Last week I went to Great Dixter. It is a garden built around a fourteenth century manor house in Sussex. The house was restored in the early 1900s by a businessman, Nathaniel Lloyd, with the help of the renowned architect Edwin Lutyens. Lloyd and his wife began the creation of the gardens but they were developed over fifty years or more by their son, Christopher, gardener and writer. For the last fifteen years of his life Christopher worked with Fergus Garrett who remains as head gardener following Christopher's death four years ago. It is one of the great gardens of the world.
Sometimes it is a mistake to do something you have looked forward to for a very long time and I have been wanting to go to Great Dixter for almost twenty years. How can a place bear the level of expectation laid upon it? Surely I would be setting myself up for at best an anti-climax, at worst a major disappointment. I was taken aback to find myself so moved by being there that I could not stop the camera shaking (I am not an excitable type) so the photos here are Ian's and doubtless better than mine would have been even had my hands been still.
It was not a disappointment. It was a grey, damp day, not raining but mild and still. We were almost the first people there and the garden was quiet and empty. It was too early in the season for a great and glamourous display of flower but in many ways all the better for that. In winter you can famously see the bones of a garden, here the mighty yew hedges and stone flagged paths. In spring you can see how the planting works: how many tulips, interplanted with what, where are the anchor plants, how many lupins are in this border, what grows under shrubs which will later be covered in flower and leaf. We wandered, Ian took photographs, we wandered again. There was a nursery filled with fascinating plants at sensible prices and knowledgeable, entirely unpushy staff. I spent some money, restraining myself with difficulty, hanging on to the need to remember that my thin stony soil and Dixter's clay could not be more different. If I didn't focus on the real toughies anything soft and delicate would quickly turn up its toes here on the hill.
We finished by going round the house, still furnished and full of Christo's books. It is used by students who come to work in garden and still feels like a living place. I would go every month if I could but it is five hours' drive away so I will content myself with seeing the place in my head as I read and plan and plant. A perfect day.
And yesterday another iconic place: I went with Exmoorjane, writer and blogger, to Blackden, home of the writer, Alan Garner and his wife Griselda. This is an extraordinary place, the site occupied for some ten thousand years. They live in a medieval hall house alongside a timber framed apothecary's house known as The Old Medicine House. The houses are full of ancient things, found on the site and full of their books. A day there is a day out of time, passing swiftly, fizzing with ideas and excitement.
Yesterday I had the luxury of walking slowly as Alan showed Jane around, pointing out the protective marks carved into the wood of the Medicine House at points of weaknesses, entrances and exits and structural weak points too. Most take the form of a double V, virgo virginem, virgin of virgins, for the Virgin Mary. They protect against the entrance of evil in any form, witchcraft or the devil I imagine. From the serenity of the place, they have succeeded for over five hundred years.
In May my daughter and I are going on a day course here on Tudor herbs and spices, learning about their use and finishing by helping to create a herb garden in front of the Medicine House. Blackden is in Cheshire where Alan has lived and worked all his life. If it is within reach for you, go if you can. It is another very special place. You touch another world here.