of the garden in terms of its size and shape. It is domestic in scale, more like the gardens of my life so far. What has been hard has been learning what will grow in its very thin and stony soil but I know what I want it to feel like: quiet, calm, enclosed, with more colour than other parts of the garden but still very green. It is where I sit with my cup of tea and my book when the size of the view or the strength of the breeze are too much for me. "Pretty," Charles said. My heart sank. I am not sure "pretty" is a term of approval in the Wareham/Hawes lexicon. But that is fair enough, it is pretty in its own quiet way.
Out through to the field. We have only been trying to do something here for about three years and this is the hardest place: an acre of sloping pasture with a large workshop and now a large metal barn. The size, the scale, the nature of the land have all taken a long time to get to grips with. I tried to explain what I am trying to do which is to echo the simplicity and functional beauty of the house and its immediate buildings with something which belongs with them, where the beauty comes from the place and where there is a sense of purpose underlying the shapes on the land. I don't want historical pastiche or cottage garden. I want lush planting in simple shapes for practical, functional purposes. The field is very simply divided into three by native hedging. The top third is for playing, the middle third for productive fruit, vegetables and flowers, and the bottom third is meant to be a place of beauty, somewhere to go, to get lost in, to muse in.
I was impressed by how non-judgemental Anne was. I suppose at the back of my mind I had wondered if someone who describes herself as "a thorn in the side of the gardening world" would take awkwardness as a default position. I thought she might have taken issue with my basic proposition and that would have made me shout or cry or stick my fingers in my ears bawling. But she didn't. She listened carefully. She accepted that this was what I was trying to achieve and she set out to comment on how I was achieving it. That was phenomenal.
The top third of the field contains a wooden swing and an area of roses beyond it, intended to enclose the swing area and to put a stop to it. Anne did not like my roses although she was quite gentle in the saying so. There were too many colours. They were not big enough. I tried to counter, at least in relation to their size, with their youth but I think their days might be numbered. This is partly because the top corner of the field will hold the shepherd's hut, my private space, my writing room. It needs to be separated from the area to swing and play and kick balls and when that separation is done the space with the roses in it will work differently. Hi ho. Where will they go to? That is the question, or one of the questions.
As you would expect from someone who has created a garden from nothing on a large scale, Anne has an eye for scale and shape which is both exhilarating and unsettling. She seemed uninterested in the question of the planting which would produce the further sense of enclosure in the area of the shepherd's hut. That there needed to be something was a given. What it should consist of interested her far less than the issues arising from placing the shepherd's hut there. In a garden where you wander or work, we are making a place where you will be still and where you will look out on the view for protracted periods. She suggested taking out three trees at the bottom corner of the field which would open up the view from the hut. One of them isn't on our land, one I am persuaded by as it is a twisted willow which has always looked a bit out of place, and one is a small oak tree. Can I cope with taking out the oak? I love oak trees but it will grow very big. Does that matter? How many years have I got? We are surrounded by others and there are some fine trees in the field boundary, oak and ash mainly. The jury is out on how much of this to do. When the hut is in place and we are sitting looking out through the door we shall know.
Scale was the question again in the bottom third of the field. Over the last three years I have been creating something which has somehow become known as the native tree walk, oddly and rather grandiosely. It started as a line of four trees, planted as bare rooted sticks in the tussocky grass of the field. A couple of years later it became a bed.
And then a wider bed.
This year at last it works as a piece of planting but even last year I knew that it floats oddly free at the bottom of the field. I wanted it to give you somewhere to walk to but it needed the whole of that area to be somewhere to walk into. So this was the genesis of my annual wildflower meadow.
Here it is in April. It looked huge then and it felt huge as I laboured over extracting docks and dandelions.
It is only just on the verge of flowering but it looks a lot smaller now. The first thing Anne said as she came into it was "Why isn't this bigger?" and damn it and damn it and damn it again it should be bigger. It should be as long as the native tree walk and much wider so that you have to walk right inside it, maybe even sit inside it. It may be the answer to the whole disturbance I felt in Beth Chatto's garden that there is nowhere in my garden where you are in the middle rather than alongside. Again I think I was feeling my way there but I have been kicked into the middle of the answer. It should be very, very much bigger.
Thank you Anne. I think. That is about as much as I can process for now.
It was fascinating. I am very glad they came and glad I risked feeling foolish. Now I just need more time, more money or more energy, or possibly less garden. No, not less garden.