The family home was, from 1969 a New Forest cottage. This brings to mind a twee, roses round the door, low beamed, ancient homestead with pigs and agas and a well for water.
In fact it was a four bedroom Jerry built Edwardian villa prone to damp and with disconcertingly wobbly chimneys. My parents bought it because of its relative isolation and the potential of the third of an acre to become the garden my mother desired.
For nearly 40 years they patched the house, trying various expedients to keep out the damp and keep in the heat while they gardened – actually it was more like alchemy – and created their triangle of paradise.
Shit it was hard work. I’m sure my parents paid lip service to Lord Mansfield, Shaftesbury and Fox and their campaigns to eradicate slavery but while sound in theory they didn’t believe in freeing children from horticultural indentures.
Of my father’s many aphorisms his favourite – and the Archaeologist will attest to this – was ‘You don’t keep a dog and bark yourself‘ alongside ‘Don’t clap, throw money‘ and ‘Always leave them laughing‘.
We dug that barren patch of desert to a depth equivalent to the mid Atlantic and wheel-barrowed and bucketed the resulting slimy clay across the road to dump it into the verge vegetation opposite.
Some twenty years later a new owner asked dad if he’d ever seen anyone fly tip clay there. Somehow dad kept a straight face as he sympathised with our new neighbour, agreeing that standards had dropped a long way with the advent of unleaded petrol, universal suffrage and novelty condoms. Had I been there and not had this reported to me later I would have shopped my parents. Justice was never done.
Indeed I harbour a less than secret grudge against Princess Anne and her first wedding in 1973. We had a day off school which happened to coincide with a ton of very fresh cow manure being delivered. The farm hand merely emptied his trailer on the road outside our house, advised mum to tell disconcerted motorists to treat it as a roundabout and left for the pub. Mum feared some reputational damage from the existence of this festering, glutinous heap and set the Archaeologist and me to barrowing it down the garden. So rather than a day free to spend with my mates, I moved muck.
The void we created was also filled with a constant supply of horse crap collected from the road, dung from ponies on the Forest itself, leaf mold (ditto), peat (I shan’t say – it was as illegal then as it is now) and all sorts of fibrous growing materials that mum procured by fair means and foul (and talking of fowl, if I have one piece of advice for nascent gardeners: if offered goose faeces as some sort of superior guano, AVOID at all costs, though taking positives from my one experience of digging this specific form of shit, you will never again suffer from blocked sinuses).
The combination of all this was a growing compost to die for and by 1975 the new empire was taking shape. From there on it was one round of beauteous advancement after another. Mum was rightly praised but both the Archaeologist and I, each estimated aged 8, to be likely to grow to at least 6 foot 2 tall, stopped growing about this time. I’m just saying.
Dad’s poems beginning ‘Barbara has gone into the garden again’ told a universal truth. Life was not always easy or settled back then. My mother had rheumatoid arthritis diagnosed in the mid 1960s and her knees often caused her a lot of grief, not that she showed it much.
But when things weighed down too heavily she would slip outside, with her trug full of tools, her radio and potter.
If depression was ever likely it was kept at bay by rigorous pruning and a constant attack on whatever weed de jour happened to be in her sights.
Then dad died. As mum emerged from her self imposed purdah she focused on her friends and family. Understandable really. But the Archaeologist and I wanted her to think about the family home and the inevitable downsizing that we felt had to take place sooner rather than later.
We hinted at a move nearer my uncle and aunt who lived some 10 miles away. When the hints got us nowhere we talked openly about the benefits of a bungalow, of being closer to the shops, of not being so isolated.
Through Easter and the spring of 2005 we increased the PR campaign, recruiting other members of the family and got precisely the square root of nowhere.
Mum never argued with the logic of a smaller property, or with the need to be realistic about the now five bedrooms of which only one was used regularly. But logic and reason were poor substitutes for memories and her garden.
In the end it was the garden that made up her mind. We blitzed it at Easter, the family, digging out weeds and the encroaching lawns, pruning overgrown shrubs and cutting out the dead and the diseased but even so it was a superficial attempt to pull nature back. And there was no way we could control dad’s now redundant vegetable patch. Seeing his little empire choked with weeds, seeing her carefully managed planting becoming unbalanced, hurt her more than any badgering from any of us. So, sometime in the late summer of 2005 I received a call from my mother which went something like this:
‘Hi mum, how…’
‘Are you free this Saturday?’
