Thomas Hardy Country – Far from the maddening crowd

Lyme Regis The CobbI recently discovered Dorset – not that I didn’t know it was there before, but more the fact that I never visit there as my obsession fort many years has been Cornwall.  My grandparents used to go on holiday in Dorset every year and we have a wonderful collection of family holiday snaps taken in the 1930’s on Chesil Beach and in Lyme Regis.

So last October, I decided that our half term trip would take us to explore Thomas Hardy country.  We booked a few days at Toomer Farm near Sherborne.  It is so difficult to find a place these days that wil accept a 3 year old, but this farm is a wonderful 16th century farm which operates not only as a working farm now, but also as a Bed and Breakfast and Equestrian centre as well and happily accepts toddlers.  Rumour has it that Elizabeth I stayed there as she toured her Kingdom.

My plan was to visit as much of Thomas Hardy’s country as I could.  My love of Hardy started when I was 14 and had to choose two books for my GCSE English coursework.  My tutor suggested Tess of the D’Urbervilles and I was hooked.  The vivid imagery of the people and the landscapes had me engrossed.  She also introduced to me what has become my lifelong favourite poem – The Darkling Thrush.  I remember visiting Hardy’s Birthplace not long after in the summer holidays with my mum, but I don’t think I’ve returned to Dorset since.  I only wish I’d returned sooner.

Thomas Hardy was born on 2nd June 1840 in the village of Higher Brockhampton, just a couple of miles south of Dorchester. He was the eldest of a family of four children and they lived in an idyllic cottage up a small country lane.  Even today, as you leave the visitor centre and make your way up the track, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back 150 years and were about to bump into the Hardy family any moment. Hardy’s Cottage is now owned by the National Trust.  Surrounded by beautiful woodland, a cottage garden and miles of beautiful Dorset countryside it is not hard to see where Hardy got his inspiration from.

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After attending the village school, he went as a day boy to a private school in Dorchester.  In 1856, at the age of 16 he joined a local architect firm and for the next few years spent time on his favourite three interests – architecture, classics and his love of the Dorset countryside.  In 1862 he went to London to further his architecture career and by this time he was already starting to write.  But ill health in 1867 forced him to return to Dorchester where he continued to work as an architect. It was soon after that whilst working on a project in Boscastle that he met his future wife.  It wasn’t until the early 1870’s that Hardy’s writing began to gather momentum – his first published novel entitled ‘Desperate Remedies’ was not an overall success but the following year, 1872, the publication ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ was much better received and this start a lifelong literary career.  Although he loved writing novels, it is said that his main love was poetry.  The novels became a success financially allowing him the money to live a comfortable life and be able to write the poetry he craved.  People bought into the world he created, and still remain popular today.

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In 1874, Hardy married Miss Emma Lavia Gifford at St Peters Church in Paddington and for several years they moved from place to place around London.  But in 1881 they returned to Dorset.  At first they lived in Wimborne Minster but in 1883, Hardy purchased a plot of land about a mile south of Dorchester, on the Wareham Road and designed and built Max Gate, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. They still in kept in touch with London and frequently visited their friends and colleagues there.  But Hardy loved the peace and tranquillity of Max Gate and it was here that he wrote many of his finest novels including The Mayor of Casterbridge published in 1886, The Woodlanders in 1887 and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891.   Max Gate is also owned and run by the National Trust.

Hardy was one of the founders of the Dorset County Museum and today the museum holds over 7000 items from his life, including a wonderful first edition of Far From The Madding Crowd.  Hardy died on 11th January 1928.  His ashes were taken to Westminster Abbey and his heart was buried in the churchyard at Stinsford, close to where his mother, father and other family members were buried.

While Hardy’s cottage fills you with memories of a simpler time when rural families lived in small cottages, the walls blackened with smoke, snakes slithering up to the back door (One was famously found in Hardy’s cot while he slept as a baby, by his mother), low ceilings and growing your own produce in your garden.  Max Gate is a much grander affair, reflecting not only perhaps a successful career but also a change in life and the progression of the Victorian ideals.  But Max Gate is a grand house on a small scale – as soon as you enter the hallway there is a cosiness and warmth about it.  It feels as if Hardy has merely stepped outside his front door for a walk in the hills to ponder his latest poem.

