I seem to have been reading Beth Chatto's books all my serious gardening life, from the time when the children were old enough for swings and footballs to be banned from the garden and the children sent to the park. What an innocent time that seems now. I suppose they must have been about nine years old, the same sort of age they were when they started going to school and the local shops by themselves. Would that happen now or would they be kept close to home with trampolines in the garden and computer games in the bedroom? I digress.
It is hard to remember now that Beth Chatto's philosophy of matching the plants to the conditions in which they want to grow was once revolutionary, so orthodox has that thinking now become. I read about her dry garden, her woodland garden and her green tapestry as I moved from an occasional visitor to garden centres to a more serious gardener and I return to these books again and again, finding inspiration and meaning in one year in a section which I whizzed through unthinkingly the year before.
We were coming to the end of our Devon garden visit week last year when someone, I can't now remember who, mooted the idea of a trip to see Beth Chatto's garden as our next venture. Linda had been before, more than once, but Karen and I had not seen it. What a brilliant idea! It is so far away from my home in Wales that I would never chance upon it. It needed a special trip. We could combine it with Hyde Hall and perhaps some others. It was agreed.
But as the time grew closer I began to feel almost nervous. I knew I would love the company and that losing myself in a week of garden obsessing would be a treat, but what if Beth Chatto's garden itself was a disappointment? What if the gentle, incisive intelligence of the books had become, on the ground, a cliche, a series of over familiar images without the power to move or surprise?
We drove down in pouring rain, leaving a dry and sunny Wales and heading eastwards, to the driest part of the country, through gusts of rain under thudding skies. We stayed at Zig Zag cottage, in Great Oakley. If you ever go down that way I can't recommend it enough. I got used to its gentle cosseting remarkably quickly and was quite surprised this morning when my breakfast did not come on a starched white cloth, with tea in a silver teapot.
Wednesday we decided would be the day for Beth Chatto. It was sunny and warm and the wind had dropped. We arrived only minutes after the garden had opened.
And I was blown away.
The planting is sophisticated, thoughtful, multi-layered, as interested in form and shape as in colour. Wherever I looked in the gravel garden there were combinations that made me want to weep, whether at their beauty or my own inadequacy I am not sure. The sense of a single controlling mind was strong. There was a coherence about it, both in the pinks, greys and purples of the colours, occasionally shot through with a jolt of orange or yellow, and the curving paths and rhythms of pools and spires. Here and there areas were being replanted and then you could see in part how this was done, how many plants of one kind you need to create these satisfying billows of colour. It was grown up. It was intelligent. It was both sweeping and yet done with, and repaying, close attention, like a painting yielding new delights to close scrutiny.
This is why I don't generally do garden visiting. It made my vision for my own garden, normally quite strong, blur and wobble and start to run down the page like a picture in the rain. All the straight lines of hedgerows and allotment style beds with which we are trying to produce something where the shapes on the land are functional, almost utilitarian, trying to honour the history of our field as part of a small scale working, almost subsistence farm - why was I not using curves and sweeps and softness of shape? Was I just totally, fundamentally getting it wrong?
Down in the damp garden it was better. I don't do this kind of planting. I have no water and the luscious plants of the damp garden wouldn't last a minute up on my hillside. Here I could just walk and wander and admire again the subtleties of form and the wonderful use of trees.
Here are Karen and Linda absorbed in another great sweep of planting. When I go through my photographs there are no pictures which do not throw up a combination like this hosta with the persicaria behind it, casually, as if naturally, offering the ebb and flow of form.
The woodland garden too was a magical place, painting the ground with foliage and flower and throwing great spires of climbing hydrangea up into the canopy of trees.
That night I lay in my huge bed on my linen sheets and couldn't sleep. I could do this, I could do that. I could completely replant the side garden. I could use this or that plant and throw hydrangea petiolaris up an ash tree. My mind whirled and I tossed and thrashed and images swam about in the night. The next day things had steadied a bit but I was still assailed by someone else's pictures and overwhelmed by the occasional urge to give up the whole enterprise and buy a flat with a balcony.
Now that I am home my vision is clearing. I see that the plants I brought back with me were chosen with an idea in mind, even if I haven't worked it out to the last detail yet, and weren't just a response to being faced with crowd of unfamiliar beauties. I still feel a bit unsettled by the experience (and to a lesser extent by Hyde Hall which is another blog altogether) but a bit of being unsettled is not a bad thing. Do her plants die though I keep asking myself? I look back at my garden diary and see how many of the plants I have brought in over the last couple of years have turned up their toes despite my assiduous research and care. I wish I were in my thirties and not in my fifties. Life is definitely not going to be long enough.
It's a good job I only go garden visiting once a year, any more and I would give up completely. I am off outside now to contemplate my docks.