I was 8 when my mum gave me her 1960 copy of The Secret Garden. I read it in a quiet frenzy sprawled out on the mossy, postage-stamp of our garden. I was a pretty exuberant kid, happy to be the centre of attention or to be left to play on my own. Self-possessed always. At junior school, however, my sense of self muddied with the murky world of bullying-friendships. To be myself around others was to be annoying. The sense of freedom Dickon experienced alone on the moors, the transformation of Mary from alienated, stroppy little girl into happy and valued friend, all while learning to balance her own desires against that of her equally challenging cousin Colin, resonated deeply. The book articulated what I couldn’t, echoed what I could and showed me that to have ‘a bit of earth’ was to have an entire world.
I grew up living in a quiet crescent, on the top of a hill of an over-sized fishing village in Essex. Our Victorian end-of-terrace overlooked my primary school, which backed onto our road with a lilac, cherry and large conker tree. All gone now. Grass, bluebells and dandelions occasionally appeared, but from our bedroom windows the view was dominated by the school’s concrete playground and its small lido that befitted post-war desire and Thatcherite utilitarianism. From the playground you could see our house. From the playground you could see us. In the summers I dreaded this close proximity. Older kids routinely broke into the pool and the police were called. Convinced our household looked like the obvious grass, I’d close blinds and hide in the garden straining to hear if they’d all gone.
From the playground and from the street our house was knowable, but from the back, it didn’t exist. All the gardens on our side of the crescent backed onto an alleyway. Unseen by everyone but children, dog walkers and fly-tippers, few bothered to sew-up the seam between their private patches and this public thoroughfare. Leylandii, buddleias, ivy and grasses all pushed their way through rickety fences and broken walls, while rotten apples were left to splatter from over-bearing trees. Plots were long and narrow, like the gardens of a Shirley Hughes’ book, where the bottom was so far and overgrown from the top it was easy for children to see through the cracks and brambles that adults forgot.
At the end of the alleyway, where our garden should have been, next to the gnomes and evergreens of our next-door neighbour, stood a stout concrete wall. Sold in the 1970s to make way for three garages, two thirds of our garden was lost. Turn left out of the alleyway and all that could be seen between 3 sun-bleached garage doors and the incline up to our house was a fence covered in ivy. In spring montana, lilac and crab-apple blossoms burst out from behind the green curtain, but they left as quickly as spring had sprung. Behind the ivy-wall, however, between the old London brick-work and the breeze blocks, a secret garden grew. Or at least that is what I told myself.
It was only when I read The Secret Garden that I began delighting in our overgrown and undersized patch of solitude. Prior to that I always found it wanting of slides, swings, ponds, trampolines, rivers, boats: basically Neverland. I’d avoid leaving the gardens of family-friends and long for school holidays and weekends, when a visit to a grandparent meant a visit to gardens that had ponds, big trees and sometimes even a dog! My mother’s parents had retired to Norfolk, to a bungalow with a garden big enough for a greenhouse, toads and the ever-present leylandii trees of suburbia. Perfect for grandchildren (and a blue-roan cocker spaniel, named Sam) in which to get lost. My brother and I hid under blankets draped over bushes, pretending to eat snowberries and other treasures that we had been warned off.
By contrast my Nan still lived in the North-London house that she and my Papa had raised my father in. In the summers we’d eat egg and potato salads sat on a lawn that was lined with roses grown by my papa. I was six months old when he died. The loss my Nan felt was palpable, even for a toddler. Yet playing in that garden, he never left my side, he was just simply out of sight. This was helped by my Nan’s neighbours, where on one-side lived a kindly middle-aged woman who watched Wimbledon and grew yellow roses just as avidly as my Papa; and on the other side, an elderly man who had once crafted a Peter Rabbit portrait for my brother, and garnered a level of respect from my parents that I’d only ever seen reserved for Papa or Grandad. He grew the most beguiling hydrangeas in his front garden. At about three or four years old the enormous heads of purple and blue flowers enchanted me, they were the first flower I loved. After I set about cutting them to show my Nan, she kindly but promptly took me to her neighbour to apologise. The gentleman was forgiving, but he and I wearied of one another after that. He retreated into his shed and I to the back of my Nan’s garden with it’s weeping willow that hid my mistakes. By the early 90s I had imagined it into a treehouse, but the reality wasn’t to be. As I drew up my plans Home-Alone style, my Nan was downsizing to a flat that overlooked Southgate Station and a well-planted carpark. I refused to speak to her for months, affronted that anyone could need anything but a garden. The day my parents went to help her pack, I let my brother tie me to the pine tree in her front garden, convinced they would see it as a protest and let me stay.
As childhood drifted into adolescence outdoor space became little more than a place to be social. The exception was found on my way back from school, when I instinctively began walking the five miles back, rather than face the packed buses of smelly school boys lighting farts. Legs chaffed and ankles blistered, all things I would never have stood for if it had been someone else’s suggestion. But making my way home alone, along the cliff-top gardens, taking in the smell of mudflats and wallflowers, I felt free.
It was only when I moved to London that I realised how critical cultivated green space had been to my well-being and how very depressing life is without it. I had taken my walk home for granted, I had taken our tiny garden for granted. Desperately missing friends and family and stuck in a ground floor bedroom that overlooked New Cross Road, I tried everything to hold onto the idea of a garden. Photos of Laindon’s Bluebell Woods were immediately pinned to my notice board, I discovered what day and time Sainsbury’s discounted its flowers, I took every opportunity to work and socialise in London’s parks and squares and I set about writing an undergraduate dissertation on the History of the Garden. It all helped to get me through that year, but I was grateful to spend the following two living with my friends in a post-war terrace in Poplar. The couple who lived there previously, like my Papa, planted roses when they had moved there in the 60s. All I knew about roses was what I learned from my dad: they love a sharp prune just above new buds and they can bring even the most fair weather gardener (e.g. my dad) outside. I set about pruning and returned again and again and again tending to them with every essay. It became such a habit that robins would watch waiting for me to disturb the worms as I went about gardening deep in thought. It was always pruning that got me outside, because it was only when dead-heading, cutting away at the thorns to the bud that I could see something had grown and something would soon grow again.
This blog is about cutting my way through the realities of life to get to the little bit of earth where I can make things grow. As much as I hope it offers a place to exchange practical tips and experiences for fellow amateur gardener's with little money or time, I see it far more as a place to celebrate the idea of the garden that has sustained me for nearly thirty years.
Historian by trade. Gardener by passion.