As you enter the sitting room on the right, a warm fire crackled and spat, the wonderful smell of the burnt wood seeping through the air.  When you walk into some homes, you are greeted with a coldness of a time so far removed from our own its hard to imagine anyone actually living there.  But Max Gate is a home and I think always will be.  This is how I want my sitting room to be, warm, cosy and always inviting to anyone who turns up for a chat. However, my favourite part of the house was Hardy’s study – I was quite overwhelmed to be stood by his desk, overlooking his beloved garden.

DSC_0917I feel honoured to have the opportunity to stand, where Hardy would have stood as he wrote, contemplated, loved and laughed.

I struggle to write living in London.  It feels too enclosed and stifling – I need space, air and trees to really find my ideas.  I think a little bit of me was jealous as I looked out of the window – what a wonderful place to be able to live and write.  No wonder his works are so full of rich descriptions of the countryside that surrounded him.  How could they not be?

Hardy set all of his major novels in the fictional county of Wessex which he had created.  The places in his novels all exist but with fictional names.  At the start of his writing career to he chose to stick to the places he knew well – the area he grew up in.  Dorchester became Casterbridge and Brockhampton became Mellstock – Under the Greenwood Tree is nearly all set here.  But as his writing developed and the years went by, soon the whole of Dorset was included as well as parts of Wiltshire, Devon, Somerset, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.  Cornwall was referred to on occasions as ‘Off Wessex.’  Other famous references include

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Weymouth – Budmouth

Beaminster – Emminster

Bere Regis – Kingsbere

Marnhull – Marlott

Lulworth Cove – Lulwind Cove

Shaftesbury – Shaston

Much of rural Dorset has changed since Hardy lived there and perhaps this is one of the reasons that I have now fallen in love with its little villages and country lanes.  As I wondered on top of hills, looking out to the sea I could almost see Tess in the distance trudging across the muddy paths.  The landscape in Hardy’s works, whether it be his novels or his poetry are almost additional characters.  His descriptions are unique and so detailed that they almost have their own power over the characters, their flaws and stories.  The principal industry has always been Agriculture and it is the only county in the country not to have a mile of motorway – one wonders for how long!

In ‘The Return of the Native’ Hardy describes Egdon Heath which combines many of the gorse and bracken covered heaths to the south of Dorchester.  It is also the sight for supernatural happenings in another of my favourite stories, ‘The Withered Arm’.  There is a certain atmosphere of hostility towards civilisations, but also shows the power of nature in the open.  In his novels he uses the contrasts of the wildness of the countryside set against the hustle and bustle of the towns of Dorchester, Shaftesbury, Sherborne and later Oxford.

‘The Darkling Thrush’ published in 1900 was written on 29 December, although there are suggestions that it was written in 1899 on the eve of the new century.  It is perhaps one of his more lyrical and musical poems and for me the imagery of the frozen, desolate winter countryside are beautiful. Although this poem could have been written anywhere in the countryside, for me it is Hardy’s connection with nature and the Dorset countryside that makes this poem what it is.

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

Yet my images of Dorset since my last three trips (In 6 months) are those of peace, tranquillity, beauty, and a tip of the cap to a bygone era.  A place where time is slower, where people stop to say hello and chat over the garden gate, and a place which still lives and breaths what rural England once was.  I have a new obsession and will be returning many more times this year to explore this wonderful place.  I look forward to discovering more of the places that Hardy used as his inspiration.

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Montpelier Row, Twickenham

Montpelier Row Twickenham – Georgian Architecture at its best!

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Twickenham has been the much loved home to many writers over the centuries; Alexander Pope, R C Sheriff, Horace Walpole, Elizabeth Twining, Walter De La Mare and Alfred Lord Tennyson.  On the banks of the River Thames this once quiet, village location has been swallowed up into the metropolis of Greater London, but still retains some of its charm.  While many of the beautiful riverside mansions of the 18th and 19th centuries have long since been demolished, there is one perfect row of Georgian homes which have remained.

Both Alfred Lord Tennyson and Walter De La mare lived at some point in this row.  Walter De La Mare moved into Southend House in 1940 and became a tenant of the Sedgwick Family.  Although he spent much of the war time years away from the house, he loved the house and kept his collection of antiques here, as well as his books on crime.  Many of his closest friends and literary friends came to visit him here including Joyce Grenfell, Leonard Clark and Richard Church.  De La Mare died at Southend on 22 June 1956.[1]

Tennyson moved into Chapel House on Montpelier Row in 1851 and stayed there with his wife until 1853.  This was at the time that he had been made Poet Laureate. His son Hallam was born at Chapel House and baptised in the local St Mary’s Church.  However, Tennyson soon found that Twickenham was too close to the ever expanding London.  The railway had recently arrived in Richmond and Twickenham and with it brought a ;large number of visitors.  Although he cherished his visits from his fellow literary friends, W M Thackeray and Edward Fitzgerald he decided to leave Montpelier Row and leave it to his widowed mother, Elizabeth Tennyson while he moved to the Isle of Wight.

