Old maps, hands and ghost gardens…

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Or fingertips anyway…

This is me joining the marvellous Vegplotting’s Show of Hands for the Chelsea Fringe, and a chance to show you a corner of the ghost gardens that I’ve been researching for my Lost Gardens of the Strand walk.

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See how wonderful they are. And you can see from this map too how they would go right down to the Thames before the Embankment was built, so you would come by boat and walk straight into the garden. Magic.

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And the joy of working with someone like the Old Map Man is that he points out the little traces that are still there. How many times have I walked past the York Watergate (above) in the Embankment gardens, for example, and not noticed it?

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But now every time I go to Charing Cross, I try to spend a couple of minutes imagining what it would once have been like when the Thames was king and the Strand was full of beautiful gardens. So as I walk back, fighting the crowds in Villiers Street, I’m actually getting off a barge and walking straight into a fruit orchard in my mind.

Especially when I see this picture…

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Here’s an extract from the Spectator of 1885:

FOREIGNERS may say what they like of London and its vast unwieldy size, and may contrast it with the slim elegance of Paris ; but those who love their London as Charles Lamb, for instance, loved it, know where to find its chief beauties, and would never barter the ” silver streaming Themmes ” for any other river. The great artery of the heart of England, with its ebb and flow, its daily freight of barges and lighters passing slowly from bridge to bridge, its mazy windings, outlined at night by countless twinkling lamps, is no longer the thoroughfare of the citizens as it was in good old days, when cabs and omnibuses were not, and steam still sputtered, bubbling and unnoticed, in the kettle. Mr. Secretary Pepys went as naturally by water from his house in Seething Lane to Whitehall or Westminster, as his successor would journey to his office by cab or underground- railway. Charles II. went in the royal barge to dine with the Lieutenant of the Tower, or sallied forth in his pleasure-boat ” above bridge,” or took a particular friend out in his new ” gundaloe.”

Love, duelling pistols and an outdoor theatre in a Luccan garden

I’ve been all – and happily Kent, Kent, Kent gardens recently (and a little ghost ones) so this post on a garden I visited in Lucca recently has got lost.

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I’m sure the Villa Bernardini can wait though – what’s two or three weeks when you’ve been standing since 1615?

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We stayed in the centre of Lucca, inside the city walls (another post on this to come soon) so we hired a taxi to take us the four or so km to the village of Vicopelago . Lucky us, we ended up with the marvellous Elisa Lucchesi, who although not an official guide has lived in Lucca all her life and told us some fabulous stories so we felt like insiders by the end of our day. As did Massimo Fanizza Bernardini, the latest family member to live in the house and garden.

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Villa Bernardini isn’t as well known as Villa Reale (which we also visited) and I’ve been half tempted not to tell anyone about it so I could be one of those annoying people who say things like ‘Reeeaaallly, you don’t know it? But then Massimo is a grrraattee chum of mine.’ But wait, a) I’m already annoying and b) although Massimo is so charming it really does feel as if he could be my best friend, I can’t really pretend it was for more than our visit.

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Reminders of the sense of history he carries though are everywhere in the crests on the furniture and the family portraits found inside the house, chairs for the country house, chairs for the town, and those rather exciting pistols carelessly laid out on the table…

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He was also very patient at how excited I got by the little robot lawnmower doing its bit on the front. When it gets ‘tired’ apparently it makes its own way back to the battery recharger and then, out it goes again…

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There are three parts to this garden. The front lawn, romantically and appropriately – given the Villa is a popular spot for the best weddings – is heart shaped. It was remodelled in the 18th century for the marriage of a Bernardini couple.

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Then there is the ‘secret’ garden with its stone statues, orangery with a green wall for maintaining temperature and a fountain.
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This is where the family would retreat from visitors and the cares of the world. Probably needed since the original Villa was commissioned by Bernardino Bernadini, an influential Luccan philosopher and politician. Here’s his portrait hanging up in the Villa with a plan of the wall.

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But the most interesting part of the garden for me was the Verzura Theatre, the green amphitheatre at the back, using the natural dip in the ground and planted with boxwood hedges and box shapes to help with accoustics.

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It is used as a mini-Glyndebourne today and could apparently seat nearly 400 people How I would like to see something here. It got me wondering how many times I’ve enjoyed something outside in Britain without being rained on. Maybe this year?

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Massimo showed me the 18th century wooden model of the gardens. Interesting to see the parterres that weren’t created.

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Yet. It seems there may be plans afoot. Here’s the original plan that the Bernardini’s are looking at to see how they could expand the garden.

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And as we walked back through the lemon grove to the gate, Massimo pulled a lemon off for me to take home ‘for my gin and tonic’. Did I say already that he was my new best friend?

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And here’s a poem I wrote for every couple who gets married in such a beautiful garden.

The Heart of the Garden
For Villa Bernardini

Dare to walk into the heart’s centre
and the words you’ve come to say
shape themselves with curved arms,
fingers laced to open the garden’s
curtains on the two sides of love:
a high gate protecting secrets whispered
over centuries and you’re safe,
lemons like gold coins dropping in your path
as you walk to the stage, your future
starts now. Listen, the world is applauding.