A few days ago I met up with an old school friend and her daughter at Dalemain, where we spent a happy afternoon wandering through the five acres of gardens.
From the Georgian Terrace border we could look across to the fells, whose solid structural outlines contrasted with the profusion of tumbling summer flowers. The Rose Walk was a delight of scent and colour – “the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at” as T S Eliot wrote in Four Quartets. They leaned over the path towards us and I could almost hear them saying look at me. Round the corner was “The moment of the yew tree” – the deep green needles of the yew hedge pricked with the small flame-red flowers of a nasturtium-like climber. We sat for a while in the Gazebo, half-hidden behind a veil of clematis.
In the semi-wild garden we saw a few of the Dalemain blue poppies – late stragglers hanging on after the main flowers had seeded. This garden has a charm of its own with the recumbent giantess and the topiary dragon (which I first mistook for a hippo). There is an old summer house down by the Dacre Beck. What a lovely place to write, I thought.
It’s said that a garden is the only work of art that never stays the same. The semi-wild garden has a feel of work in progress – the topiary not quite grown enough, spaces cleared but not yet planted up, the summer house slowly disintegrating into the wood. On the Georgian Terrace a rogue sycamore had shot up a metre high in the middle of a rose bush. It was reassuring to see the occasional weed in these not far from perfect gardens.
Sometimes when I am out walking along old field paths and tracks I come across ghosts from earlier gardens – daffodils by a roofless gable, a cat’s cradle of feral rhododendrons by cracked stone steps, or deep pink escallonia blossoms almost obscuring a collapsed wall.
When I was a child one of our favourite family walks was to the top of Mynydd Anelog near the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. The path passed an isolated house high up on the slope of the hill. We always peered over the fence at the beautifully tended cottage garden.
I took it for granted every year –
hollyhocks staked to cane masts,
nasturtiums snagged like tangled flags,
rows of potatoes lush by the outhouse
and at dusk a breath
of night-scented stock.
It was the way fuschia petals
against lime-washed walls,
the sea threw back
a glow of roses and lupins
and outside the fence
heather and gorse
brashed the granite rocks
as I climbed to the cairn
where I could see
oil tankers, container ships
and on a clear evening
right out to Ireland.
It seems at first a mistake –
something has wrecked the field bank,
sheep-wire rolls in a ravel of rust,
windows are blind sockets
in the skull of the house
but at the back
among broken jam-jars,
a pocked enamel saucepan,
nettles and a smell of cat piss
suddenly I see
a thousand yellow flowers
an old man’s farewell.
© Mary Robinson 2011
(First published in Gardeners’ World magazine June 2011)