Over the years Chapel house became known by other names including Holyrood House and now it is simply number 15.  When first built it was also listed as number 17, and appears to have changed to 16 sometime around the mid nineteenth century and certainly by 1871 when Captain Phillip Antrobus lived there from 1871 with his wife and children.

Yet Tennyson is not the lonely famous artist to have lived there.  Peter Townsend of the band, The Who, lived in the property for a number of years, and his wife continued to live there after their divorce from 1987 to 2004, converting the coach house at the end of the garden into a recording studio.

Montpelier Row, which borders Marble Hill Park was built in 1723 by Captain John Gray. It is situated in East Twickenham, off the Richmond Road and runs alongside the western boundary of Marble Hill Park.  Halfway down is Chapel Road which connects with Orleans Road and this is the site of the old Montpelier Chapel which was demolished in the 1940’s.  Number 15 is on the corner of Montpelier Row and Chapel Road.  The property is Grade II listed and it has a blue plaque for Alfred Lord Tennyson.  The properties were built around 1720-1721 and a plague on number one states ‘Montpelier Row’ 1720.  Gray moved into the Row soon after it was built, and appears to have had a number of financial difficulties.  Many of the properties wouldn’t sell or could be let and as a result many of the builders initially lived in the beautiful Georgian town houses.  Gray in fact continued to live in the row until his death in 1751 and in 1748, was living at number 14.

Chapel House/Holyrood House is a three storey Georgia townhouse with a basement and also has a separate two storey building in the garden. Many of the houses in the street are of similar structure although the mid terraced ones tend to be single fronted.  As Chapel House stands at the end it would most likely have reflected North end House which stood at the far end where the entrance from Richmond Road is now, and which was demolished some years ago.  As is customary these days, many of the houses have also extended upwards into the loft spaces.

Prior to the development by Gray, the whole area of land which ran along the riverside was a part of Eastfield, a name derivative from the medieval period where the area of Twickenham was divided into Eastfield, Westfield, Southfield and Northfield.  Moses Glover’s Map of 1635 lists the area has arable with neighbouring M. Craftons Nursery and orchard.[2]  Also in the locality are the Butts which were targets for archery practice and was situated at the edge of East Field and the village, where Montpelier Row feeds of which is now Richmond Road. Captain Gray became a prominent landowner in Twickenham in the early eighteenth century.  Following the end of his service in 1713 he received a substantial payout which helped him to become a property developer and he leased two plots of land from the Sion Estate, owned by the Duke of Northumberland.

Gray’s concept was urban in style and copied the prestigious homes of the new London squares.  This was a departure from the local style where there were several grand estates, but also large detached properties which stood in their own land along the riverside in Twickenham.  It was the first local urban terrace and they were built to be leased, a speculation perhaps in response to the growth of Twickenham due to agriculture and commercial gardens.[3]  But also to the popularity of the riverside area and the lure of the Thames for the upper classes and when Horace Walpole died here in 1797, large houses and immaculate gardens lined the riverside stretch from Cross Deep to Richmond, incorporating Montpelier Row.

This new style might have surprised the locals and be seen as an intrusion on the style of Twickenham. The other Queen Anne and early Georgian properties adopted a more classical style, which had been made popular by Inigo Jones in the seventeenth century.

Montpelier Row was built on its own, away from the centre of Twickenham which may suggest the clientele that Gray was trying to attract.  They remained for some time as the only properties in the area of what is now East Twickenham.  The map below shows Montpelier Row and the surrounding area in 1741.  We can see that surrounding the property were gardens and open space, and Orleans Road was at this time called Folly Lane.  Although its neighbouring Marble Hill House is indicated, it is not listed until the later map of 1786.

