Living in a townhouse overlooking a 19th Century dock in London, the proud owner of a pot-plant patio the size of a pocket handkerchief, I was very happy with my little corner of the universe, but I had always wanted a garden. When I decided to move into the Chester area after a two-year holiday in Aberdovey, the item on the top of my wish-list was that long dreamed-for proper garden. A nice big one, with a gorgeous lawn and lovely wide flower borders. Be careful what you wish for.
When I first bought the house in Churton a year before moving in to it, the garden was in a state of serious neglect, much to the distress of the previous owner. Ivy, holly and stinging nettles were running absolute riot and it was all more than a little overwhelming. As to the gorgeous lawn, it is certainly green but there is a lot of stuff in it that would horrify the RHS. After the first excitement wore off, it was all terribly daunting but as soon as we started to tackle it, every few hours of work made a major difference.
I say “we” because this became a team project. My father, an experienced owner of old houses and big gardens, set to work on the garden with a vengeance, with a bit of help from me before lockdown set in (I was living in Aberdovey when the pandemic hit), and a major contribution by a small team of regular helpers under his direction: Nigel, Joe, and James in particular, with some heavy duty clearance and ongoing lawn care by Chris and Sean. Apple and plum trees were released from the thick strangle-hold of ancient ivy, we found a rose bed that was completely concealed by holly and sambucus, discovered forgotten pathways that had once run at the back of the flower beds, found a hideously overgrown paved path behind the garage and revealed some truly gorgeous specimen trees and shrubs that were hemmed in by ivy, nettles and a staggering range of rampaging self-setters.
Chris, Sean and Joe demolished endless, densely networked carpets of ground ivy and nettles with metal-bladed brush cutters; Nigel and James set about digging out an incomprehensible amount of concrete, bricks and other rubble, including a national collection of golf balls (we stopped counting at 50), armfuls of plastics including a a bewildering number of candy wrappers, before landscaping and profiling the result; Dad hacked down a jungle of brambles, released fruit trees from captivity, broke up compacted beds, separated roses from holly bushes, and pruned the results; and Joe began to weed ferociously, improved the quality of the soil, extended flower beds, dug new ones and deployed red sandstone edging everywhere that the lawn met the beds. We began to recover all of those hidden gems that had made up someone’s lovely vision of the garden in the dim and distant past. On the occasions when I was able to visit the house during breaks in lockdown, I was amazed by the progress.
Slowly the original design of the garden has re-emerged, and we are still so impressed with that original vision. Eventually, we were in a position to start planting, and for me the learning curve hit a new level as we divided the garden for planting purposes into shade, dry shade, partial shade, partial sun and full sun and I began to dig holes like a crazed rabbit, putting my carefully selected plants into them with plenty of root and plant feed and bagfuls of compost. When I moved in, in early 2021, the garden was not merely recognizable as a garden, but a lovely one. The mission continues to be the provision of all-year colour, even in the north-facing borders, to provide more structure to the design, and to encourage butterflies, bees, birds and hedgehogs into the garden. How my mother would have loved it all.
We are also collecting a terrific collection of broken pottery, glass, coins and other objects, none of them older than the 19th century, and all of them completely valueless. It was a tradition started just for fun by my mother in my parents’ first home, and one that we pursued in the numerous gardens that followed. Buildings are much less transient than either gardens or objects, and tend to stand the test of time if not subjected to serious neglect or deliberate demolition. Gardens, whether subjected to only a small level of neglect or, conversely, a deliberate revision of the original design, either evolve or transmogrify into something completely new. On the other hand, if they are not sold to developers they tend to endure in some form or another. Objects, by contrast, are highly transient, and the more inherently disposable something is, the more likely it is to be broken and discarded. Broken objects usually began their lives as the items least valued by their owners. Neither archaeologists nor gardeners find, for example, much in the way of Roman helmets, Celtic shields, Fabergé eggs or diamond tiaras, and that’s because people tend to take care of them, ensure that they are buried with them, bequeath them to descendents, sell them to collectors, donate them to museums or even recycle them into other objects. This is why so much of archaeology is based on domestic pottery. Easy to manufacture, cheap to purchase, and subjected to every form of indignity, pots break and are thrown away. Combined with other types of data at sites, archaeologists today are able to use these fragments of the past to build up impressions of past livelihoods.
Most of the tiny broken elements of domestic life that we have been retrieving from the garden can say very little, if anything, about the history of a house, its occupants or the garden itself, but every now and again something turns up that is worth drawing attention to. Two bottles, for examble, bear the embossed name of the companies that sold, respectively, beer and aerated soft drinks at the end of the 19th Century, and these both tell stories about the era that produced them . And overall, the never-to-be-completed jigsaw puzzle is its own comment on the way in which rural houses accumulate and discard objects of everyday life.