Monday, 20 September 2010

Hidcote and Gardens

I haven’t been to Hidcote – the garden created by Lawrence Johnstone in the 1920’s – for years. But up in the Cotswolds for the week-end, and staying close by, I thought seeing it again too good an opportunity to miss.

I dragged Best Beloved along (Do I know Hidcote? Lots of clipped greens, you love it!) and talked some reluctant relatives into visiting it too (What’s so special about Hidcote? It’s one of the most important 20th century English gardens!). And of course they all thought it was wonderful.

I’m a little out of practice, garden visiting. Time – or rather lack of it – is the reason I give but in fact there’s something else. Ennui. I’m bored with too many gardens that are simply, well, boringly nice. I have lost the expectation and excitement of discovery. Beautifully planted or wonderfully maintained, over designed or sparsely planted - it’s all garden rooms and colour themed beds. Everyone is expert enough but not necessarily creative in the process.

When asked by some clients what great thing I think they should do with their garden I have even found myself saying, on more than one occasion, “Well, I rather like it how it is! It’s a real garden”. An informal mix of trees and grass, perennials and shrubs. Talking myself out of a job – am I mad? Possibly, but the fact is I think needed to experience a stimulating garden again that works.

Fortunately, visiting Hidcote once more has re-kindled some of my former enthusiasm. This is a grand garden without being Grand. Here the walls are living hedges and not balustraded walls. Hedged enclosures are planted to give shelter not simply as fashion. Pathways are often grass, evergreens are there to give structure. The borders are richly planted – the red borders particulary stunning at the moment – and tall leggy plants imaginatively under-planted.

There are long vistas leading to impressive views or structures, and there is formality, but these formal features are tempered with Johnstone’s creative choice of planting. Hedges are clipped but not always in yew or box; often they are hornbeam or holly, lime or copper beech, sometimes a combination which gives a more informal tapestry effect.

And quite often openings in them are extremely narrow, surprising the visitor leaving a wide axis and finding himself in a modest and intimate enclosure. Detours favour orchards or small shady woodland ways. And always it is the natural landscape that informs his design. That third essential garden ingredient (after grass and trees), water, is slotted effortlessly into the landscape.

Where the ground is flat, formality (with a small ‘f’) and geometry reigns with straight lines or a perfectly circular pond. Where land falls away there are natural flowing lines with informal planting alongside naturalistic streams and winding woodland paths. And as these lead onto the wider landscape a feeling of unity is achieved, essential in a country garden. It is a joy.

After Hidcote, the garden at Chastleton House was a complete change. The house is a treasure – more of that another time – and the garden is simple. Refreshingly, it has not been fashioned into a recreation of a Tudor or later one, but left at it was when the property was acquired by the National Trust.

As such, it definitely falls into my “I rather like it the way it is” bracket. Enough of the bones are there to see where it began, but it has settled gracefully into its setting. One can imagine an English family in the 18th century using this country garden in much the same way a family of today would do.

And perhaps that is the nub of it - gardens like Hidcote are for looking at and gardens like Chastleton are for using. In our own gardens - if not done well - the first can be stilted but the second can be too scruffy for some. A great deal of creativity is needed to combine the two. And I’m glad to say that these garden visits have enthused me enough to get out in my own, dig out my wellies and practice a little of what I preach.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Somerset Maugham in Short

Somerset Maugham’s short stories were chosen as summer reading for our Book Group. Now, I previously have read all these, but so many years ago that it was good to be reminded to read them again. How glad I was to still find a Penguin paperback copy of the Collected Short Stores, Volume I, on my bookshelves. But Oh! the print size of these old Penguins! Tiny. And I mean eye squintingly miniscule.

I could have read it in hardback but these are just as difficult to cope with because you can’t tuck a hardback book into your handbag. Never mind, I soldiered on, taking it on the plane when I went on holiday. And short stories are perfect for travel, when time available is often in short chunks. And they are equally good for bedtime reading – just long enough to be interesting, just short enough to finish before the eyelids droop.

But, along with most of the groupies, I don’t think that Maugham’s short stories are best appreciated when read in one go. They are just too dense, too meaty. And maybe too samey at one sitting. But extremely good they are, no doubt at all.

We were all agreed that his plain style, good dialogue and use of the vernacular, wonderfully succinct descriptions and humour all combined to produce superb writing. And his skilled timing – especially the twists at the climax of each tale – is nothing short of brilliant. We found some of the writing dated, and his use of words sometimes unusual, but none of it detracted from the quality of the work.

Maugham’s output was nothing short of exhausting. Churning them out at an amazing rate he still managed to maintain the quality. Travelling widely across the globe stimulated him and provided ideas for stories. Many of those set in exotic places are colourful but I particularly like a less exotic short one set in England - The Luncheon - possibly because I know a few people like the lady in it! The tale is an excellent example of his ability to capture people and their idiosyncratic behaviour and the clever way he manages to make such a story amusing.

Our host was reading the biography of William Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings and quoted passages to us. She thought it extremely good and it certainly informed her presentation. But I suspect one would have to like the writer as a man a great deal to read and enjoy such a tome. And most of us did not.

Knowing about Maugham’s miserable childhood explains a lot about him, but it does not explain his snobbishness and intolerance, even racism. Perhaps he was just a man of his time; these attitudes are often apparent – in writers like Evelyn Waugh for example - in class attitudes of the time. Very thankfully, such attitudes are seldom found in writers today but, sadly, there are few authors today that can hold a candle to the writings of Somerset Maugham.