[4] and [5]

[6]

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The enclosure plans of 1819 show the detail of the properties in much greater depth and also include the chapel which is not shown specifically on earlier maps.  The next map shows the area in 1846, and we can see that a number of properties have been built on the land surrounding Montpelier Row, although the area off of Orleans Road or Folly Lane is still gardens.  However, this indicates that the area is beginning to develop further and where Montpelier was once rural, the area was becoming increasingly suburban which may link with the establishment of the railway in Twickenham in 1848. [7]

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The image above shows Montpelier Row to the left of Marble Hill Park in 1749 and this clearly shows, that the properties stood alone at this time, surrounded by land.[8]

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 [9]

The illustration below is taken from a lithograph by Thomas Way in 1900 and shows extension already made to the upper floors of several properties.

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 [10]

A number of people have lived in this house over the years, most of which were not notable writers and artists. Details of the occupiers can be found in the Poor rates records, census returns from 1841-1911, local directories and electoral rolls all of which can be found in the Richmond Local Studies Library.

There is no question that Montpelier Row is one of the finest surviving examples of Georgian architecture in London.  Nearby Sion Road, which runs down to the River Thames was built at the same time, and although is a much shorter row, is as beautiful as Montpelier and well worth a look if you are in Twickenham.

Montpelier Row was no doubt the home of poems, prose and pop songs and fine Georgian houses.

 

Bibliography and Notes

[1] Twickenham Museum Website , http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.php?aid=26&ctid=1&cid=7, Wlater De La Mare.

[2] Simpson, D., Twickenham Past (Historical Publications: London 1993) pp16-17

[3] Simpson, D., Twickenham Past (Historical Publications: London 1993) pp116-118

[4] Map of Richmond 1741-45 by John Rocque.

[5] Map of the Manor of Isleworth and Sion 1786.  Duke of Northumberland.  Surveyed and draw by C J Sauthier.  This is a photo of the section surrounding Montpelier Row, Marble Hill and the local area.

[6] Enclosure Wards Plans 1819, held at the Richmond Local Studies Library.

[7] Warrens Plan of the Parish of Twickenham 1846, held at the Richmond Local Studies Library.

[8] Gascoigne, B & Ditchburn J., Images of Twickenham, (Saint Helena Press: Richmond, 1981)

[9] Gascoigne, B & Ditchburn J., Images of Twickenham, (Saint Helena Press: Richmond, 1981)

[10] Gascoigne, B & Ditchburn J., Images of Twickenham, (Saint Helena Press: Richmond, 1981)

William Wordsworth – Daffodils

Spring has to be one of my favourite seasons of the year.  I always feel a little like Mole, from the Wind in The Willows as he comes out of the ground and into the spring sunshine for the first time.  That wonderful fresh new smell of flowers bursting open, grass growing, the damp soil springing to life and the soft fragrance of early spring flowers that float on the breeze.

For me the first sign of spring is seeing the great swathes of golden headed stems adorn roadsides and riverbanks.  Driving round the windy roads of the Lake District in April, Daffodils popped up everywhere; in fields, beside lakes and in craggy rocks.  It is easy to see why William Wordsworth was so inspired by the landscape and county he grew up in to become one of the English languages most famous poets.  In fact, it is not difficult to see why the Lake District has inspired and nurtured so many artists and writers who have used the beauty and drama of the landscape to develop their art.  Wordsworth’s poetry is wholly encompassed by the landscapes that surrounded him and Dorothy’s journals give us a great insight into the flora and fauna of the area.

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William Wordsworth grew up in Cockermouth, the second of five children born to John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson.  His father was the legal representative for John Lowther, the 1st Earl of Lonsdale.  Due to the importance of his job, the family were granted a beautiful Georgia home in Cockermouth.  Wordsworth initially had an idyllic childhood, with days spent playing in the gardens of the family home with his brothers and sisters. Situated on the banks of the River Derwent, William developed his love of nature here as a young boy.   But the untimely death of first his mother, and then his father led to a dramatic change in the family’s circumstances and years of unhappiness.   A far cry from the happy days in Cockermouth as the much loved home was taken away, the family was split up and they left the house for good in 1784.  William and Dorothy, who had always been close as siblings were not reunited until 1795 having been sent to live with varying relations.

Wordsworth finally found solace and happiness once again with his sister Dorothy, when they purchased Dove Cottage in Grasmere in 1799, just weeks after William had walked past it with his brother.  From his cottage window he would have had an unadulterated view of the Lake at Grasmere and its beauty in all seasons with the mountains and hills beyond.  Both William and his sister, the diarist Dorothy, loved the outdoors and once again as adults they enjoyed each other’s company exploring the wilds of the mountain peaks and the pleasures of the lakeside walks.  She was for life, his mentor and confidante, and it was her journals and observations of the rugged terrain of Cumbria that often became a source of inspiration of Williams writing and a great passion for him.

Perhaps one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, I wandered Lonely as a cloud was inspired by the daffodils of springtime in the Lakes.

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffoldils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’

William was inspired to write his famous ‘daffodils’ poem after a walk along Ullswater with Dorothy in 1804.  He actually wrote the poem, about two years after their walk and his inspiration came from Dorothy’s account in her journal from April 15th 1802.  She wrote that the daffodils ‘tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the Lake.’  Dorothy’s journals clearly depict the wonder of seasons amongst the Lakes and were often a source for inspiration for William.  His poem was first published in 1807 and his final edited version was published in 1815.

“ When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the waterside. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.”

This beautiful, eloquent observation of the flowers in spring show her connection to nature and the powerful descriptions must have been wonderful for William to read upon his return from his travels.  Dorothy maintained her journal throughout her time at Dove Cottage.

As Wordsworths family expanded, Dove Cottage became too small and the family moved locally before settling finally at Rydal Mount, only a couple of miles down the road from Dove Cottage, facing Rydal Water.  Whilst there he purchased a piece of woodland beside the property, originally called Rashfield.  Initially this purchase was a defence mechanism, when he was faced with eviction from Rydal Mount.  He planned to build a house on the plot.  However, in the end this was not needed and instead he gave the land to his daughter Dora.  When she tragically died, Wordsworth’s wife and their gardener had the woodland planted with hundreds of daffodils in honour of her.  It is known as Dora’s Field, to this day.  There is a wonderful oasis of calm as you sit amongst the trees and daffodils, overlooking in the distance the hills behind Rydal Water and breathe in the damp smell of woodland moss.  The field was left to the National Trust in 1935 so that future generations could enjoy this haven.

‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance’

Yet it wasn’t just the beautiful of the spring daffodils that inspired Wordsworth.  Throughout his works, we see references to other flora and fauna which surrounded him. His poem, ‘Lines Written In Early Spring’, mentions the smaller wildflowers which would have carpeted woodland paths, and roadsides;

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 

The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 

And ’tis my faith that every flower 

Enjoys the air it breathes.’ 

For me Spring, is the long awaited breath of fresh air after the cold, dark winter.  A time to take stock of life, plan for the summer, look forward to warmer and lighter evenings and a sign of happy times to come.

‘And then my heart with pleasure fills

And dances with the daffodils.’

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For the Adventure

Dove Cottage is run by the Wordsworth Trust is open is to the public.  I thoroughly recommend visiting the house and the museum as a fascinating insight into the life of William and his family.  The house operates on a timed ticket system, as it is very small.  but the museum, which houses a wonderful array of archives from the Wordsworth Family can be visited while you wait.

Visit https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage.html

For details of Rydal Mount visit http://www.rydalmount.co.uk/

Dora’s Field is owned and looked after by the National Trust https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ambleside/features/daffodils-at-doras-field-

The Hum of The Bees

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Last May, in the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, I braved the crowds on the District Line and made my way to the Chelsea Physic Garden to attend a writers workshop with the Journalist and Author, Jackie Bennett.  I had been looking forward to this for months.  A day away from the toils and tribulations of everyday life and a day for me to just have the time to write.  I had never been to the Physic Gardens before, despite a lifetime of wanting too.  I remember as a child, every time we drove past the gardens my mum would point them out to me and tell me of the times she had been there when she was younger, when she lived in Chelsea.  I’d always had a picture in my head of this very small garden with neatly manicured flower borders and a few greenhouses.  How wrong I was!  These gardens are a truly wonderful little haven of peace amongst the busy throng of the London streets.  It instantly became my new favourite place.  I felt that I had  been transported into a little oasis of calm, with individual gardens, greenhouses full of geraniums, a woodland walk alive with blue tits and bees, a beautiful lawn glistening with the morning dew, a wall of apothecary’s bottles and jars to remind us of the history of the gardens.  I couldn’t have found a better spot to learn about Writers and their gardens and indeed do some writing myself.  I would therefore like to share my ‘Literary Landscapes’ story, The Hum Of The Bees inspired by the Chelsea Physic Gardens.

