I visited the Secret Gardens of Sandwich; and met its owner (or as he says, custodian), Dominic Parker, at the very beginning of this project. It was one of those beautiful January days where the sun makes up for any lack of warmth with interesting shadow play and breathtaking rays of light. (Mind you, the cold was pretty breathtaking too!)
All the evidence points to the fact that the garden was designed by Gertrude Jeckyll, not least because the house was definitely designed by Edwin Lutyens, a perfect English country house and with all sorts of Lutyens details such as the lawn directly outside the front of the house is the same shape and size as the dining room.
Although the gardens are open to the public and are run as a business now, the house is very much a family home for the Parkers, and I loved how Dominic did that gardener-thing of carrying on talking even as he bent down to pick the odd weed or check on how a plant was doing.
And as he was talking, I was doing the writer-thing of testing out each story to see whether it was ringing any inspiration bells for me. Here were some of the possibilities…
* the fact that before the Parkers bought the house, the front gates had been shut for many years … a secret garden being nurtured back to life…
* the contrast everywhere between straight paths and circles … such a Jeckyll thing – to sculpt a domestic landscape like this…
* the island on the stream … someone who moves out of the house to live on the island…
* the vegetable garden which Dominic said was his favourite part – over 400 tonnes of waste including mattresses was removed when his family moved in and has now been brought back to life and order… Mattresses=vegetable beds…
* the Wollemi Pine, which dates back to the era of dinasours and was once thought extinct. This was definitely on the list after it transpired that it had been moved into the greenhouse for safety during the cold winter … an ancient wandering tree…
* And then there was the white garden, and the research which proves that the Secret Gardens possibly had the first White Garden in Britain. ..an angel who comes to live in the garden…
But in the end, the thing that gave me goosebumps most was when Dominic talked almost off-handedly about the people who had previously lived and walked in the garden – the recluses, the runaways, the bankrupts, the developers – the footsteps of each one we were following but we were all seeing the garden through such a different lens depending on our circumstances. …same path, different stories…
Even the woman who doesn’t live there but has a season ticket to the garden each year so she can sit in the same spot every day to knit sees a different garden to me.
I started to wonder about the people who have shared my garden over time. But then I went back to the start of the story – the house and garden were built 100 years ago as a country residence for three brothers, the Farrar brothers. … three unmarried brothers in one house, surely there’s a whole novel there…
But then…. Dominic mentioned that it wasn’t the sea air they were after so much as the nearby gasworks.
At that time, apparently, it was thought that the fumes were good for asthma.
Aha!I had my story.
So here’s my poem:
You’d be sure to notice the gasworks first,
worry how close the garden sits
until you learn this is why it was built,
three asthmatic brothers filling
their lungs with seasalt and gas fumes:
the latest thing in London, Lutyens
also. You imagine three garden chairs
lined up to face the smoking chimneys,
a sound of gasping like bad static
waiting to be tuned while, from over the sea
the smooth sounds of orchestras playing,
tea cups clinking in peaceful pre-war courtyards,
and so many farewells hang in the balance,
tears ready to mist on cheeks, and still
the brothers struggle to catch their breath.
And here is Dominic in the Secret Gardens reading an extract from Gertrude Jeckyll’s book, Children and Gardens, and one of the poems he has written himself about the garden: