I always get a little thrill on the threshold of other people’s gardens. There’s something expeditionary about setting off into someone else’s little patch of green, even if it is only the size of a handkerchief. All that poking about in shrubs and trees, peering into steamy greenhouses and stumbling upon evidence of children playing on the lawn. And for all the times I’ve stood at somebody’s back door and been disappointed by a manicured square of green, there have been so many times that I’ve encountered winding paths and hidden pigsties, wild herb beds and love seats tucked beneath a willow bower.
We recently hired a motor for a little trip down to Devon, to the English Riviera, although I must clarify that our accommodation was of the canvas variety rather than that offered on Burgh Island. The journey took a full day either way, and so we punctuated it with visits to National Trust properties. A little diversion from the main road, a bite of lunch in the tea room and then a tour around a house and garden. Most such houses are grand affairs, so different to our own home that I am content to gaze at all the beautiful things while being glad that our home is so much cosier and easier to dust. Some are full of the original furnishings, including the collections of several generations of inhabitants. Others have been given to the nation empty, and filled with chairs and tables, books and portraits gathered from other properties and auctions. Occasionally you stumble upon one which is really special – like Cotehele in Cornwall, which we spent a day exploring – a tudor mansion which has been left unchanged since the 17oos. The rooms are dark with tapestries, the beds spread with hand-pieced patchwork or exquisite whole cloth quilts. Seb and Ilse peered into the great hall through the squint in the solar, and we all took turns handling the weaponry on display, from great swords six feet long to little daggers and cruel, delicate spurs.
But after the house – and for some reason it is always after the house – we emerge to wander round the gardens. At Cotehele this included a walk through the fern-rich woodland to the watermill and the quay giving access to the Tamar. At Coleton Fishacre there were the cool blues and pinks which formed the view from the mistress’s bedroom, separated from the red hot pokers of the master’s by cool green lawns and ponds layered with lily pads. At Greenway you can walk down through the woods to the boathouse, and had it been the spring the walk would have been coloured by thousands of camellias. But my favourite garden of all was on the edge of the grounds at Killerton: the cottage garden of the post office. It is an exuberant garden, with plants tumbling over one another in their eagerness to grow and a vegetable patch which appears from nowhere. I could hear the children playing hide and seek but couldn’t find them, following the winding paths until a bank of hydrangeas gave way to a lawn with a bench, and there they all were, waiting for me to be done. I was, nearly. There were a few things I wished to fix in my mind: how the plants were grouped together; which vegetables had been left to grow and go to seed in their second year, attracting scores of beneficial insects. I like to learn things from other people’s gardens, much of which never gets put into practice but which is stored away, just in case. From this one I learned something much, much better than a little tip or trick: something which I intend to act upon straight away. It doesn’t matter if the vegetables are mostly over or got eaten by the slugs, or if the alliums are giving way to gravity and time. Gardens don’t need to be perfect. They need to be places of interest, places worth exploring. Places which tell you about the people who made it and use it and coax it into life. Those other people, to whom the gardens belong.