There was a moment of stillness as Elizabeth stood putting her ticket away.  The rush hour commuters heaved and squeezed their way through the gaps around her but today she would not be hurried.  The light was dingy inside the station but outside she could see the warm hazy brightness bouncing off windows and cars signalling that summer had finally come.  Elizabeth took a breath and walked towards the main road, her stick making a distinctive click on the pavement amongst the perpetual drone of the buses and cars.  It was busier than she remembered – and faster.  As if time sped up as the years increased.  She paused and glanced towards the central square.  Everywhere around her cars, bikes, taxis, buses seemed to be weaving at such a speed in and out of such small spaces.  It reminded her of the fear she had encountered trying to cross the Piazza Venizia in Rome.  Why was everyone in such a hurry.  Life passed so very quickly as it was, without trying to hurry it up even further.

She glanced at the familiar and not so familiar shop fronts and tutted at the inflated prices of simple luxuries.  Peter Jones still stood in pride of place at the corner of the square, but Woolworths and the Old Kentucky had been replaced by Georgio Armani and Radley.  At least The Worlds End was still there – although Elizabeth had imagined that it was probably some gastro restaurant now, rather than a traditional pub as it had been all those years ago.   It seemed not everything improved with age.

Presently she turned off the main drag of Kings Road and ambled down a residential street lined with red brick mansion houses. Perfectly manicured topiary and bay trees in slate grey tubs adorned the porches atop the black and white marble steps.  Elizabeth reflected as she walked, on her own crumbling steps and tubs crammed with fuchsias and erysiums, over-spilling onto the gravel pathway.  So many years ago she’d had her own marble steps and hallway, not far from here – but now the thought of her dilapidated cottage was far more appealing.

She turned a corner into Royal Hospital Road and presently Elizabeth spotted the hole in the wall, the black wrought iron gate firmly fixed in its frame. For a moment she could not move, for concern that the gate would not open.  Perhaps she’d written down the opening times wrong. Elizabeth began to fumble in her pink shopper bag that her daughter had given her last year for her birthday. It was a Radley bag with a white scotty dog on it.  Apparently it was all the rage in London last year.  Elizabeth liked it as it held all those things you needed when out and about, but couldn’t fit in your handbag.  She found the piece of paper, she had written down 10am to 5pm.  She checked her watched – it was only 9.55am.  She would wait.  Elizabeth leant against the old stone wall which surrounded the garden of one of the old Georgian houses on Swan Walk.  She looked up at the beautiful buildings.  As a child she had always imagined that one day she would be old enough and rich enough to buy one.  Elizabeth chuckled.

She turned back to the garden and thought.  There was a fear that her memories maybe more beautiful than the reality.  Was this perhaps a very silly idea after all.  Maybe she should have listened to her daughter.

Elizabeth was on the verge of turning and finding a quite backstreet coffee shop when a young boy appeared with a wheelbarrow.

“We’re just opening, go in if you want.  You’ll have the garden to yourself for a bit, before the hoards arrive.”

Elizabeth smiled and mumbled an embarrassed thank you as if she knew he had been watching her debate this journey.  The young boy stood holding the gate open.  He smiled.  Now she would have to go in.

She made her way down the stone flagged steps, tinged with the delicate dew soaked heads of ladie’s mantle.  For a moment she couldn’t look up, partly because she was trying to negotiate an uneven floor with her stick and partly because everything was starting to ache from the walk.  But when she did, it was as if a great haze of confusion and pain had suddenly just disappeared.  She straightened up and saw the garden through the eyes of a curious 7-year-old once again.  Her stick was cumbersome and she lifted it, held it firm in her arthritic grip and walked with purpose down the main avenue to the fountain.

The tiny bubbles frothed and erupted on the water.  Lying on the moss coloured floor were hundreds of coins – pennies, two pence, five pence and even the odd fifty pence.  Thrown by children and maybe a few adults too who wished for something else, maybe wished for something better in their lives.  Elizabeth reached into her pocket and found a 20p, she tossed it and watched, as it sank out of sight and joined the sea of dusty silver. Yet she didn’t make a wish, what good were wishes at this time of life?  She might not be around to see if it came true and what a waste of a wish that would have been.  The bright emerald grass stretched out from either side of the quadrangle around the fountain, bordered on each side by borders fit to bursting with every colour imaginable.  The gentle hum of the bees was just starting to come to life, as they swooped on every bud they could find.  It was so much the same, yet there were small differences, which, except to the familiar eye would have passed unnoticed. Wooden carts with the history of past gardens and apothecaries could be found at the corner of footpaths as they meandered to a new part of the garden. Modern sculptures which represented elements of the garden and its medicinal usage were hidden amongst the borders and glasshouses.  Again Elizabeth chuckled to herself.  When she was a child it was her mother who taught her about the history of the gardens and the names of all the plants.  She had learnt it from books.  Now, it seemed everything had to be created and put in front of you.

