Monday, 3 May 2010
May blossom and birthdays
Bank holiday weekend, and the rain came down, but there were also moments of sunshine. My sister's birthday was (would have been?) on Mayday, and it seemed appropriate to visit a garden that she loved, as well as discovering a new one (which was in fact a century old). Saturday started with a welter of traffic jams and road blocks in London, all of which conspired to deliver us to a gridlocked Piccadilly Circus, the worst place to be when you are longing for greenery. I muttered about mercury retrograde, but praise be to a good-tempered traveling companion, who also came up with this quotation from John Ruskin (very encouraging in the drizzle, crawling through city streets and suburban bypasses on the way to Kent): "Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather."
Finally, we reached Hever Castle, just as the Maypole dancers were retreating into a tent for a cup of tea. The castle itself is extraordinary; the childhood home of Ann Boleyn, restored by William Waldorf Astor in the early years of the twentieth century. There is a moat and drawbridge, battlements and minstrel galleries, suits of armour and tapestries; along with everything else that castles are supposed to possess. I loved seeing inside, but outside is almost more miraculous: the beautiful gardens and vast lake that Astor created; a landscape that looks as if it were inspired by a Romantic idea of Classical symmetry, with the wildly imaginative addition of Gothic waterfalls and rockeries. The camellias are in full bloom, the wisteria budding, the tulips flowering; an English garden at its most splendid and eccentric and inspiring. Far too much to see on one visit; I already want to return to explore more of its hidden corners, as well as its grand designs.
From Hever Castle to Gravetye Manor, a garden that my sister loved; which is why she chose to come on her wedding night, thereafter for high days and holidays, and once more in the last months of her life. It is hidden away at the end of a long drive, surrounded by acres of woodland; quiet even in this congested corner of southern England, apparently untouched by exhaust fumes or motorway dust. How blessed to see Gravetye on a Mayday, with its banks of bluebells and expanses of rhododendrons, and the wonderful magnolias that my sister admired so much; to discover that here is a garden that still flourishes, a testament to the longlasting legacy of William Robinson, who cherished this place for half a century.
The evenings are so light now, even when the sky is grey; I walked along the terraces overlooking the lake, then followed the paths weaving around vast rhododendrons, less sinister than those evergreen giants that loom out of 'Rebecca'. On the edge of the garden, an iron gate was unlocked; I went through it, and into the edge of the dark woods, where a deer stood very still, as if waiting for me to disappear. I stood watching the deer, and it watched me; neither of us moving, in the moment when time seems to hover as dusk falls; then moves on again, swift like the deer.