‘Saturday? I will…’
‘You’ll need to come down on Friday. I need you all day.’
‘I’ve decided to move.’
‘Oh, right. So…’
‘I’ve lined up six possibilities. We need to decide.’
‘Decide? You’ve seen them?’
‘Of course. Your aunt and I saw them this week.’
‘Anne. She’s in on this.’
‘You make it sound like a conspiracy. I merely want to maximise your time.’
‘But mum, there’s no rush now…’
‘You are just like your father.’
‘Yes. He was a hypocrite.’
‘Well, yes he was. But how am I…’
‘Haven’t you been bullying me to move since his funeral?’
‘Well that’s a bit strong. I’m keen that you begin the process…’
‘As I said. Just like your father. Now are you free?’
‘Bungalows. In New Milton. We have saved the best to last. So, Saturday. I’ve told them we will decide, after you’ve seen them.’
‘It sounds like you’ve decided already.’
‘Stop it. I can tolerate hypocrisy but I will not have you whining at me like your father. I value your opinion. Then I will decide.’
I think we both knew she had decided already and I was there because, well because, in a similar situation dad would be there, playing the same role as was earmarked for me. It was a sort of game. We would be expected to try and guess which one she really wanted. If, when put on the spot, we hadn’t been astute enough to spot the clues as we went around then we would receive a look that combined withering contempt with a sigh that spoke to the inadequacy of most males to make sensible and informed decisions. Were we to get it right – the social equivalent of panning gold – the look spoke of pride in how her training had been well worth it.
I finished work promptly, collected my bag and car from home and set off for the New Forest. The sun shone, the traffic was light and I felt a degree of apprehension.
Here are two of dad’s birthday poems from the early 1990s
October 21st 1990
Barbara’s gone into the garden again
(The weeds are in for a shock)
And she’ll spend happy hours ‘mid her shrubs and her flowers
With never a thought for the clock
The October sun is warm on her back
As she works through the herbaceous border,
Green-fingered and sure, coaxing beauty once more
Out of Summer’s prolific disorder.
A drowsy wasp vies with late butterflies
On apples in tumbled profusion,
And there’s sweet disarray in the garden today,
A warm, multi-coloured confusion.
The old hedge is starred with scarlet rose hips,
Tireless bees plunder each ivy flower.
And where grasses stand tall, unwilling to fall,
Still the cat haunts her summertime bower.
Soon clouds will pile high in the dark Autumn sky,
And the earth will lie sodden with rain,
Then – in jerkin and boots, not caring two hoots,
Barbs will go gardening again!!!
October 21st 1991
There’s a little piece of England that we’ve made yours and mine
Where we spend happy hours, summer, winter, rain or shine,
In the garden we’ve created near the Forest and the sea,
Neither too large and not too small – just right for you and me.
There are annuals and perennials, plants for sun and partial shade,
And some which seem to glow when daylight starts to fade.
There’s a birdbath and gazebo, hanging baskets and sundial.
(And a funny man up in a tree who makes the children smile).
On either side the ancient hedge, of holly, hawthorn, yew,
Is columbined and ivy-bound to shelter mouse and shrew,
Summer-smothered pink and white with fragrant, rampant rose,
Then bird-haunted in the Autumn when scarlet berries glow.
Wisteria and clematis stretch fingers to the sky,
And tiny alpines thrive where the soil is hot and dry.
In moist and mossy corners ferns and hostas, dimly seen,
Stand heavy-leaved and statuesque in every shade of green.
There’s a special place for herbs – sweet marjoram and rue,
Lavender and lovage, dill and feverfew,
Chives and coriander, parsley, mint and sage,
Thyme and balm and borage – names from a bygone age.
Away beyond the apple trees and hedges of sweet peas,
Past broad herbaceous borders bright with butterflies and bees,
We grow our favourite vegetables and children love the fun
Of harvesting the produce from Spring showers and Summer sun.
And so the seasons come and go, and nothing stays the same,
And failures and successes are just part of the game,
But no matter what the weather – for us it’s always fine,
In that little piece of England that we’ve made yours and mine.