Elizabeth sighed. She loved this part of the garden, but it was the woodland at the far end that she wanted to see.  She followed the path with its purple headed alliums and small button head daisies and presently found herself in the cool shade of the woodland, on the far side of the garden which bordered the main embankment road.  The dappled shade landed on the leaves of the hostas and the tips of the ferns with their uncurled tongues, glowed as if burning torches to light the way.  Elizabeth found a bench and sat down.  The drone of the cars disappeared. The woodland smelt of damp bark and a sweet scent came from a cluster of tiny pink flowers currently under attack from two busy blue tits.  Elizabeth looked around, nothing had changed.  For the first time in what seemed a lifetime, Elizabeth closed her eyes without thoughts of the present blocking the way.  She took a deep breath and slowly drifted away.

**********

Margaret placed the flower on the floor beside the bench, she fought hard not to let the tear roll down her cheek.  This was the right thing to do.  The man who stood solemnly a little way away, moved forward and slowly unpeeled the plastic coating of the brand new golden plaque at the top of the bench.  Elizabeth looked up at her mother and slipped her cold hand in hers.

“Don’t worry mother,” said Elizabeth “This is such a beautiful place, Grandma will always be here.”

“I know darling, and we can always come to this place when we need to talk to her or think about her.”

Elizabeth thought for a moment, “I can think about her anywhere, I just close my eyes and she’s there in front of me, but I think this would be a good place to talk.”  Margaret smiled, and hugged her daughter close.

“Can we go and play now?”

“Yes we can,” said Margaret, “and after we’ve played and explored the gardens then we can go up the Kings Road and get some chocolate in Woolworths, and if you’re really lucky then maybe we can go and do some window shopping in Peter Jones.”

Elizabeth’s eyes shone brightly.  This had been one of those days where she felt happy and sad all at the same time.  She hoped that one day when she was old, she’d be able to come and sit in these gardens all by herself and listen to the bees too.

 

Beatrix Potter – Writer, Illustrator & Countrywoman

I had never really thought about the connection between writers and gardens, until I attended a workshop at the Chelsea Physic Gardens last May, hosted by writer and journalist Jackie Bennett.  Suddenly a whole world of beautiful gardens and landscapes took on a whole new meaning as we saw how they had influenced the lives and work of writers such as Jane Austin, Roald Dahl, William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter.

Many a gardener will tell you about the ability to get completely lost in their work – time and life escapes you as you plant and plan, sometimes successfully and other times not so.  The little personal oasis offers a place to relax and unwind, a place to escape the toils and troubles of our everyday lives and place to just stop, breathe and take a moment to look at the beauty the English countryside and nature can give us.   I’m sure many will be familiar with the Tales of Beatrix Potter and her beautiful illustrations of talking bunnies and cottage gardens.

I have always loved the stories, ever since my mum read the Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle to me as a child.  Many children and adults will be familiar with Peter Rabbit and his escapades in Mr McGregor’s garden, and perhaps not so familiar with Tales such as The Tale of Pie and the Patty-Pan.  Perhaps even less familiar are we that many of the illustrations represent not only Beatrix Potter’s love of gardens and indeed her own garden at Hill Top, near Hawkshead in Cumbria but also of the village of Near Sawrey where she lived.

For someone so famous for writing children’s books, strangely it was not as a writer that she really wished to be known and remembered, and indeed there was so much more to her life that we possibly realise.  Beatrix was born into a wealthy family who had made their money in the Cotton industry.  Although her father was a lawyer, he had no need financially to practice.  The family lived a comfortable life at 2 Bolton Gardens, Kensington and spent their Springs and Summers staying in beautiful country estates around the British Isles.  No doubt these trips were holidays but also to escape the pollution of Victorian London and to enable Bolton Gardens to be cleaned.  It was on their adventures that Beatrix began to fall in love with the British countryside.  From a young age Beatrix painted and developed a keen eye for painting fungi, plants and flowers.

For many years the family holidayed at Dalguise in Scotland, but when this was no longer available they turned their attention to the Lake District. Close to Scotland and with similar breath-taking landscapes and water, it was here that the shy Beatrix Potter’s heart found happiness. For the rest of her life, Potter became a prominent figure in the Lake District, not only as a writer and illustrator, but as a gardener, landowner, sheep breeder, agriculturalist and wife.  She described in later years London as her ‘unloved birthplace’ and both her and her brother Bertram found solace in the fresh air, surrounded by beautiful landscapes.

Hill Top in near Sawrey, just to the West of Windermere was purchased with the money she had received in royalties from her early books, published by Fredrick Warne.  After the untimely death of her fiancée, Frederick Warne, she bought Hill Top within two months and set about transforming it into the home and garden she had dreamed of for so long.  Hill Top was and still is a warm and cosy 17th century cottage, which is part of a larger estate and far, set in some 30 acres.

Beatrix launched herself into the pleasures of building a garden.  She laid out the main paths and dug deep flower beds which led to the cottage as the main focal point.  Although she had experiences of formal gardens of larger country houses, Beatrix chose an informal way of planting, opting for dense planting, mixing hardy plants with fruits, herbs and vegetables.  She bought plants from a local nursery called Mawson Bros’ in Windermere and also gratefully received cuttings, seeds and plants from the neighbours and friends of the village and hedgerows.   She filled her new found space with lavenders, sweet williams, Japanese anemones, roses, foxgloves, phlox, lilies, azaleas as well as daffodils in Spring.

But aside from her garden, Beatrix Potter had the beauty of the Lakeland landscape as her inspiration, and she loved to walk the lands and fields, incorporating the rolling hills, little streams and rockeries, rolling meadows and small woodlands into her books.

She surrounded herself with colour and beauty and many of the nooks and crannies of her garden as well as the village can be seen in her books: Her vegetable patch became Mr McGregor’s Garden and Jemima Puddleducks hiding place for her eggs, her front door with its foxgloves and roses and the long front path with its deep borders and trellis work was featured in The Tale of Tom Kitten.

Yet, increasingly she threw herself into life as a countrywoman, breeding a fine stock of Herwick Sheep, showing at Agricultural shows, buying farms and large areas of Lakeland to ensure its survival and preservation away from modern developments.  Her friendship with Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founding members of The National Trust was also key in ensuring the preservation of so many thousands of acres of land.

After her marriage to her solicitor, Mr Heelis, they bought Castle Cottage just the other side of the village and Beatrix began to lead almost two lives.  At Hill Top she continued to be Beatrix Potter, writer and illustrator.  She used it for work, for developing her garden and for meeting people whilst at Castle Cottage she was Mrs Heelis, farmer, agriculturalist and conservationist, and fiercely protective of her private life.  She later said that this was how she wished to be remembered – as a countrywoman and wife.  It seems that these were, in the end, more important to her than her writing and illustrating.

Beatrix Potter died on 22 December 1943, following bronchitis.  There were to be no flowers or mourning and her ashes were scattered above Hill Top. At her death she owned 15 farms, several cottages and around 4000 acres of land which went to the National trust.

Standing on the hillsides surrounding Hill Top, looking over to Windermere it is easy to see why Beatrix fell in love with the Lakes.  I’ve always felt much abler to write and read when in the countryside, there is something incredibly therapeutic and humbling about being surrounded by such vast swathes of countryside, mountains and water.  For me, I always feel like I’ve been transported into another world when I turn off the M6, and even to another era.  Standing in the garden of Hill Top, its almost hard not to expect her to appear from the cottage as you hear the crackle of the range and the old Grandfather clock chime twelve.


For The Adventure

Hill Top is owned by the National Trust and open to the public.  Situated in the village of Near Sawrey near Hawskshead.  There is a small car park in the village (which used to be Potter’s orchard) with a short walk to the cottage.  It is suitable for families, but take note that entry is by timed ticket and the cottage is small, so it’s worth getting there early.   The garden is at its best in late Spring and Summer.  The small village also has many places of note which are also featured in Beatrix Potter’s Books such as Buckle Yeat and the Tower Bank Arms, as well as Castle Cottage which can been seen from Hill Top across the field opposite.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top

Nearby Wray Castle is where she spent some summer holidays with her family and can be visited on the same day as Hill Top given enough time.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wray-castle

For the mind

If you wish to read further about Beatrix Potter or indeed writers and their gardens, I can recommend these books:

Marta McDowell – Beatrix Potters Gardening Life – published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregan.

The Writer’s Garden – Jackie Bennett – published by Francis Lincoln Limited, London

Beatrix Potters Hill Top, published by The National Trust – property guide